Dining Design

Forget about the chairs, it's really all about the tables

Dining Design

By David Gemmel

It’s a common paradox when considering the efficiency and profitability of a popular restaurant: On a busy night when every table is occupied and there’s a 20-minute waiting list, it’s a good sign, right?

Not necessarily. Take a closer look, and you’ll see things aren’t as rosy as they could be. Yes, three of the four six-tops are full. But half the 16 four-tops are occupied by just two people. That’s at least 16 empty seats. Suddenly that long wait line looks less like potential customers and more like lost revenue, or at least, lower satisfaction. All because the table package was never thoroughly thought through.

Welcome to the very common challenge of an inefficient dining room layout. Conventional thinking, for both long-established restaurants and new concepts alike, is to view dining rooms (and capacity, and product inventory, and other related details) in terms of seats, not tables. The problem is, while four-tops are the most common option for casual dining, it’s estimated that half of all parties consist of just one or two guests. So that’s a lot of empty places at tables — and a lot of guests slowly losing patience while they wait for their pager to buzz.

But it’s never too late to rethink your table package. And the best part: compared to the myriad back-of-house operational and staffing concerns most restaurants face, this is a fairly easy metric to analyze and address. Here are 9 ways to make your dining room more efficient during peak periods — and even help reduce your footprint in future locations.

1. Consider the typical types of parties you seat.

Do you serve a lot of families? If so, then booths are a must: families love them, and booths on the perimeter give you flexibility in the center of the dining room. But remember, you can’t reconfigure booths for large parties, so they create inherent limitations. If families with small kids aren’t in your key demographic, then booths probably aren’t a must-have.

2. Add more two-tops to the mix. But do it with care.

It seems obvious, but this solves a lot of problems. You can combine them for larger configurations when necessary and they can handle the 50 percent of all parties that consist of one or two people. That said, too many two-tops can create other issues. If they’re too close together, diners may feel a lack of privacy, or feel cramped. And don’t forget about ADA accessibility requirements.

3. Leave space for the dishes.

Always keep in mind the type of dining experience you provide — and the space needed on the table. If you serve multiple courses, including large servings of bread or other items that remain on the table, you can run out of room, frustrating the guests.

4. Consider tables that transform.

The new Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant makes the most of their space by using a four-top square with hidden leaves that can easily convert into a six-top round. This creates a dining room that can adjust to fit the smaller-party lunch service and the larger-party dinners.

5. Ditch the six-top booth.

Huge booths have been a recent trend, and while everyone loves the space of a six-top, it’s very rare to see six people actually squeeze into one. They’re an indulgence most restaurants can live without, and that very few diners expect to see. And it’s rarely worth a 90-minute wait for one.

6. Use zones to break up large sections of tables.

When you change the mix of tables in your restaurant, don’t forget about the impression this can make on guests. Creative use of zones and dividers can eliminate the feeling of a “cafeteria,” which can subconsciously affect the guest’s perception of your brand.

7. Adjust the back-of-house to new efficiencies.

Kitchen staff, preparation pace, and inventory usually match the typical dining capacity. If you make adjustments that improve efficiency by even 20 to 30 percent, that can create unanticipated challenges in the kitchen. Make sure that your new approach to seating can serve all those eager guests.

8. Do an in-house planning study. It’s easy.

You already monitor your peak periods, but you usually track them by wait time, not by the number of guests at each table. Ask your hosts or hostess, for just a week or two, to keep more detailed notes on party size, length of wait, how often tables are moved and combined, and other factors. Get a better sense for the number of empty places and how many people could have been served but weren’t. You might be surprised by what you learn.

9. Work with professionals.

If you’re thinking about analyzing or reconfiguring your dining room, operational engineers can help you determine the right mix with a lower risk to the business. And design and architecture partners can provide innovative ways to not just create a better visual and dining experience, but also to assure you’re following building codes and other requirements. It’s a small price to pay for increases in revenue and guest satisfaction.

Dining Design

Table Package 101: A Quick Self-Analysis

Here are some simple requests to ask your staff that may be able to show you’re doing it right — or missing opportunities:

  • Are there service zones between tables so servers can easily deliver food?
  • Are there certain tables that are hard to serve?
  • Do you have problems finding enough space on the table?
  • When the waiting area is full, count the number of empty seats.
David Gemmel
David Gemmel
Associate Director, Productivity Services
WD Partners
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