Editor’s Note: It’s Tough to Say “NO” to Business
“Manson, party of 12.” “Donner, party of 16.” The idea of large parties waiting to be seated in your dining room sounds like good business. Even though you don’t really have a table big enough, you’re thinking, the more the merrier. Certainly you can pull together a few four-tops, add a table to the end, and maybe push those precious round-tops against the wall. After all, arranging for large parties says “thank you” to your regulars. Those in large parties are made to feel special. And most nights you would welcome this bubble of business. However, this is a mid-season Saturday night. You get only so many of these each year. You want to make this work, but at what cost? The downside here could be huge.

Once you’ve committed tables to any large group, turn-time becomes nonexistent. Good chance you’ve lost those tables for the rest of the evening. Arrival time is hard enough for the group to coordinate with each other–you can’t expect them all to show on time, and the number of guests often falls short of the expectations of the group. The Donner party of 16 is now a 12. Pull away one table and reset the four-top you’ve been holding for 90 minutes. Oh well, push on. It’s time to let the kitchen know of the impending mega-slip.

All pros know every plate should hit the table at the same time. With most menus, tables of fours and sixes are difficult enough for your front line to time correctly. How are they to handle a 12, in tonight’s busy mix, without risking death by heat lamp? Large orders also disrupt the flow of every other item from station to station.

You’ve heard of some reservation-only restaurants offering limited sampling menus for such parties. It’s a thought. Not a popular one, but a thought. Now, what about your other diners? The quirks of group dynamics quickly become apparent: 1. Regardless of surrounding tables, the decibal level is bound to increase. 2. The size of any party over eight automatically grants these guests power of eminent domain, allowing unrestricted access to all nearby chairs, menus, water pitchers and table settings. 3. The “alpha diner” of the group will instinctually order menu items for people who do not share the same tastes. 4. Splinter groups will constantly steal away for restroom, phone call, smoking and “a quick one at the bar” breaks. The nice couple waiting in the lobby has long since moved on.

The oxymoron of an “automatic gratuity with a party of (pick a number) or more” has never sufficiently addressed the final transaction. We want to protect our servers, and good servers generally outperform the request. But how often have you overheard, “She’s making that much on our one table! That’s way too much for a server.” If you’ve been in it long enough, you’ve seen the last straggler to leave the table make the same judgment and pocket the excess cash.

Finally, is there anything uglier than the unbussed, shrapnel littered, abandoned cluster of tables that is left behind a large group? Not only is this unpleasant to be sitting next to, it’s every busperson’s nightmare. The subsequent, hurried clatter of bus buckets, moving of furniture, pushing of Hokeys, wisps of sanitizer and tossing of linens is something your guests shouldn’t have to endure. So what do you think? Was it worth it? I’m struck by the gulf between our restaurants and our customers when it comes to large parties. By how often each side feels misunderstood and mistreated by the other. Imposing arbitrary rules, like the need for whole parties to be present before they are allowed to be seated, doesn’t seem to help. Customers who feel like we owe them something because of the extra business doesn’t endear them to our staff. And when someone at the host station barks out the rules, you can bet people are not going to be pleased.

To keep the peace and satisfy the greatest number of customers, you have to set parameters. Once a party exceeds the size of your largest table, accept that you are in a different game. You’re in the function business. And if you have the facility to host functions, you probably already know it’s a great business to be in. But today we’re talking about restaurants. Restaurants full of customers wanting to be the center of our attention. And they should be. It’s a distraction from an already difficult task to try to host a party of 16 in the same room at the same time.

Consider setting a group size limit. One within which you can consistently, properly serve without negatively affecting other guests. Stick to it. Head off potential problems before they happen. When answering the phone, hosts everywhere are trained to say what guests wants to hear. What most of us are not comfortable saying is, “I’m sorry we are unable to help you tonight.” Of course, we never say no to a guest. We offer alternatives. Offer to call a neighboring restaurant. Arrange for a contact person at the restaurant and make the change as seamless as possible. You’ll look better, your staff will be more focused and the rest of your dining room will be far better off. With luck, the other restaurant will be grateful enough to return a favor one day.
Ben Williams is also co-owner of Horsefeathers. He can be reached at r.benjamin. williams@gmail.com

Tags: FOH, Seating, large, parties, reservations

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We're getting ready to re-do our upstairs space and trying to figure out seating.layout. Wondering if we we can separate the big groups from our main dining room. And if so, what type of seating: benches, booths, banquettes, long tables.? What ever will allow us to get a handle on big parties. Trying to think of all the possibilities.

Thanks for being a fan.
This is a very interesting post, and I think I couldn't agree more. Before working on my own establishment, I worked at a seasonal high end steak&seafood place. This was something we struggled with nightly in the summer time as non locals would invade the lakeshore to spend time on their boats or at cottages.

The restaurant I worked for had a pretty novel approach to handling this, although, I didn't think it was as popular as it should have been because they more or less allowed the customer to dictate where they wanted to sit.

Not knowing your location and space, but in a remodel type situation, what about making a series of seperate (smaller more intimate) dining rooms? Each room could have a different (or same) theme. The place I worked essentially converted their wine cellar into a banquent type room, able to accomodate up to 20 guests, with a sound system and space to hold a presentation. It was very popular with pharmaceutical reps.

What made this room a tough sell (while a great venue) to many guests was that it was too far removed from the rest of the restaurant. There has to be that balance where you can seperate the large parties, but at the same time make them feel like they're not being tucked away and hidden from everyone else...when in fact that is what you want to do.
Wow, Ben. I'm not really sure if you're against large parties in a restaurant or not but it sounds like you are. And if so, it's an example of scarcity thinking versus abundant thinking.

As a server and as a manager my thoughts on large parties are this:
1. It's an opportunity to impress a lot of people pretty easily in one fell swoop and earn a loyal clientele.
2. there might be fewer turns and breakaways and no-shows, but for the most part, it guarantees my section will be full and it augers well for repeat business.
3. Auto 18% gratuity? What's that? As a server I would never automatically add a gratuity. If I normally get 20-25%, why would I settle for 18%? Have faith in the server. Either they're great and can perform and do better than 18%, or they're average or poor and shouldn't be handling a party anyway.
4. Unbussed, shrapnel littered, abandoned cluster of tables that is left behind a large group? Ben, I know how to prebus. When my party tables left, there was never anything left on the table but a water or drink glass.
5. Food cold, dry, lukewarm, dead in the window? When the food for the group is expo-ed, it's all hands on deck. Managers, food runners, servers, and cooks. If your operation values teamwork and you have established team practices, this should never be an issue.
6. A packed, full-house is always better than a restaurant half-filled. If you absolutely can not accomodate a group, by all means, help them find another location. But my answer is always "yes I can", now what's the question?

Here's the deal:

When a person calls with a large group, you tell them:
1. How happy you are you called us
2. Yes, we can accomodate you.
3. You ask what special needs they have and what the occasion is.
4. You inform them how many servers will be assigned to them based on the size of the group
5. Essentially, you work with them and hold a dialog to create a win-win for both you and the party. A little proactivity can prevent most of the negatives you described above.

I agree with putting some kind of automatic gratuity on for large parties. Usually it's been 18% at all restaurants where I've worked. It's always seemed to work, because parties that would normally tip above that usually add on an extra tip anyway, and then with those horrific parties that inevitably happen, the server doesn't get completely shafted. We once had a group of 30 people (that incidently turned into 48 people, including children, which for some reason they didn't feel the need to count when making the reservations) who all got quite drunk and let their kids run around screaming. The server eventually asked them to please remember that we had other patrons, and to keep their children somewhat in check. I know that that particular server is generally a phenomenal server, so I'm such did a more than adequate job with his table. However, when the bill came, the party called the manager over to dispute the 18% automatic gratuity because "he was trying to tell us how to raise our children and we will not be treated with such disrespect." They weren't going to tip AT ALL!!! That is one of those situations when I just think, thank goodness for an automatic gratuity policy!
Unfortuately in my current position I don't have the ability to not accept large parties but if I owned my own, I definitely agree, I would design my restaurant around the 2, 4, and 6 top for many reasons all stated by Jeffrey, Ben, and Daniel.

1. Better food quality moved out of the kitchen more effectively and timely
2. Table turn time....man, I would hate losing another potential round of guests to a slow moving 12 top
3. Functionality of the restaurant - unless the restaurant is designed for it, it is difficult to service around it.

Ben, my only advice would be when you redesign your upstairs to accomodate the effeciences of handling the large parties, don't forget the effeciencies in the BOH. What procedural changes will you make there so you can execute to the guest more effectively. The problem of "heat lamp death" will still exist if you don't take that area into consideration as well.
Has anybody worked with extra long tables ,say 8' or longer.? Can you set two separate fours most of the time and be ready when the twelve shows up? Obviously over sized rounds won't do it for separate parties.
Actually, when I was a server we had 4, 5, and 6 or 7 four tops pushed together all in a straight line. There's ways to manage the use of the tables to maximize table turns and to get them ready for when groups show up. I was a server at BD's Mongolian BBQ in Ann Arbor--huge restaurant with huge business, especially on Football Saturdays. This was known as the party section, but it was adjacent to other sections that routinely hosted 10-12 tobs or 20-24 as well.

Depending on your space, it's really not that difficult to manage. Do you have a specific question in mine in regards to working with extra long tables?

Thanks Matt,
What I was thinking about was specific pieces of furniture to accommodate big parties. You know like harvest or Oktoberfest tables. I've never liked the look of many tables pulled together. They're never the same hight and the spaces they were taken from look empty. I guess I'm looking to see if anyone has had any luck with a special "super table" long and accommodating. Make it an attraction.

Excellent point!

Even private parties, like for 50th Anniversaries in upscale restaurants the dining experience seems more like a banquet than a party.

But if your concept is based around fun, and my experience has been, it's really not that hard.

I think one important thing to remember about Ben's thoughts here are he is speaking of a cenario where the restuarant would be full without the large party. I agree whole heartily with everything he said but it sure would be hard to work all night and watch those chairs be empty, knowing you could have filled them. My biggest problems right now are trying to know when to tell people to control their kids. I was opening a expensive bottle of Cab the other night as I about to pull out the cork a kid pushed another into me, causing me to spill wine all over myself and another childs coat. This incident in itself is almost enough to make me put one of those Yosemite Sam boards at the front door saying "if you're not this tall, you're not coming in. Thanks Y'all" !!
The conversation is drifting into an "Are kid's worth it?" debate. A separate but important discussion. Our best tool in maximizing revue for the inevitable kid diner is a very small kid's menu with adult prices for those items. I don't now if there is any direct correlation but it seems the more adult the menu, the better behaved the kids are.

Of course, nothing works when the ratio of parental control is inversely proportional to the amount of Pinot Griggio consumed by mom.
This is a great topic! There is a new Kids' group on FohBoh. I encourage you to post this issue on that group as well.






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