Every restaurant wants to be hospitable and make diners comfortable. But what should you do when your customer feels so comfortable they never want to leave? Having customers that won’t leave can be very detrimental to your waiting customers, your bottom line, and your staff. But getting someone to leave can be awkward and take a lot of finesse to not offend them.
Remember that most guests that are overstaying their welcome are oblivious to this fact. It may seem hard to believe when you clearly have guests waiting or your staff is cleaning up (at close) but if you’ve never worked in hospitality you really can miss these cues.
When diners are lost in conversation and conviviality a brief interruption can often break the spell. Have the server or manager go over and ask how their meal was and if they need anything else. Once they realize they don’t they will often realize it is time to leave. If you want to leave the subtlety behind you can say “thank you for coming in and have a great night.” It is polite but tells them it is time to leave.
Relocate the Guest
One busy night we had a large party coming in at 8 and our biggest table reserved for them. We sat a four top there at 5pm thinking three hours was more than enough take make the turn. Unfortunately for us that four-top didn’t ever want to leave. Our large party arrived and they were still sitting and laughing long after the last dessert was devoured. Our party was getting antsy so we had to do something. Our Manager went over and politely explained that we had a party waiting for this table and would this group mind relocating to our bar. For their trouble, we offered them a round of drinks on the house. Luckily, they were very kind and didn’t make a fuss. They happily accepted a move in location and didn’t turn down those drinks either. If you have the luxury of a bar or other location this can often be a solution.
When you have a busy night and you get a walk-in that you have enough time to seat but you know you’ll need to turn the table you can give them an end time. By saying “we would love to have you dine with us but we have a reservation at 7:30pm for our available table.” While this can seem a little awkward, most diners don’t really want to stay extra-long anyway. A walk-in may be so happy they are able to get a table that they jump at this opportunity. Before offering this, make sure you really do have a reasonable amount of time to serve them. Priming them not to linger is not the same as rushing them through a meal.
Always plan ahead if there is a holiday or other special occasion. Some occasions like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day can easily be planned for. Others you can often find out about when taking a reservation. Have your reservationist ask if the party is celebrating when taking the reservation. If the answer is yes, this allows you to help them celebrate with a birthday dessert, engagement toast, or a simple verbal acknowledgement. It also allows you to plan for how long they might stay.
Tracking regulars dining lengths can also help you plan ahead. You may have regulars that consistently linger or others who just want to eat and get out. By making notes on their guest profiles you can better plan your book at the beginning of the night.
Guests that won’t leave are always going to be a challenge for restaurants. But if you are polite and courteous you can usually keep all of your guests happy and coming back.