Front of the House // Seating
Large groups take consideration when seating

Planning ahead for how you’ll accommodate big groups saves time and prevents confusion. Having a system in place for seating parties of six or more can eliminate chaos in your dining room and add to your word-of-mouth marketing success. Not having an approach spells trouble. Whether you opt for allowing reservations, calling ahead or you endeavor to make waiting for a table fun, being prepared means you’ll attract more customers and generate added revenue.

“We like reservations,” says Chef Michael Bologna, co-owner of Vingenzo’s in Woodstock, Georgia. “But we do ask that all of the party be present before seating, so we can use that table ahead of time, if need be.”

Bologna explained that he and his partner arrived at this solution through trial and error. Without reservations, customers kept piling up at the door, he recalled. Because all the menu items at Vingenzo’s are made from scratch and take longer to prepare, there was usually a wait for a table.

“We wanted what worked best for our customer and for our property,” says Bologna. “We got a great deal of feedback from our customers.”

Reservations won out.

Onesto Pizza in St. Louis, Missouri, “only takes reservations for parties of six or more, and that works for us,” says owner Michele Racanelli. “Otherwise, taking reservations can become a full time job.”

The staff at Onesto’s encourages bigger parties to come earlier to avoid the dinner rush. They can even preorder the antipasto plate so they have food right away. If people do have to wait, they are given free canapés and have a good view of the kitchen staff throwing pizza dough.

Home Run Inn, with eight pizzerias in the Chicago area, doesn’t take reservations, but instead encourages patrons with larger groups to call ahead and let the hostess know when they are coming. She gives them a time by which they need to arrive and holds the table until then. If it’s close to that time, she calls to see if they are still on their way.

Once you’ve decided on a plan, you need to get the word out to your regular customers so they are not surprised. Bologna sends out a weekly e-mail blast and reminds regulars about Vingenzo’s reservation policy and that calling ahead is encouraged. That information is also on the pizzeria’s Web site.

“When groups come in without reservations, we let them know about our policy of taking reservations for six or more,” says Racanelli.

Home Run Inns prints information about calling ahead on flyers and their business cards, plus servers and hostesses mention it to groups.

If you’re opening a new pizzeria or redesigning what you have, thinking about your configuration of tables and booths can make the seating of groups easier. Home Run Inns’ dining rooms were designed with 80 percent drop- leaf tables (and 20 percent booths) that can quickly be moved to accommodate larger parties.

Bologna says most of his restaurant’s tables are rectangular two-top or four- tops with a couple of eight-tops.

“Sometimes we can get large groups in if we split their tables –– seating half the party at one table and half at another –– not side by side,” says Bologna.

Because Racanelli planned for big parties before opening her pizzeria, she chose banquette seating and moveable tables to begin with.

If you decide to go the reservation route, make sure your staff is trained in how to take reservations, says Racanelli. Otherwise, you take the chance that an employee will write the reservation on a scrap of paper, get busy and forget to write it in the reservation book. Then, when the party arrives, there’s no table for them, leaving you to scramble to accommodate them. Not good.

“In the beginning, think about whether you want to cater to large parties or not,” says Costello. “Restaurants focusing on single-serve, upscale gourmet menu items may not want big groups, and some kitchens aren’t designed to handle them either.”

Customers like to know what’s going on, says Bologna. If they understand what’s going on and why, they will try to help you out. If they’re left in the dark, they draw their own conclusions (and not necessarily the right ones).

“If the wait is going to be 35 minutes, tell them that, but try to exceed their expectations and seat them in 25 minutes,” says Bologna. “Give your customer the most pleasurable experience they can have.” u

Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes for trade publications.

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