Seating large parties is a loss

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.

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  • Speaking from the veiwpoint of a large chain with a small dining room, large parties are a welcome sight on a Monday night, when you aren't on a wait, but Friday and Saturday night? You have to wonder what in the world these people were thinking when they decided to gather 20 of their closest friends and family to go out to dinner without making a reservation somewhere beforehand! Then they have the nerve to balk when you tell them it may be 30 to 45 minutes.

    We have to accomodate them, but it is absolutely more hassle than it is worth. The seating comes to a halt while you roll the dice, trying to decide which diners are "almost done" and where you can stick this party. When they do order, expediting comes to a halt while the pass becomes so clogged with food you can't find anything. The rest of the restaurant gets their food in due time, but not quickly, and they know it's because of the large party, but they don't care because it's your fault that you accepted this large party because of "Your greed."

    It's a double edged sword. You must make the guests happy so they return, but run the risk of upsetting other guests in the process. We all just have to suck it up and deal with it!
  • My experience as a server, while limited, was at a restaurant that didn't allow multiple checks on parties over 8 and had an automatic gratuity of 18%. This was at a higher end restaurant with average check being about $30/person, and invariably the guy who ended up paying the bill saw how much gratuity I was getting and balked. Psychologically, it's hard to pay someone a couple hundred dollars just for bringing you food.

    My hat goes off to any server who handles a large party that will be on one check and believes they'll outperform the automatic gratuity.
    • I look forward to large parties; it's the main way I keep my restaurant operating in these economic times.

      My server always puts an 18% gratuity amount on these large parties. But he does extra special things as well. He'll change to a Pharaoh's outfit and pose for pictures. He'll tell Pharaohnic tales which, he, himself, has researched to make the diners feel as if they have walked through a time tunnel. So, often times, he will get a gratuity on top of the one he has already calculated in.

      Large parties???? BRING THEM 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."

    Hey Ben...

    I appreciate your acknowledging that Waiters' often raise and exceed expectations. I agree with most of your points and the same with Matt's list.

    Automatic Gratuity... no thanks! I think my service-sales skills can garner etter than that most of the time and am more than game to take the risk.

    As a current full time Professional Waiter of almost 30-year there are two words I avoid when trying to formulate house service policies and practices: always and never.

    Conceptually a "pack house" is a good thing. But there is the business principle of "The Law of Diminishing Returns". More is not necessarily a better. I've whitnessed many a Waiter, Manager, and Owner bite off more than they could chew. As a result they presented that "packed house" with the worst service and product. What was sacrificed was the long term reputation and guest loyalty (those are real money makers) for short term elevated sales.

    Serving our guests is like dancing: they lead and we follow (but really we just make the guest think they are leading). We know our capabilities better than the guests and to over promise and then underdeliver is a very dangerous game. Especially in these times where perceived value is so critically important to remaining competitive.

    You don't get second chances on first impressions. (I learned that from a really smart Head Water years ago!)

    If you're comfortable that you can deliver what you promised your guests via your reputation and advertising then go for it. If you doubt that you can meet that standard in the moment, then make the call not to take the lage party or break it into smaller groups.

    We have to be careful we don't let greed ovecome common sense.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Large parties are a pain that we all must endure. The best weekend shifts are those that have few large parties and the restaraunt turns over quickly and it is easier to manage. I would love to say that large parties are not worth the business, but it also attracts guests that normally would not dine at your establishment. They are there by invitation of someone else. This is your opportunity to win them over and maybe see them come back later in time.

    Restaurants in general have become smaller in square footage. Its all dollar cost averaging that is dependent on the market research and other conditions while it is being built. One large party can be a ok, but when you have two or more in one evening, well ... the whole night can become a mess of sorts.
  • Hi....

    Well, personally, I welcome large parties. It is the only way I know I will come out smelling like a juicy kabob at the end of the night. When I get a large party, I jump for joy. I also encourage my waiter to add at least 18 percent onto the check for his gratuity. If he has done an outstanding job, which is does most of the time if not all, he gets more than 18 percent from his table.

    My restaurant seats only 49 people -- legally. I also offer belly dance entertainment. So, when a party sits down at my restaurant, it's usually for the whole night anyway. I encourage an evening of cultural experience and entertainment.

    I usually handle large parties by offering a Family Style dinner at a representative cost relative to the menu which includes appetizers, salad, main entree and dessert, all of which I choose. All my waiter has to do is to ask who is the vegetarian or who has a diet restriction. I can work around that.

    But then, I have a very specialized restaurant, so my situation may not represent yours. When I need time in the kitchen because of some backlog, that's when the dancer goes on and does her thing. It gives me an extra 10 to 15 minutes to catch up on all those orders. :-)

    Next time you get a large party you can't handle, why, send them over to me. I'll be happy to take them.
  • 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!
  • We ask large parties if they mind splitting up. We are frequently able to place the two tables near enough to still chat, but still at their own tables. (eg. Party of 12 becomes 3 parties of 4) They get better service because more than one server is now taking care of them, they are sat much quicker, because the options are not so limited, AND they will leave quicker. Larger parties tend to have one or two stragglers, well, this way, you can polietly ask them to all move to one table, and it seems to work out for everyone.
    This way you can say yes to any group - but the "yes" still comes on your own terms.

  • I absolutely love this. I am going to print this and take it to our managers meeting. We have this problem in our restaurant all the time. Our largest table seats ten and I have been asked to serve a party of 30. What a mess! 30 soccer moms and dads with the children all scattered around my bar the dads sitting at the bar the moms sitting in booths and the kids at the high tops. Not only did my kitchen go down in flames but I was running 20 minute drink checks because I was also the bartender. Then they want their checks but not just seperate check but they want their husbands and their children on their checks. I was called everything in the book and when the head soccer mom told me it was the worst service she had ever gotten I could do nothing but agree with her because it was the worst service I had ever given. Now that I am part of the management team I will work to make sure this never happens again to one our employees.
  • 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" !!
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