When it comes to the question of reservations, you might say that many restaurant owners have ... well ... reservations about taking them. Many establishments don't take them at all. Some allow call-ahead seating. Other restaurants seat by reservation exclusively. They are so popular, they don’t have room for walk-in seating. Many fall somewhere in between.
There is no right or wrong answer for whether to take reservations. It all depends on the type of restaurant concept, the size of your dining room, and the impression you want to give customers. Reservations are often associated with fine dining—when was the last time you had to make reservations at your local diner for lunch? Regardless of the type of restaurant you own, you should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different booking approaches for yourself.
The Benefits of Restaurant Reservations
Restaurants provide many advantages to you and your customers. Here are a few significant ones:
- Easier kitchen and staff management: When you know how many people you need to feed at a given time, you can better plan for your kitchen and waitstaff needs.
- No waiting: Customers who make reservations don't have to wait in long lines or deal with unpredictable wait times. This means happier guests for your servers.
- Better dining room planning: If you go with a reservation-only approach, then you can precisely plan the layout of your dining room for the best experience.
- Higher profits and tips: Reservations often bring large groups, and those groups tend to spend more and tip better.
The Drawbacks of Restaurant Reservations
There are drawbacks to accepting reservations, though. Before you start booking tables in advance, consider the following downsides, and how to alleviate them:
- Limiting sales potential: The more reservations you take, the more you're limiting your capacity for walk-in customers, which could put a ceiling on your sales. To circumvent this problem, try to always leave a set number of tables open for walk-in seating.
- The cost of no-shows: There are always those who book ahead and then change their minds or run into scheduling conflicts. Every empty table costs you money, though, so make sure you have a plan to deal with this issue. Many restaurants require a credit card to hold the table and will charge a set fee if patrons don't show up or call to cancel within a certain time frame.
- Losing some customers: Especially if you go reservation-only, you will automatically cut off certain customers from ever trying out your establishment. Many people simply don't want to have to plan ahead for their meals out. Again, you can avoid this by always accepting a certain portion of walk-in customers.
Many restaurants, especially fast-casual chains, strike a balance by using call-ahead seating. This blend of a traditional reservation and a walk-in allows customers to reserve a place on the waitlist on their way to the restaurant. While this can be done over the phone, more restaurants are using services like Yelp Waitlist or Waitlist Me to allow customers to book online. These apps also provide live updates for customers who want to watch their place in line, and they can automatically notify guests when they're up next.
Avoid Overbooking Reservations
If you do choose to accept reservations, be careful to avoid overbooking. It is tempting to ensure a busy Friday night by booking every table in advance. You're playing with fire, though. One late party or a group that overstays its time will send the night spiraling into a mess quickly. When your 7 p.m. party shows up only to find they have to wait for the table they had reserved, it won't be pretty. You may lose those customers for good. Always give yourself a buffer.
Tracking Restaurant Reservations
Accepting reservations does add some complexity to managing your tables. Many POS systems can help you organize and track your reservations, though. Apps like OpenTable also allow for online booking. You'll have to weigh the cost of these services against the benefits they bring your business, though. An old-fashioned notebook with a hand-drawn chart can also work, as long as the person in charge understands what they are doing.
No matter how you choose to take reservations, have a designated staff person in charge of the process. This will lower the likelihood of losing a reservation or double-booking a table.
The decision to accept or avoid reservations is ultimately yours to make as a restaurant owner. Remember, though, that this choice will affect how customers perceive your business. Make sure that how you handle this aspect of the guest experience is consistent with every other aspect of your restaurant concept.