To Reserve or Not to Reserve

 In 7. David Militello, Operations

Authored by David Militello

As a coach with David Scott Peters, I engage in a lot of different discussions with members who own all types of different styles of restaurants – single- and multi-unit owners, fine-dining owners, quick-casual owners, and many, many more.

Below is the exchange between myself and a member of David’s Champion group after the question was posed on the member forum. The discussion was about whether or not to take reservations.

The question posed:

“We are having a debate over seating from a waiting list. We would like to get everyone’s view on this situation.

The waiting list has seven parties waiting. The list is as follows:

1. 3 people

2. 4 people

3. 4 people

4. 8 people


The house is full, all are walk ups, no reservations. All guests are waiting in the same area. Two tables open up that can be placed together for the party of 8. It will be a while before the table of 8 can be seated unless you use the two opening tables. This would mean seating the 8 ahead of the first 3 parties that are on the list first. What would you all do?

We have differing views and we want your input.”

My response back to the member:

“In your situation I would create a large group reservation rule that is flexible so you have some leverage with groups and you can seat according to arrival. Large groups generally know it will be more difficult to get a table, and I use this as an opportunity to ‘work hard for them’ and find them a table ASAP. I could also start them with cocktails and/or apps at the bar. I would rather seat smaller tables first in my restaurant because I know I will get a higher $ per cover with a more intimate table than a group. I have written some more on the topic in general below I truly believe that what applies to my situation does not necessarily apply to a café in New York or anywhere else for that matter.

Reservations…almost as hot a topic as bread! The art of knowing when Mr. and Mrs. Johnson will dine for 3 hours or 25 minutes is nearly impossible. First of all I believe the question of whether or not to accept reservations has many factors that must be considered carefully.

1. What are you trying to accomplish by accepting reservations?

  • Are you trying to provide a certain level of hospitality?
  • Are you trying to cut prep costs?
  • Are you trying to control the flow of your seating?
  • Do you want an image of exclusivity?

2. Are you missing out on lost seating because of reservations?

  • Make sure you’re not turning people away because 6:30-8: is completely booked.
  • I find in my particular situation clients will not make a reservation at 8:45 pm or at 5:30 pm, however they will show up at those times if they perceive higher business levels out of fear of waiting for a table.
  • What are other restaurants around you doing?
  • How big is your restaurant? If you’re taking reservations to manage the flow of seating because of uncontrollable issues (kitchen is the size of the women’s bathroom) is much different than if you have a 65 seat restaurant where no one will leave because your hospitality, food and service are outstanding!
  • If you currently take reservations, how do you take advantage of the empty seats left by the 25 minute diners and accommodate the 3hr campers all the while meeting your reservation deadlines and providing hospitality?

3. Customize a reservation system that identifies your needs first. Remember your ultimate goal is to provide Hospitality, proper service and quality food and beverage (in that order).

  • Be flexible require reservations for large groups (but find a way to accommodate them when they don’t make one, use this as an opportunity to teach them about this special system the next time they have a large group.)
  • “Call ahead seating” is a great way to give confidence to your clients and offer you time flexibility. Create a scenario where you are working hard for your clients to get them in as quick as possible. You could even create special cards to hand out to your frequent clients; have a special phone number to call to create that same level of hospitality and avoiding the situation of having to nudge table 24 to the bar or out the door!
  • Smile at the front door! Communicate regularly with all of your clients to insure the confidence they require to stay with you, different folks need different strokes.”

These were just some of things I posed to this particular member might to consider and adapt within his restaurant and just one example of the worthwhile conversations we have on our member forums. They definitely churn out some good discussions and ideas. Hopefully it gives you some food for thought.

David Militello is a multi-unit, multi-concept restaurant owner based in Southaven, Mich., Dave is a man of opportunity and music. If he wasn’t a restaurant owner, he’d probably be playing drums in a band touring the world. Dave is a part of the restaurant expert David Scott Peters’ coaching team and offers expertise in managing multiple locations, catering, employee development and systems implementation.

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