Should Your Restaurant Seat Incomplete Parties?

March 26, 2019 05:47 PM

Waiting for all guests to arrive helps maximize profits, but might anger your customers.


Incomplete parties can cut into profits by taking up valuable space, but waiting to seat them might mean you lose their business. (Photo: LarsZ/Shutterstock)


by Joni Sweet


A group of three people walks into your restaurant and requests a table for six. That’s a lot of real estate to give up for an incomplete party, and you have no idea when the last three guests will show up — if ever.


Should you seat them, and risk lost revenue due to slow turnover? Or should you wait until the whole party arrives, and potentially frustrate the group?


“Restaurant owners have no good choice in this scenario,” said Jonas Sickler, a restaurant veteran who now helps small businesses build their reputation at “Efficiently filling seats isn’t just about maximizing profits, it’s also about accommodating all guests as quickly as possible.”


Refusal to seat incomplete parties is a common, albeit controversial policy at many restaurants. Learn the pros and cons to see if it’s the right move for your establishment.


Pro: Might boost profits


Maximizing the bottom line is the main thing that drives restaurants to seat parties only once all guests have arrived.


“Restaurants are retail businesses at heart, and their revenue comes from selling items that can generally only be sold to customers occupying a portion of their rentable space. Space that is not selling menu items is not generating revenue,” said Ray Camillo, founder and chief executive officer at Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting.


Making sure all guests are present before you offer them a table speeds up service and keeps checks higher for the amount of time the space is occupied.


Pro: Gives guests the right amount of space


When a group of diners is waiting for a few more to show up, it’s tough to assess the appropriate size table for them. Sure, they might be expecting a party of eight, but what if a couple stragglers are no-shows?


“Restaurants have thin margins. So when a party of four loses two guests, it makes sense to move them to a smaller table,” said Sickler.


However, moving a group during dinner service can be awkward for guests and disruptive to the dining room. Some restaurants avoid this scenario by waiting until all guests arrive before giving them a table.


“If parties shrink or grow, restaurant owners can provide a more appropriate table. Seating party of four at a large round table intended for six is just as bad as the reverse,” he said.


Plus, leaving tables free for guests without reservations can help your restaurant reach capacity.


“Sometimes large parties are cut in half. By waiting to seat them, restaurant owners could free up multiple tables to accommodate walk-in guests,” he said.


Con: Shows poor hospitality


While a policy against seating incomplete parties might boost profits, it comes at a cost. It could make guests feel unwelcome right as they walk in the door.


“At the end of the day, it’s all about the guests’ perception and needs in our restaurants. They don’t understand how we map out and plan our dining room, so we must err on the side of caution and make them happy,” said Kelley Jones, president of Hospitality Alliance, a hospitality management, development and consulting firm.


Jones finds a middle ground by only seating incomplete parties if it won’t change the table configuration of the restaurant.


“For example, I seat a single diner at a two top if they’re waiting for another guest. I also would seat two or three people at a four top as this would not change my seating configuration or the table that I would seat them at [if the full party was here],” he said.


Con: Potential lost revenue


Making sure every seat in the house is filled with paying guests helps maximize your profits, in theory. However, in practice, you might be missing out on revenue by refusing service to some customers until the rest of their group turns up.


“Often guests will begin ordering drinks, which have higher profit margins, while waiting for the rest of the group. Seating them quickly starts earning you money,” said Sickler.


If it truly doesn’t make sense to seat an incomplete party (say, only two people in a group of 10 are present), encouraging them to wait at the bar can help you capitalize on that cocktail revenue, said Camillo.


Con: Creates crowds


Many restaurants don’t have the luxury of a spacious lobby in which guests can wait. A policy against seating incomplete parties could create crowds that irritate your customers, warned Sickler.


“If the waiting area or bar is open to the dining area, large groups of people could become a nuisance to seated guests. They could also spill out into the entryway and make your restaurant appear to be overbooked to walk-in guests, even if you have plenty of open seating,” he said.


When it comes to seating incomplete parties, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every restaurant. Take a look at your clientele and capacity to determine if this policy is right for your business. Ultimately, it’s about giving the majority of your guests a hospitable, seamless experience — even if that means that some have to wait a few more minutes for a table.