A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 10, 2020

Restaurants Are Pushing Diners To Eat Faster To Reduce Covid Risk And Serve More People

With fewer diners permitted in many spaces and fear of infection still rampant, the economics and health implications of faster turnover have become imperative. JL

Alina Dizik reports in the Wall Street Journal:

To survive the pandemic, some restaurants are taking an unusual approach to hospitality: showing diners the door. They are limiting meals to 90 minutes or two hours to stay afloat amid capacity limits due to the virus. Turnover is especially important when Covid regulations call for serving fewer guests in the dining room at one time and keeping diners farther apart. To streamline service, restaurants are tweaking menus and dessert options are being pared.

When Kate Hayes showed up recently at a Chicago restaurant, she was surprised to learn that the wine-pairing dinner came with a 90-minute limit. Though it was a weekday and there were plenty of empty tables, the meal felt more like “Beat the Clock” than a leisurely catch-up.

“I thought, OK, I’ve got to suck this one down before the next wine arrives,” says Ms. Hayes, the 33-year-old co-founder of a gifting company.

To survive the pandemic, some restaurants are taking an unusual approach to hospitality: showing diners the door. They are limiting meals to 90 minutes or two hours to stay afloat amid capacity limits due to the virus.

Stan Duchman, a 56-year-old cardiologist in Houston, says he is making it work. To keep from feeling frazzled while dining out, he peruses the menu online before the meal. That way, he is ready to order the first course and any appetizers as soon as the server arrives. “We pretty much have everything coursed out in our minds,” Dr. Duchman says.

Guests are often alerted to time limits both while reserving and when they are seated, but hearing it is time to hit the road can still be jarring. Sally Wu says she understands that lingering can harm a restaurant’s business, but she doesn’t welcome explicit instructions about when to swallow her last bite. In recent weeks, the New York fashion designer has been avoiding restaurants that hew to timed slots. “I don’t usually stay longer, but to be told that is not pleasant,” Ms. Wu says.

David Schneider, director of operations at Portale in New York, says staff members respectfully let diners know of the time limits.

“We share it as politely as we can to prepare them—every minute counts,” he says. With outdoor dining waning in colder parts of the country, Mr. Schneider feels extra pressure to make sure guests are arriving—and leaving—on time.

Reseating parties more quickly throughout the evening allows restaurants to benefit from higher food sales rather than letting the same guests linger at the table. Turnover is especially important when Covid regulations call for serving fewer guests in the dining room at one time and keeping diners farther apart. 

The strategy often clashes with customers’ wishes. Many who are just resuming dining out want to do so at a leisurely pace. Among people planning to return to restaurants, 29% said that they would stay longer than before to enjoy their time out, according to Datassential, a food-industry market-research firm in Chicago. Feeling rushed, especially after months of not dining out, can have a negative impact on experience, says Datassential’s Mike Kostyo.

“It’s something consumers have always been cognizant of and don’t really enjoy,” he says.

At Boka Restaurant Group’s establishments across Chicago, guests learn of the new policy three times: When they reserve online, when a host calls to confirm the reservation and when they arrive at the restaurant, says Gabe Garza, director of operations. Initially, the company took a softer approach and had someone drop by to tell diners that the table was needed for the next party. That didn’t work. “People would panic—it is in their human nature,” he says.

At Kata Robata in Houston, diners at about one out of 20 tables refuse to get up after their 90-minute period has ended. With local bars closed, many people stay put for more drinks, says assistant general manager Emmanuelle Massicot. Rather than enforcing the rules, the restaurant works around defiant customers while cutting off additional alcohol sales. “There’s only so much we can do without making a scene,” Ms. Massicot says.

To streamline service, restaurants are tweaking menus. At Boka Group’s Girl & the Goat restaurant, small plates are now paired together rather than brought out separately for the table, Mr. Garza says. Dishes that take longer, including goat shoulder or leg, have to be ordered the day before.

The dessert options have been pared and usually are flagged at the beginning of the meal so diners choose quickly once they sit down or skip the course altogether. In the past, servers would recite the dessert menu at the end of dinner, which can tack on 20 minutes or more, he adds.

At reservation service OpenTable, most restaurants are using an upgraded feature to predict when tables will turn over. The feature reports how long diners are lingering based on factors such as party size and day of the week. More restaurants are using OpenTable’s customizable booking policies, which allow staff to adjust time limits for a table based on the number of diners and how many people can be in the restaurant. Guests can be alerted to time limits while reserving, says Joseph Essas, chief technology officer at OpenTable, which is owned by Booking Holdings. “The more [restaurants] communicate to diners, the more they adhere to it,” he says.

Even before the pandemic, efficient turnover was critical to keeping restaurants profitable. On weekend evenings, restaurants often had two or three parties per table, although few places trained staff to discuss time limits. Instead, many relied on behind-the-scenes strategies like serving food swiftly, presenting the check or offering diners who lingered free drinks at the bar. “This is a tension we’ve had before Covid, too,” Mr. Kostyo says. “In the past, there would be some soft actions.”

Since reopening in August, Portale has walked back some time-limit policies. While customers officially reserve dinner for 90 minutes, the management has added 15 minutes of “baked-in wiggle room,” Mr. Schneider says. That has made turn times more predictable, he adds. Also, the staff can adjust some tables’ time limits for birthdays, larger groups or late-arrivals but doesn’t tell diners that they are bending the rules, he adds.

For diners who want to linger, Mr. Schneider recommends reserving late on a weeknight when the table is less likely to be needed. During peak times, he says, talking to the host about extending the allotted time can help the restaurant maneuver around your table.

At his multilevel restaurant E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles, co-founder Grant Smillie offers diners the restaurant’s new to-go cocktails on their way out. Thirty minutes before the two-hour slot ends, servers check in with the table and offer to add cans of the restaurant’s Late Night Disco tequila drink or a vodka-based Get Lucky cocktail to the check.

Besides increasing the average tabs, the suggestion lightens the mood even as customers are asked to leave, Mr. Smillie says: “They can take them to their next destination or they can take them home.”


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