A restaurant reservation is a little thing – until it isn’t.
One of my many duties here at Palisades Hudson is arranging the occasional reservation, whether for an adviser’s lunch with a client or a staff dinner. Larry Elkin, our president, recently asked me to see whether I could get a table for two at a particular restaurant sometime in the 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. range. He mentioned that he had checked OpenTable, but the only time the service displayed as available was 5 p.m.
A few minutes of legwork later, he had received a text notification that he was confirmed for a 7:45 p.m. reservation.
Many people who regularly make restaurant reservations know that they will often have better luck calling the restaurant directly than using online scheduling tools, but not everyone knows why. I have approached the reservation process from both sides, though, which makes the answer clear.
I have worked in the restaurant industry for a little over five years, variously as a front-of-house manager, bartender and server. In those five years, I have seen the industry progress from paper-and-pencil seating and reservations systems to solutions shaped by technology. The system most familiar to me uses an algorithm based on a party’s average dining time to determine how many reservations we can take in a given time slot. Restaurants can also adjust the calculation to hold more or less of the restaurant’s capacity for walk-ins.
Obviously, there is no foolproof way to perfection. Sometimes parties stay longer than the average dining time; sometimes more people join a party during the meal; sometimes a restaurant will have more reservations or walk-ins than anticipated. In these circumstances, it helps to have a human ready to solve problems and take action to create the best possible experience.
Restaurants spend a lot of energy trying to get their reservation system’s balance just right in order to avoid “open tables” – in other words, unused space. Restaurants’ owners pay fixed costs like rent and utilities that do not diminish if a table goes unused, meaning open tables translate to diminished profits. Reservations exist in the first place because restaurants want to fill as many tables as possible while also keeping guests’ wait time to a minimum. Eating dinner at 7:30 when you planned to eat at 7:30 is wonderful. It is less exciting if you arrived at the restaurant at 6:30.
Restaurant managers are not only considering guest experience, of course; they also want to make best possible use of their staff. Restaurant staffing is complicated. Since servers make minimum wage and rely heavily on tips, it is important to make sure they are given the opportunity to make money. Overstaffing leads to fewer tables per server – and less money made. Understaffing leads to stressed servers and poor service for guests, and a possible loss in future business as a result. Automated or partially automated reservation and table wait systems can help managers avoid both problems.
Back-of-house staff, which includes people such as cooks, dishwashers and prep workers, are paid hourly and don’t rely on tips. However, an over- or understaffed shift can still make for an unpleasant experience. Restaurants that have an accurate idea of how many people they will be serving any given night can prepare the right amount of food, decrease waste and schedule the right amount of people in the right places.
Knowing a bit more about how restaurants handle reservations can help you when you’re trying to secure a table, especially at a popular spot or at the last minute. If you are using an online reservation system, whether at OpenTable or on the restaurant’s own website, and discover your preferred time is not available, it is almost always worth calling the restaurant. A human being – ideally a manager or an experienced staff member – will be able to look at the reservations around a specific time and date. A good restaurant employee will have a feel for what the business on any given day usually looks like, and will do their best to get you into the time slot you want. They may also be able to recommend alternatives such as bar seating or other available times close to the window you requested. Remember, in most cases, the restaurant wants your business.
As with most customer service interactions, it also helps to be very patient, polite and appreciative of the person trying to get something set up for you. If you are calling on Dec. 30 for a New Year’s Eve reservation, you may be out of luck, but most of the time, staff members will do their best to get you a table. (I don’t recommend pretending to be someone’s assistant or otherwise lying to staff, though.)
If you don’t get a reservation and your plans are at least a little flexible, many restaurants offer call-ahead seating. This option basically puts you on the wait list before you arrive, and lets you get a sense of how long your wait is likely to be. This is a good way to be sure that you don’t unexpectedly walk into a two-hour wait.
Recently, a lot of third-party apps and websites have promised to help users get sought-after reservations. Not all apps or websites work with every restaurant, so it’s a good idea to make sure you check around and stay flexible while using any of these apps. Some newer apps are starting to charge in order to get you a reservation where you want, when you want. Whether that service is worth the price is ultimately up to you.
Restaurants and restaurant-goers will continue to explore new ways to match guests and tables. But the basic rules haven’t changed. Just remember to be courteous and as flexible as possible – and remember to tip appropriately once you’ve enjoyed your meal.