The Secret Conspiracy to Turn Your Table

turning-tables

Every time you set foot in a busy restaurant there is a secret conspiracy going on behind closed doors, a synchronized and covert operation, designed to encourage you to finish your meal as soon as possible. There’s a good chance you didn’t notice because hospitality professionals are masters of deception. Fine dining has become a culinary shell game, distracting you with flamboyant presentations and table-side theatrics, while your next course is being fired against your will.

It’s a delicate balance, but we’re trained to hug you so tightly you won’t notice you’re suffocating. Pay closer attention next time you dine out and you might notice a more aggressive push to take the order, ever-shortening intervals between courses, and your bill arriving to the table before you ask for it. These developments violate time-honored tenets of hospitality but, in many cases, they have become necessary evils.

The fact is many restaurants can’t afford to wait for you to order at your own pace, to pause in between courses or even to ask for the check at your leisure. There is a new economic reality in the restaurant business where growth is impeded by skyrocketing rents, ballooning labor costs and cutthroat competition. Making guests feel welcome cannot be unconditional anymore. 

A recent article by a San Francisco restaurateur, whose restaurant Tawla prematurely closed, outlines some of the new challenges the industry faces and warns of danger ahead. Many of these external pressures—higher minimum wages, health care costs, talent drain—are uncontrollable so owners focus on internal elements to protect profitability. Raising prices is always a last resort and can alienate clientele. More aggressively turning tables, on the other hand, is a stealth way to increase revenue without charging more. Since we can’t just add tables, we need to seat more people at the tables we have. The goal becomes offering guests a great experience but delivering it in a shorter window of time. 

turning-tables

Chefs have redesigned their menus for speed, prioritizing alacrity over precision. The trend toward small plates, not coincidentally, has contributed to shortening turn times and increasing cover counts. Instead of grouping dishes into courses, they trickle out out of the kitchen as they’re ready. Dining experiences have become more anxious. Waiters hover over your table as you consider the menu. Busboys bully-clear your plates. Dessert is on the verge of extinction with fewer options to expedite the decision-making process and clear the path for payment and departure.

This existential threat has forced the industry to question its traditional ways of defining hospitality. The new rules of engagement require guests to make bigger sacrifices. Many restaurants refuse to seat your party incomplete because doing may increase the aggregate time you monopolize the table. They also may not allow you to place your order piecemeal because they can’t afford to forfeit control of the pacing of your meal. If someone joins you in the middle of your main course, management may deny them the menu in the event that adding a new dish would delay your returning the table. Attempts to order more cocktails after dessert may be rebuffed or you will be asked to drink them at the bar.

Popular restaurants have had to cinch the waist on their reservation systems—booking more tables with shorter projected turn times. Even in fine dining, you’re rarely allotted a table for more than two hours. No one will tell you this officially but everyone will be working in concert to keep you on schedule. Weekday nights, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to expedite the first tranche of tables to ensure the second wave seats promptly. On weekends, there may be a third seating. Any problems turning tables early in the night can have a domino effect throughout service.

Restaurant management has become less apologetic about needing your table back. They obsess over cover counts because they have become the leading indicator of growth. Pre-shift meetings have become increasingly dogmatic about table-turning, often at the expense of honing service. On the whole, the industry is collectively less sympathetic toward guests who feel rushed and less tolerant of guests camping after the check has been paid. The thought of asking someone to get up used to be unthinkable for a restaurant manager. It isn’t anymore. ‘Can we get you anything else?’ is no longer a courtesy. It’s an ultimatum. Speak now or forever hold your check. Saying you don’t need anything else has become de factopermission for us to present the bill. 

As hospitality norms erode, purists will cry foul. They’ll tell you restaurants that forsake their guests will lose business. It’s a risk—hard business decisions have consequences. But this is no time for unicorn ideology about good service. Our industry’s survival depends on embracing a new paradigm. As input costs skyrocket, accepting the status quo will only lead to more restaurants closing their doors. Foodies can scream till they’re blue in the face about their right to occupy the table as they want, but without their willingness to compromise, in the future, there may be no restaurants left for them to enjoy on their own terms. 

Why Abusive Restaurant Culture Will Never Go Away

2018 was a momentous year in the restaurant world. It will go down in history as a precipice—when the world finally learned how fucked up we are. The shameful skeletons amassed in our closets had outgrown our ability to hide them and finally burst into the public eye. The restaurant industry has been dysfunctional for as long as chefs have worn hats—so the revelations come as little surprise to those of us employed by it, who have become accustomed to the misogyny, abuse and bullying. We may never go back to the way things were, but it feels premature to declare the era of “Men Behaving Badly” in restaurants over. Anyone who thinks that is ignoring how poorly—prior to these public scandals—we’ve policed ourselves. How do you think we got here in the first place?

If not for the persistence of journalists exposing what the restaurant business couldn’t expose itself, these abuses would have continued unfettered. Now that we’re under a microscope, the industry is more attuned to these problems, but real reform requires real accountability not just excommunication of the worst offenders. In hospitality, we’ve always been conditioned that looking the other way makes everyone less suspicious. How can we expect victims to speak up about inappropriate behavior if the only people who can effect real change are the perpetrators? Sadly, it’s easy to imagine a world where restaurants slide back into their bad habits.

Cultural issues in the workplace typically start from the top and get passed down the chain of command. Restaurants owned by aggressive people tend to rely on aggression and fear-mongering as tools to increase productivity. Since they can’t be omnipresent, some restaurateurs train management to be aggressive by proxy. No matter how competent a restaurant’s HR Department is, it rarely has the authority to discipline the owners when the owners are the problem. This is why malpractice among CEO’s is tolerated more than offenses by middle management (See: Weinstein, Moonves, Kalanick). Subordinates who are victims don’t challenge executives because they worry their complaints will be construed as treasonous. 

Aggression is used in restaurants to test loyalty. The competition in elite establishments is cutthroat, which creates a cult-like atmosphere that coerces employees into accepting mistreatment. Management often subjects new hires to unofficial “hazing” to weed out prospects with weak constitutions. There are still many chefs and managers who believe that fear is the most effective tactic for ensuring the proper level of motivation and complicity. 

restaurant culture

Adrenaline fuels our business. Though it can be relentless, chefs thrive on the frenetic pace and the rush they get from powering through a busy night. But often, the endorphins of a chaotic service cause tempers to flare and egos to clash. Harassment and aggression in the restaurant world may be more violent than in corporate environments because we aren’t confined to offices and cubicles. We have a tendency to behave like uncaged animals, abusing each other to survive. Tomorrow, all may be forgotten but the psychic baggage we carry around with us is burdensome and usually bubbles to the surface in deviant ways. 

Misconduct by owners and upper management happens everyday in the restaurant business and most subordinates know that there is very little they can do to stop it. Complaints aren’t taken seriously and individuals aren’t willing to jeopardize their standing within the organization to call attention to the guilty parties. The dynamic is remarkably similar to abuses that have transpired among priests within the Catholic Church. Victim’s voices can’t be heard if the organization is only concerned with its own sanctity.

The most public restaurant harassment scandals—Batali, Friedman, Besh, Hallowell—have one very obvious element in common (aside from their all having been perpetrated by men): They were all the owners. It’s unfathomable to think that aggressive male owners will properly design safety mechanisms to protect employees from aggression when many of these male owners consider their aggressive tendencies to be the key to their success. Being a tyrant requires a lack of concern for the feelings of the people in your kingdom. Dictators ignore societal mores because they believe they know what’s best for their constituency. Restaurant owners who exhibit tyrannical tendencies rarely face criticism from their lieutenants, who must choose loyalty over ethics if they want to keep their jobs. 

In the meantime, while we wait for the next chef-shaming exposé, we move forward without having drawn a road map for accountability. It’s hard to imagine—since moral compasses have long since betrayed us—that without a map we wont end up driving off the same cliff again. 

Please Wait To Be Seated

restaurant-reservations

No matter how much people love dining out, they never like waiting for their table. Seating guests promptly is consistently one the most stressful parts of working in a restaurant. Hosts and maitre’ds around the world are routinely subjected to childlike tantrums and fits of hyperbolic outrage when guests are made to wait. Unfortunately, what most people don’t understand is that the process of booking restaurant reservations is an imperfect science.

Filling a restaurant is like a game of Tetris. At the beginning, the pace is slow and the puzzle pieces fit together easily. As the night progresses, the shapes become more complicated and the pace of the game accelerates. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit as well as we thought and the puzzle gets messy.

To impose order, most restaurants create a flexible template for managing bookings that staggers the seating arrangement throughout the night. The template assigns a time frame to each different party size that is considered ample for guests to enjoy their experience. In fine dining, that may be up to two hours for parties of two (we call them “deuces”) or between two and three hours for larger parties. More casual restaurants may be less generous with projected turn times. They need more volume to make up for lower menu prices. No matter how the reservation system is designed, there is rarely room for error. 

Predicting when each table will be ready is a tightrope act that can easily be thrown out of balance when unpredictable variables arise. If your party is incomplete or late for a reservation, this is why the maitre’d likely tells you he or she needs the table back at a particular time. You might find it inhospitable to be constrained in this way but so will the party after you forced to wait longer because you were late. The plan for filling the dining room rarely plays out the way it’s been scripted. 

On any given night, the reservation book ebbs and flows—people cancel and last-minute reservations are added. There are no-shows or people arrive with a larger or smaller party size than they originally booked. The way the tables are plotted changes in real time based on the pacing of each individual party.

The truth is—no matter how much data you have, it’s impossible to predict the amount of time it will take each individual table to complete their meal, pay their check and leave. There are never guarantees that just because a table has paid their check on time that they will also relinquish their table. In other words, when we give you a reservation time, in many cases, we are approximating when you’ll be seated based on the tendencies of the average guest.

This is why everyone who makes a reservation in a restaurant should understand that a reservation isn’t a contract. It’s understandable to be upset if you’re seated past your allotted time, but you shouldn’t feel cheated. 

Agreeing to a particular reservation time does not guarantee you’ll be seated at that time. A reservation is an attempt, in good faith, to accurately predict the time your table will be ready. It guarantees that you will have a table, but it does not guarantee that you’ll be seated at that table punctually. As a guest, you should always grant the restaurant a reasonable grace period. After thirty minutes, management should offer some kind of reclamation—like a round of drinks or complimentary dishes. They usually do. But even in these instances—though it perfectly fair to voice your displeasure—you should not feel entitled to anything. 

Restaurants create reservation templates to help seat you on time

It’s curious that most people are willingly accept the same approximations with doctor’s appointments, trips to the hair salon, airline departures and cable service calls. They’ll compassionately forgive long delays in office waiting rooms or airport gates without anywhere near the same sense of entitlement. Would anyone dream of standing at the front desk in a doctor’s office and demanding to be seen immediately a half an hour after their appointment? So why do we get so much more upset when we’re seated late for our restaurant reservations? Many people look down on the vocational work of restaurant professionals compared to more white-collar service industries. We feel more entitled to bully a hostess for a table than an dentist for a root canal.

The reasons for the delay in each of the above scenarios are exactly the same: The amount of time it takes to care for certain individuals varies and is hard to predict. For whatever reason, when we dine out, we assume if we’re seated late that it must be incompetence. It often isn’t. In most cases, late seating is due to extenuating circumstances—traffic, bad weather, a visit from the Health Department, or just people “camping.” Asking a table who is lingering to leave is a last resort and restaurants only do so in isolated cases. As an impatient guest, it isn’t fair to support evicting someone who’s overstayed their welcome for you to be seated unless you are willing to accept the same treatment when you linger. Most people aren’t.

More often than not, the staff of the restaurant will be remorseful it’s behind schedule and will do what it can to make amends. Showing grace in these moments may be difficult but it demonstrates that you don’t put your needs above others. Your calm will be repaid in attentive service. Ask anyone who works in restaurants, selfless guests are the most treasured ones.