Saturday was an excellent night at the restaurant. Tables turning, staff moving, kitchen firing on all cylinders. Not so much as one plate returned to the kitchen for any reason; not so much as a single mistake on an order by any server; no grumbling old people or tourists. The restaurant equivalent of pitching a perfect game; it was like watching your kid ride a bike without the training wheels for the first time and they pull a wheelie!
It reminded me of a post I put up way back in June when I first started writing this self-indulgent dribble. So, it’s your Saturday Redux…
First published June 10, 2009
At our restaurant we have recently taken advantage of an Open Table program that offers 1,000 Dining Points to people who will come in at 5:30 on certain nights. This costs the restaurant $7.50 per reservation, and pays the diner a $10 Open Table check. Personally I don’t really see the big whoop from the diner’s perspective. You could barely get me to cross Market Street to pick up $10, let alone use it as an incentive to make me eat dinner while the sun is still high in the sky; but it is really a no-brainer for a restaurant in our area. Getting a table at 5:30, and I mean any table, is like finding money. Where I work there is no theater crowd eating a hurried meal before running off to see Wicked. There is no real “After Work Yuppie-Techie Happy Hour” demographic either. The 5:30 tables, if you get them, are probably Day Trippers to the area who are either too cheap or lack the foresight to find a room for the night; they’ve “been drinking wine all day” and order only water or ice tea; or they are old. Very old. So signing up for the OT promotion had me a little worried. I guess having someone, anyone in the place at 5:30 is a good thing.
Our first victims of the Open Table promotion came in last Saturday night (afternoon?): two deuces and a four top; and, surprisingly enough, all of them ordered the Chef’s Tasting menu, with wine pairings, and spent an average of about $200 per person. This was a good news/bad news kind of thing. The good news I’ve already mentioned. The bad news is that the Chef’s Tasting Menu is seven courses and takes about three hours to get through even if you pace it swiftly. Now, the whole reason behind Open Table’s digital Early Bird Special is to get people in early and then turn the tables. An early seating not only helps with the bottom line, but the crew generally functions better if they are forced into action early, and don’t have to stand around waiting for “Go Time” to hit between 7:00 and 9:30. If we can get the train chugging out of the station early, it can get up and over the pass with less effort later. We are Casey Jones stoking the boiler, not huffing and puffing “I think I can, I think I can…” as the people come rolling in the door.
So, the plan, usually, is to drop the first tables on spots you need to turn for later parties. Normally the later parties are of the large variety. So you seat your first deuce on a large table that you can pop-up or combine with the one next to it, for a party of 10 later, say 7:30. This gives you 2 hours to get them in and out, and be ready for your bigs. Except nobody has informed your early birds of the plan, so their co-operation is slow in its formation. They always, and I do mean always, throw a bolt in the works by ordering way too many courses than they should and lingering way too long. Your server is now pouring Ma and Pa Kettle their 7th coffee re-fill while your 12 top is cooling their heels and tapping their toes in the bar. I mean, who knew old people could eat so much?!!
Turning tables is more art than science. If you allow “X” amount of time for a table to turn, the guests will get up and hit the door in either:
a) “X+ 20 minutes”, or
b) the very minute you seat the party that has been waiting for them to leave at another hastily arranged table.
But there are ways, some subtle, some not so, to hurry people along. My guru in this aspect of table turning was a grizzled old Southern gentleman who was the Maitre’D at several very busy restaurants in the area for many years. If he needed a group that was lingering to move out the door, he would grab the Mexican busboy, who had no idea what he was saying, walk him right over next to the table and stand with their backs to the people. Then, pretending to look around at the other tables, he would say in a voice plenty loud enough for the offending party to hear, “As soon as these people get up, and I mean AS SOON AS THEY GET UP, I need a six here!” This almost always resulted in the first group vaulting out of their seats and hitting the door like 6th graders on a Friday afternoon. He would inspire his waiters to facilitate turns with stuff like “Get some dynamite and BLAST those assholes off of Table 11!”
Now, we restaurant folk like to take the high road and say we are in the Hospitality Business. While it’s certainly true that you do need a genuine spirit of hospitality to be a success in our business (or you’ve got to be really, really good at faking it), every one of us, at times, gets to the point where we just want you to leave. Now. One famous Chef I worked for used to put on his starched white toque, a sparkling clean white apron, and then pin a large, red, button to his Chef’s coat that read, in large block letters, “Eat and Get Out!”; and proceed to stroll through the dining room, chatting up tables. I loved that guy.
A classic example is the “Are we keeping you?” people. These are the guests (I’d say that you know who you are, but you clearly don’t) who are still sitting there a good 45 minutes after the last table besides them has left the restaurant. They always ask what, at that point, is the World’s Dumbest Question: “Are we keeping you?” Well of course you are. At our place, with our prices, we never want to blatantly hurry anyone out (the candles all stay lit, coffee and waters refilled right up to departure), but some parties are so obviously clueless that you are tempted to turn up the lights and start vacuuming. One server I worked with at a former employer, if he found himself with Mr. and Mrs. Stayallnight’s party of four in his station, would plant himself next to their table, facing away from them, and occasionally turn and look over his shoulder and say stuff like “Do you need anything?” or “I’m just here to serve you…” Another guy would turn up the AC to a sub-Arctic temperature. The next step was to kill the music, or find the most irritating song on the playlist and set it on “Repeat”. Then the lights would “accidentally” get turned up and back down to their original level. Sorry about that!
Men are generally much better at leaving than women. Sorry, feminists, but it’s true. A group of four men will not sit around at a table, chatting about relationships for an hour without ordering anything. They will get up and go. Women will hang on to their martini glasses, with a quarter of an ounce of warm booze in them, like grim death; and then pull the family photos from their wallets while their server stifles a scream.