Table for one
The ever changing nature of business means that more and more of us have to travel around the country (and world) in order to carry out our responsibilities. Anyone familiar with the railway stations of London, Manchester, Birmingham and the like can’t fail to notice the increasing number of non-tourists dragging suitcases or other overnight bags with them as the go about their journeys.
Over the last few years I to have joined this migratory work-force and have found myself working away from home sometimes for weeks if not months at a time, depending on the nature of the project.
As a result of this when I have finished work I am often faced with the prospect of finding somewhere to eat, usually by myself. It’s fair to say as a solo diner my experiences have been mixed at best. It’s also true to say that it’s no longer just individuals away on business who find themselves eating alone. A survey by the restaurant app Bookatable suggested that there had been a 38% increase in bookings for a table for one in the last three years. The bookings website OpenTable also recently reported that reservations for one have increased across the UK by 160% since 2014 (to 2019).
So what can operators do to take advantage of this growing trend?
Elephant in the room…
It would be remise of me not to acknowledge the fact that many food operators don’t like solo diners. For example one American outlet clearly instructs singletons to “respect everyone’s time…whatever you do, don’t dilly dally”. Hardly the most welcoming of attitudes.
The thinking being that one person sitting at a table for two is somehow halving the revenue you should be taking. For me this is rather simplistic and also assumes that every table will be fully occupied with two diners across any given service. Taking this thought to its (il)logical conclusion would mean that outlets should only encourage tables of 4 or more and that they should exclude children as they don’t eat as much.
One of the reasons for this attitude towards solo diners may be caused by the default way restaurants in particular set out their tables – classically with 2 or 4 places. This immediately creates an expectation and mind-set with management and more importantly the waiting team which can then impact the way they treat those dining alone.
That said if a restaurant etc. feels that strongly about not serving solo diners then make it very clear up front. Better to be honest rather than potentially inflict an uncomfortable or rushed experience on one of your customers.
Raising the bar…
Although the physical layout of a venue can be a constraining factor it is interesting to see how some operators now look to make their space more flexible and have moved away from just using plan tables and chairs.
One of the first times I can remember coming across this was in a well-known seafood restaurant in Soho, London – Randall & Aubin. Their approach to seating is to have marble topped bar height shared tables. This helps create a very communal feel as well as being able to accommodate solo diners or parties of 3 or 5 without the awkwardness of an empty place setting. Padella in Borough Market adopt a similar approach with the added option of customers being seated at the bar. They also have tables available downstairs which are more suitable for bigger parties, thereby offering the best of both worlds.
With the ever increasing number of customers who are dining alone it wouldn’t surprise me to see other eateries adopting a more flexible approach to seating. Either by increasing the amount of bar seating or by introducing communal tables.
From my own experiences this more casual style of seating arrangements, particularly for Padella, can also encourage a quicker turn round of covers, although the same isn’t true in Randall & Aubin, where I have never felt rushed – even when other customers are queuing outside.
Quick, quick, slow…
It is now generally accepted that we are spending less time, year-on-year, when it comes to eating our meals. It seems, most notably with Millennials, that we are increasingly becoming a nation of “snackers”. There are many reasons for this but at its basic level for some diners, and this is true whether you are by yourself or with other people, eating out is purely a functional experience. Something to be endured rather than enjoyed. In these instances it’s all about getting in, getting served, paying the bill and leaving.
In such cases, especially when thinking about solo diners, they are providing an outlet with the perfect customer. Limited dwell time and the opportunity to generate additional revenue from each table, thereby maximising profits.
However not everyone wants to be rushed when eating, even if you are on your own. The trick for the serving staff is to establish whether a diner is in ‘grab and go’ mode or would prefer to have a more leisurely meal. Once you know which mind-set they are in you can then tailor how you serve them. Whilst you might prefer a ‘grab and go’ customer, the longer they are at their table the more opportunity there might be to up-sell to them. Matching the pace of how you serve them to their requirements is also likely to increases the likelihood of them making repeat visits. There is nothing worse than feeling rushed, as your waiter brings you your bill before you have swallowed your last mouthful or equally as frustrating being left for what seems ages when you have somewhere else to be.
Establishing what your customers’ expectations are can be done by asking a few subtle questions such as “have you had a busy day?” or “any plans for later on”. Alternatively you can be more prescriptive “we have a big party in soon, would you like to order before them?” and so on.
Empathy not sympathy…
As we know people dine alone for many different reasons, some out of choice others through necessity. And for some people this experience in its self can be quite daunting. Therefore the last thing they need is to feel patronised. It is therefore important that every diner is treated with the same level of respect and professionalism no matter what their circumstances are.
It is also true that building a rapport with such customers can be very important and in some instances may be much appreciated especially when someone is not use to dining alone. As well as being good from a social perspective it is more likely to increase the chances of that individual returning time and time again.