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The Awesome Guide To Restaurant Waitlist Management

Ryan Andrews
Ryan Andrews

Apr 1, 2021 6:15:00 AM

When you head to a restaurant and find a queue out the door, what do you think?

Are you reassured that this must be an exceedingly popular venue and happily join the line?

Or do you start to wonder whether service is not really efficient and walk to the restaurant across the street to check out the menu there?

restaurant waiting

Restaurant wait times have always been a sticky issue. There are lots of things that have an impact on them, and even with the best planning, sometimes it’s simply not possible to provide an entirely wait-free service.

In this post we’ll look at a few ways to keep on top of customer flow and move guests faster through the cycle of service, making make sure that a walk-in doesn’t change to a walk away.

>> Create better guest experiences with your TM system

Related content: Complete guide to restaurant capacity management

Improving customer flow

Plan ahead. First, dig into the numbers to find patterns: are you unexplainably busy one particular midweek night each month? If so, would it be worth scheduling swing staff next time this evening comes round?

Also, keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your local area. Is a popular band playing in town one night? Are schools holding their proms or college students graduating? These are all key snippets of information when it comes to planning your staffing and marketing strategies.

Prep ahead. Consider getting together with your kitchen to produce items that don’t take too much time to get out. This can sometimes be challenging, especially if you are an establishment that offers specific cuisines.

But fear not! Saving time is all in the details. If you can put in as much prep work ahead of time in the kitchen, many minutes can be shaved off cook times.

Don’t seat incomplete parties. That party that has three people at the host stand but says they’re waiting on another three? Pass it up if you have other waiting customers and a busy waitlist. If you sit incomplete parties, it will take much longer to get a proper order.

Complete parties are more reliable to get an order in on time. What's more, they’re all already there. The last thing you want is a reservation that has been seated and is missing two or so people, who may not show up at all. Not only would that be rude, but also missed revenue for your restaurant.

Let them pay at the table. Pay-at-the-table systems save minutes too. These may seem small at first, but they add up! Your bussers will have breathing room and can clean the table properly before seating another party, and the overall flow will be much improved.

Add extra space (if you have it). Dining in Chicago in winter? Good thing there’s extra indoor seating! Sometimes prepping extra space can really go the extra mile and save you when dealing with a long waitlist. Many restaurants have spaces they may close for breakfast or lunch services and then open for dinner when volumes are higher.

Related content: Top 6 Restaurant Floor Plan Creators

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How to create a positive wait experience


The impact of restaurant wait times is a superbly fascinating topic that many scientific studies have investigated. One of them, Bielen & Demoulin, 2007, found that setting expectations for wait times helped to reduce the stress experienced by customers. They also concluded that uncertainty over wait time affected customer responses to service and that a pleasant waiting environment had a positive impact on mood and perception.

What this means is that customers' waiting experience has direct consequences on how they judge and enjoy their overall time with you. If their wait time is estimated wrongly or they spend the wait in discomfort, they could be less than forgiving, even if the food and service once seated are amazing.

Good communications, accurate wait time estimates, and please wait environments are therefore crucial for managing wait times well. Here are just a few ways you can enhance their wait.

  • Make sure the waiting area is clean and comfortable. You may want to play music or provide a good view of any entertainment on the floor
  • Provide informed estimates of how long a wait is likely to be. If your wait area is crowded, would-be diners may wrongly assume it will belong
  • Make sure there’s some interaction with guests. Use the wait time to advertise your menu or update people on specials
  • Sitting customers with drinks or in the bar area can help them to have a more pleasant wait. You may also wish to provide nibbles or canapés
  • Train the welcome staff to recognize if potential guests are running to a schedule and are anxious to be seated. If they are, help them meet their deadline by bringing plates out as they’re ready, suggesting they skip a course or take dessert away, or recommending the dishes you know will be prepared and served quickest.

Strategies for reducing waitlist abandonment

Despite your best efforts, some guests on the waitlist may still decide to go somewhere else. With the many options continually thrown their way, it’s easy for them to get distracted. Say the wait is forty-five minutes and they decide to go shopping nearby. This can quickly result in distraction and waitlist abandonment.

Using an SMS text alert system is a good way to prevent that from happening and an opportunity to advertise special items on the menu. Be careful not to overdo it, though! With too many advertising texts coming their way, many people can become disengaged. Keep it simple and highlight one particular special. You can get creative here and rotate with the season, time of service, etc.

Even if you are using a text service for updates, another method is to simply keep your guests close and engaged, having them wait in a lounge or at the bar. Many managers join their host/hostess at the stand to help in times of high volume. This can be another prime moment to build the excitement and market what you have to offer, but also to answer any questions or mention specials and dishes you are most proud of.

Going beyond SMS

If you want to be even more effective at managing waitlists, you should consider using a table management solution. Here are a few of the things you'd be able to do: 

  • assign servers quickly to tables, turning them faster
  • check at any time when tables should become available so that you can set expectations with walk-ins
  • add walk-ins and reservations to the waitlist and manage your floor plan
  • have an updated status of how many walk-in guests are on the waitlist and a timer of how long they have been waiting

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