Tech Helps Restaurants End the Painful Wait

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory, Contributing Editor | October 08, 2013

The paper and pencil list has long been a staple at hostess stands across the country. But these days, many restaurants are forgoing their manual processes for reservations and even trading in their wait-list pagers.  Hostesses are saving their vocal cords. Now it’s all about mobile.

In sum, a basic mobile-based waitlist solution allows hostesses to enter a guest’s name and party size directly into an application, typically on a tablet device. The system then crunches data to estimate the party’s wait time. When a table is ready, a text is sent to the guest’s mobile phone, which eliminates the need to call out to the guest or invest in a physical pager. With 91% of American adults carrying a mobile phone (according to Pew Internet Research, www.pewinternet.org, May 2013), the infrastructure is already available.  Additional capabilities can be added, ranging from reservations to detailed analytics, and some offer integration to the major online reservation services, such as OpenTable.

Baseline benefits
Restaurants are finding a variety of benefits from using reservation and waitlist services, including not only more accurate wait times, but shorter ones as well.  Todd Sapet, managing partner at Texas Roadhouse in Monaca, PA (www.texasroadhouse.com), says that after the location began using NoWait (www.nowaitapp.com), they were able to decrease wait times and added an extra table turn for dinner. “It pays for itself on one Saturday night because we can turn tables faster and put more service into the house,” says Sapet. “NoWait puts more money in our cash register, every single hour.”

Improved accuracy not only benefits the customer and the bottom line; it also makes life less stressful for staffers, particularly those who find themselves in the potential line of fire. In many restaurants, the hostess is entry-level and by nature less experienced in difficult situations. “Most of our hostesses are young women — high school- or college-aged — who would be uncomfortable if faced with angry customers,” says Jeff Loeb, senior director of IT for Famous Dave’s (www.famousdaves.com). “To avoid it, the hostesses would quote a conservative wait time which often caused customers to leave,” he says. Famous Dave’s now uses Buzz Table (www.buzztable.com) in its corporate locations and has been able to alleviate the issue with accurate wait times.
Tools that text customers when their table is ready are also offering guests greater flexibility to run nearby errands while they wait. This provides a valuable incentive for guests to provide their mobile phone number to the restaurant and opt into future promotions and a loyalty program.

Free versus paid solutions
Restaurants can quickly find a free mobile application that will technically provide waitlist and reservation services. However, many brands find that it’s worth investing in a paid subscription to get the support, customization and integration with other systems, such as table management. Many products offer free trials for a specific period of time and some full-featured products, such as Noshlist (www.noshlist.com), offer a free version with baseline features allowing you to upgrade to a premium product while preserving any data you might have in the system. Upgrading to premium offers enhanced analytics capabilities, including average wait times relative to party size, diner demographics and guest loyalty status.

Among paid systems, some products such as OpenTable charge per reservation while others have a monthly subscription rate. SeatMe (www.seatme.com), for example, charges a set monthly fee for unlimited use. “Our costs don’t fluctuate monthly, and we can project and budget with more accuracy,” says Laura Peterson, front-of-house/event manager with Martins West Pub (www.martinswestgp.com).

Since each restaurant has different business patterns and needs, no one model is likely to offer overall best value. Most vendors suggest restaurants use data from the past three months to estimate costs and determine which system and pricing model offers the best return on investment.

One of the biggest benefits of using a paid system is the ability to customize the product to fit your needs. When Sammy’s Grill (www.sammysgrill.com) began using JTECH’s Spinnaker product (www.micros.com), JTECH used the restaurant’s paper wait list to create an identical wait list online. “Because the wait list was the same format and design that our staff was used to working with, it really cut down on their learning curve and increased productivity,” says Shaun Moylan, acting manager at Sammy’s Grill (www.sammysgrill.com).

Integration & special features
Many waitlist and reservation products either offer their own table management module, or integrate with other vendors’ solutions. Adding a table management component can further decrease wait times and add table turns, plus it can provide helpful information to floor managers and servers. “Because Quickcue (www.quickcue.com) has a table management feature, I can approach a table and greet guests by name using the information in the system. I can see their whole dining experience, including how long they waited and how long it took to get their food, which helps me provide great service to our guests,” says Shannon Ireland, manager of ACME Oyster House in Destin, Florida (www.
acmeoyster.com).

Paul N. Hutson is vice president of operations for Taste Buds Management (www.rocketfiremedia.com), which manages several restaurant brands. The company chose QSR Automations (www.qsrautomations.com) because it offers three integrated products: a waitlist/reservation system, table management and a kitchen video system. “By helping the front of the house and kitchen work together with the wait list program and the kitchen video, we have seen staggering results,” Hutson says.

FreshTxt (www.freshtxt.com) offers a widget that enables online reservations or call-ahead seating and sends updates to the hostess stand in real-time. FreshTxt also offers an engagement feature that allows restaurants to collect customer information and interact via social media during the wait. Restaurants can use this information to add guests to their email lists and send customized special offers to their phone at a later date.  Restaurants using Freshtxt often use this feature to collect information for email lists and to send reminders, such as, “Do you have your reservations for Mothers’ Day?”

A favorite feature among NoshList users is the ability for customers to reply to a text. “One of the reasons that we are able to retain 95% of our wait list instead of 70% is that NoshList lets our customers send us a reply back to let us know that they are running a few minutes late,” says PJ Patton of Umami Burger (www.umami.com/umami-burger).

Most products also offer an administration console that allows managers to see the status of the wait and tables either from another part of the restaurant or even offsite. “I can pull up NoWait on my phone, even if I am sitting on a beach on vacation, and see that I have 15 names on the wait list with 20-minute estimated wait times,” Sapet says. “I don’t even have to be at the restaurant to make sure that it is running efficiently.”

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