A full restaurant is great for business, but too full can be off-putting. Striking the right balance between walk-ins and reservations is crucial to success, but it's not easy.
— Andrea Strong
The world of dining out can often come down to one thing — getting a table. Reservations at the restaurant of moment are often booked months in advance, and walk-ins, if even set aside, tend to be risky undertakings that can involve spending hours sipping expensive cocktails, hunger pangs growing more aggressive, while waiting for a table to open up.
Orchestrating that delicate balance between reservations and walk-ins is an art form, and a subject that occupies many of the waking (and sleeping) hours of the front of house teams charged with managing the book. Should all tables be set aside for reservations? Is it best to have a 50-50 mix? Or should it be somewhere in between, depending on the lifespan of the restaurant? What exactly is the right formula, one that ensures walk-ins and regulars can find a spot, and reservations are plentiful enough so that potential diners searching online are not lost to the competition. As with many issues in the restaurant industry, the answer is, well, complicated.
Bill Chait, the prolific LA restaurateur behind the newly-opened Tesse, the 125-seat hot-spot he opened with Creative Artists Agency, said the way to approach this complex equation is to view reservations as inventory. “The classic protocol is to leave bar seats for walk-ins, and to hold back a few more tables for friends and regulars, and put the rest of your inventory out for reservations on OpenTable or Resy. If you run out of inventory, you lose those people swimming around in these networks.”
Chait said this is especially important because diners’ habits have changed lately; most are booking tables not a week or a month in advance but a few hours before dinner. “It used to be that people planned ahead, but now they just go on their app and look up what tables are available that night. If you don’t have inventory out there, then you can’t meet that demand. If you want to drive people to your restaurant in the last 24 hours, or even five hours, you want inventory available online.”
According to OpenTable, 25 percent of bookings made via its mobile app happen within 90 minutes of the reservation.
That said, Chait emphasized that walk-ins should not be ignored or treated poorly. “When you have a hot restaurant you have to accommodate people at your door because you want to have them come back, and because you will not always be the hot restaurant,” he said. “You have to figure out how to accommodate regular neighborhood people. There should be none of that ‘we’re fully committed’ attitude, or you may have nothing down the road.”
Complicating the mix even further is the high rate of cancellations and no-shows. Historically Chait said his no-show rate was 10 percent, but now he says it’s crept up to closer to 15 percent. OpenTable reports that as of March, its national no-show rate was 4.6 percent, and says that number is 20 percent lower than the no-show rate for diners who book at these restaurants via phone. Chait uses that last minute availability for walk-in guests. “When you have 250 reservation and 35-40 of those tables won’t even show up, you can fill in that inventory with walk-ins,” he said.
Finding the Right Balance
Kate Edwards, a restaurant consultant for 11 years in New York City who previously ran the door at Balthazar and Per Se, looks to several factors in deciding how to manage her book — a restaurant’s identity, location, and price point. “It comes down to what type of restaurant, where is it located, and what are you hoping to achieve,” she said. “Depending on the size and location, they may or may not want reservations,” she said. “You have to know yourself and know your concept before making that decision.”
A high-end restaurant, she said, should book most all tables with reservations because guests don’t want to leave things to chance; bar stools can be set aside for walk-ins, and a few tables held back for regulars or friends of the house. “When you are in that $200 check average, you want all tables accounted for; it’s too costly to wait and see,” she said.
This also underscores the reality that reservations, in particular at high-check average restaurants, are not just a convenience for guests; they allow an operator to anticipate income. “If guests must book tables a month in advance that is a huge advantage for a restaurant which can then anticipate business and buying based on that projection,” said Edwards.
That “toughest table to get” reputation is also part of the formula; we all want what we cannot have; no one feels empowered scoring a table at a restaurant you can just walk in to. Edwards said the “covet” factor should not be underestimated. “Having a reputation as a restaurant with no-reservations available until next month or next year also builds part of the restaurant’s “hard to get” status. That cachet is purposeful.”
That air of elusiveness certainly drives diners to casual spots or neighborhood restaurants with critical following. At Greg Baxtrom’s critically-acclaimed Olmsted, tables are reserved months in advance. But the restaurant is in a leafy Brooklyn neighborhood, and the owners did not want to push away their local clientele. To accommodate its neighbors, the restaurant is walk-in only on Monday nights, a policy that builds business on a more traditionally slow night and offers access to those who want to stop in without planning months in advance.
Sometimes, a practical solution can be built into a restaurant’s business plan. At the newly reopened Savoy in Kansas City, management doesn’t hold tables specifically for walk-in diners, said food and beverage director Scott Tipton. But the restaurant does have an attached second concept, a historic lounge that does double-duty as a bar for waiting or a dining room for those who’d rather eat right away. Managing the flow of reservations in the dining room, which has only been open since July, takes more nuance. “In OpenTable, we’re able to set and adjust pacing on reservations in order to ensure a consistent and manageable flow,” he said.
Know Your Neighborhood
At chef-driven neighborhood restaurants with a high profile, places like Missy Robbins’ Misi, for instance, a high percentage of tables, if not all, are reserved; walk-ins fully expect to wait a long time. Edwards explained that the wait time is not necessarily a bad thing. “If the restaurant builds an experience around the wait time, that makes it fun and part of the evening,” she said. “Similarly, if a restaurant choses to be walk-in only, it can work if you build experience around the waiting at the bar or lounge. [Popular Brooklyn restaurant] Roberta’s has lots of room, and it’s like a big party.”
At perennial favorite Balthazar, in the high foot traffic touristy Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, the restaurant only books 50-60 percent of its tables with reservations and the rest is left for walk-ins. “They know they will fill those walk-in seats,” said Edwards, who worked front of the house at Balthazar from 1997-2004 and and was its Maitre d’ from 2000-2004.
The key for all operators is to have that knowledge—to truly become intimate with a neighborhood and all its behaviors and quirks. At Alta Calidad, a modern Mexican restaurant in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, the seasons played a role in the balance between walk-ins and reservations. Chef Akhtar Nawab opened Alta Calidad in the spring of 2017, starting out as walk-in only in an effort to appeal to the neighborhood. “We didn’t want a situation where people were unable to walk in when they wanted to or they felt the restaurant wasn’t for them because they didn’t find us accessible,” he said. “We wanted to have people stopping in.”
But when the weather turned cold after Thanksgiving, there was a steep drop in business. “It wasn’t like in Manhattan where it gets busy with corporate parties and dinners for the holidays,” he said. “It was a different demographic.” With a 30 percent drop in business, he scratched his walk-in policy and put tables up on OpenTable. He saw a jump in business immediately. “That drove people to our place,” he said. “It’s too cold in winter, people want to know they have a reservation.” A year into operations, he said he now balances reservations and walk-ins during the week, and reserves all tables but the bar and patio on weekends.
In fact, anything from the weather to day of the week can affect the books, especially in locations that rely on tourism. Chef Heidi Vukov owns three restaurants including Hook and Barrel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a city primarily known as a summer vacation destination. “Most of our reservations are within a week,” she said, with about half of the dining room allotted to walk-ins during slower months, and 40 percent during the high season. “Typically, this changes with days of the week. Saturday, for example, is what we call ‘turn over day’ here. It is the day that most weekly rentals begin. The tourists have not gotten acclimated to the area yet, so it is typically a slower night for reservations.”
It also took time to find the right balance of reservations and walk-ins at Agern, Claus Meyers’ 80-seat seasonal restaurant tucked inside Grand Central Terminal. “We used to leave room for many more walk-ins at lunch, but now we are booking with reservations and keeping a lower count for walk-ins because our clientele is corporate and wants to be in and out fast for lunch,” said Marianne Eriksen, Agern’s general manager. “They don’t have time to wait for a table. Lunch service is about speed.”
Interestingly, she has found that dinner is much more laid back. “People stop in after work and have a drink or a glass of wine and relax over dinner. You have to get to know where you are and how the neighborhood looks at you,” she said “You have to find that sweet spot.”