Monday, November 19, 2007

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

"No one goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

-Yogi Berra

Restaurant Overbooking

I rarely complain about restaurant service. I care more about food. Plus, I am sympathetic with hosts and waiters. It is a tough job that does not pay enough to deal with so many demanding and difficult customers.

But there is one service problem that really gets me mad -- overbooking. Nothing makes me more angry than making a reservation, and then not being seated for 30 minutes or more after the time of the reservation.

Sometimes overbooking is accidental. A restaurant has a bad night. An unusual number of customers overstay their welcome. Or the front desk just miscalculated. Those offenses are forgivable.

Yet sometimes overbooking seems purposeful, a matter of restaurant policy. That strategy works for airlines, who routinely overbook flights to maximize their profits. To compensate customers, airlines offer coupons to customers willing to take a later flight. I have never seen a coupon like that in a restaurant.

Past Offenders

I have boycotted two Houston restaurants for overbooking. In the mid 1990s, Ruggles was notoriously bad about overbooking. I was almost never given a table at the time it was reserved, and the hostesses were often rude about the situation. I finally decided to boycott Ruggles for a decade.

When I finally returned to Ruggles recently, my reservation was honored, and the front desk was friendly. The restaurant also was not as busy as it once was. It is interesting that service had improved after the crowd had died down.

My worst overbooking experience was at Bank. During that restaurant's heyday (now past), we had waited more than 45 minutes after our reservation when the hostess said our table was almost ready and actually pointed out the table we were going to get. A few moments later, the famous Houston multi-millionaire, Charles Hurwitz, walked in the door and was immediately given the table that had been promised to us. We waited another 45 minutes -- a full 90 minutes after our reservation -- before we were seated. I was insulted. I was angry. And I have not returned.

Recent Offenders

I have run into some overbooking recently, but not so bad that it has caused me to boycott any restaurant -- yet.

Catalan made me wait for over 15 minutes after my reservation the first three evenings I went there. The third time, we waited for 45 minutes before getting our table. One aggressive woman in our party complained to the hostess when she sat someone else first. The hostess explained that they had been waiting for 90 minutes since the time of their reservations. Fortunately, when we were seated, the manager sent our table a free plate of fried calamari. No one at our table particularly wanted calamari, but it was a nice gesture.

The good news is that when I returned to Catalan several weeks ago, we were seated on time. It seems that the restaurant may be trying to correct its overbooking problem, or perhaps the buzz has just died down.

Reef may be the most exciting new restaurant in Houston. But when we first visited a month after it opened, we had to wait 20 minutes after our reservation. I blamed the wait on the fact that the restaurant was new. But, when we visited again last Saturday, we had to wait over 45 minutes after the reservation. Then, after our 45 minute wait, we were not approached by a waiter for another 20 minutes.

My wife was disgusted and wanted to leave. But I wanted to find out if the restaurant was overbooking on purpose. So I asked our waiter, who gave us a long explanation about how the evening was a "perfect storm" of bad events and promised us that the restaurant usually seats its customers at the time of their reservation.

We did not receive any free food at Reef, but I appreciated the waiter's efforts to explain the situation. So it appears that Reef had not overbooked consciously. It sounds like it was just a coincidence that we have been there on two problem nights. Still, I am very interested to see what happens next time -- if I can convince my wife to go again.

A Solution

Overbooking is easy to fix. Don't do it. If a restaurant finds customers having to wait after the time of its reservation, it should book fewer reservations in the future. It is not about maximizing profits on a particular night. It is about securing long-term customers by committing to their happiness.


Anonymous said...

The reason there is no wait at Ruggles anymore is that the food is no good. You can go there just about any night without a rezzo and get seated immediately.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that overbooking is a pretty annoying part of restaurat life, it's pretty much one that every restaurant (sans the top, top restaurants) seem to practice for the very statistic that two out of every ten reservations are either cancelled within the last hour and a half or a no-show. So while you can pine on restaurants for doing it, telling them not to do it, it's pretty much as effective as telling customers not to no-show or call in at the last minute to cancel.

Or all restaurants can start taking credit card numbers down to secure reservations.

As the business saying goes. If you have seats, and you've got customers, fill them. Unfortunately, that's pretty much a bottom line in such a cut-throat industry as the restaurant one.

anonymouseater said...

In response to the second comment, there are some restaurants that are consistently full, yet have always seated me on time: Benjy's, Backstreet Cafe, Shade.

And interestingly, those restaurants have stayed busy for years. Ruggles did not. Nor did Bank. And Catalan's crowd is already declining. The difference is between restaurants that try to milk the initial buzz and restaurants that settle in for long-term relationships with customers.