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Posted: June 12, 2014

Chef Laura: The waiting game

Seven ways to help your customers be patient

Laura Cook Newman

The following scenarios occur during three different visits to the same restaurant.  Imagine all variables like size of the party, day of the week, and time of day are consistent; the only thing that changes is the quoted wait time.

Scenario 1: You arrive and are informed there’s a 20-minute wait. Twenty minutes later, you are ushered to your seat.

Scenario 2: Checking in with the host you are told the wait is 30 minutes.  Twenty minutes later, you are ushered to your seat.

Scenario 3: “The wait is 10 minutes,” the hostess says.  Twenty minutes later, you are ushered to your seat.

  1. Which scenario met your expectations?
  2. Which scenario exceeded your expectations?
  3. Which scenario did not meet your expectations?

In all three scenarios, you were seated in 20 minutes – a reasonable amount of time to wait for a table at most restaurants that don’t take reservations.  But the time that was quoted had a direct impact on your dining experience.

I learned the fine art of the waiting game when I was a novice hostess at a busy neighborhood Italian restaurant.  See if you spot the seven missteps in the following story:

“Your table will be ready in 10 minutes,” I’d smile, handing them a blinking black box that looked like a futuristic bomb.  With no bar to sit at, the customers loitered in the doorway an frequently glared at the clock over my head while counting down the seconds. 

At 10 minutes on the dot, they’d check in with me.  “Gosh, I’m so sorry, it will probably be 10 more minutes,” I’d respond, my eyes nervously sweeping the room searching for table-clearing activity.

This went on for another few rounds – they’d approach my podium and I’d extend the wait time by two-minute increments.  All in all that party waited 25 minutes for their table and were miffed!  I’d hand off irritated customers to a server – now charged with righting this terrible injustice I created.

Looking for a little sympathy, I turned to my waitress friend who started as a hostess at the same restaurant.  “When we’re slammed, just tell everyone the wait is 30 minutes. That’s what I did,” she replied, cool as a cucumber. 

Now my friend is a little more easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy than me, but she had a point.

Here are the novice mistakes I made and how to correct:

  1. “Your table will be ready in 10 minutes” –this quote is:
    1. Too precise – provide a window of time to expect service
    2. Too short of time – anyone will easily wait ten minutes
    3. Ends in a zero – quotes like 15 and 25 minutes feel less concrete and more fluid
  2. “Handling them a blinking black box…” - Get their name and use it.  This makes it personal.   The blinking pager increases their stress level like MacGyver trying to diffuse a bomb.
  3. “No bar to sit at…” - make the waiting area comfortable and appropriate to your customers.  Offer something while they wait - a snack, a beverage, free Wi-Fi.
  4. “Glared at the clock over my head…” – there are no clocks on the casino floor in Vegas, nor should there be in your waiting area.  Even in schools, clocks are placed in the back of the room so the teacher is aware of the time, not in the front of the room so the students fixate on the seconds until recess.
  5. “Gosh, I’m so sorry…” - don’t overly apologize.  When you come across like a groveling doormat that is how you will be treated. 
  6. “My eyes nervously sweeping the room” – The guest needs to see some effort.  Excuse yourself and seek some answers.
  7. “…they’d approach my podium…” – Shift the power and you check in with them.  Just like a server checks back with their table after the meal is delivered (known as the two-minute check back), the host/receptionists, should check in with the customer, by name, after 10 minutes for a status update.

Incorporating these tips shows your customer you are confidently in control of the situation, enabling them to relax.  Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at

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Readers Respond

I can always tell how the night is going to turn out as soon as the hostess greets me. Any wavering of confidence and I know it's going to be painful. My favorite is when I'm told it will be a ridiculously long wait in an empty restaurant. Red flags = taking my business somewhere else. By Paulie on 2014 06 12
you should come train some of the front desk people that I work with. By Ta Tee on 2014 06 12
Abby, I have some ideas on how to handle that, but first I'd love to hear from our readers. What would you do in that situation? Comments welcome. By Chef Laura on 2014 06 12
I was at a restaurant (the name shall remain nameless, but they have a nice Sunday brunch) in Golden a few weeks ago). It was a nice morning and we wanted to sit outside. They were just opening the patio and said it would be 10-15 min. 30 min later when two couples who arrived after we did were sat, I blew my top. I try not to do that at a restaurant, as I don't want to be served saliva in my drinks, but man I was ticked. Any suggestions as to how to handle By Dear Abby on 2014 06 12
Good everyday example about managing expectations. Someone very wise taught me to under-promise and over-deliver. By the way, "host" dreams still come up every few years for me during stressful times. Not the most restful sleep. smile By Ted on 2014 06 12
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