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. email@example.com