Simple solutions prove the way to a diner’s heart is through his phone, then his stomach.

Diners are increasingly valuing convenience, whether it’s paying through a mobile device, booking a private event online, or getting an exact estimate on table wait times. For operators, providing convenience isn’t always easy, but companies have sought to provide solutions in nearly all operational aspects—from table management to guest recognition—so full-service restaurants can create better relationships with diners.

Growth Through Private Events 

One of the rooms now used for private dining for Frontera Restaurants used to be Chef Rick Bayless’ test kitchen, before he began to wonder if customers might be interested in eating there. Customers were interested, and the room is consistently booked as a space for guests to enjoy tasting menus from Topolobampo and hand-shaken margaritas as they enter the room.

“Upon arrival, guests walk into what is literally a kitchen with a table, and five-courses are made right in front of the guests. A chef from Topolobampo talks about each course and the guests can do wine pairings,” says Dana Armon, director of private events for Frontera restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Leña Brava, and Cruz Blanca. “They are surrounded by all these cookbooks from all over the country and all over the world, with one whole wall of old Mexican cookbooks.”

Behind the management of Frontera’s private events is Gather, a tool Armon uses to facilitate communication between guests and the restaurant staff while streamlining the entire process. “Somebody will send me an inquiry and we create a lead in Gather; from that lead, we send information about the room: pictures, menus, everything’s all right there,” Armon says. “The guest is then archived, so when they return you can find them right away, go through the booking process, send them the contract out of Gather, send them the credit card form, put a hold on it, and then everything goes to Gather: The initial proposal, the approved proposal, everything like that.”

Gather, which is used by more than 2,000 restaurants across the U.S., says that it has increased private-events booking by an average of 25 percent across its users. And for restaurant groups like Frontera, private events can make a significant contribution to overall revenues. “Events help with the food costs; they help with labor, so we can move people from department to department,” Armon says. “Chefs look at Gather and they can know who to schedule and when and how the week looks ahead of time. They use it for their performance report in advance of each day, so they get an update from Gather, and they also get a weekly one so they know exactly how to staff for it.”

The online platform also works through mobile devices, a feature ideal for busy kitchen staff. “Especially with chefs, they don’t have time to be sitting on their computer in the restaurant,” says Kelsea Albrecht, director of sales and catering for Mina Group. “The phone app makes it super helpful because everyone can check their phone and get updated on what their event is for that day versus hopping on a computer to check that out.”

Albrecht says that Mina Group uses Gather for about five of its San Francisco restaurants, as well as locations in Hawaii and Boston. “We have a pretty strong private-dining program, and luckily with Gather it makes everything streamlined for us because it’s done online. It’s much easier because no guest wants to deal with sending paperwork back and forth,” Albrecht says. “Being able to manage everything digitally and having everything in one guest calendar is the main benefit we get out of it, versus the old way in [Microsoft] Excel.”

Albrecht says Gather serves as the main communication tool between the guests and the restaurant teams, and the layout and event details make sure the guests experience no surprises on the day of their private event. “This past year, we probably did over 600 events, which is definitely a good amount, and Gather helps us with communication because we can’t all be in the restaurant at one time,” Albrecht says. “Everything is live in Gather so it’s nice to be able to send this link off to the guest and they can check on their events.”

For upscale steakhouses The Capital Grille, Gather has enabled the company to reduce the length of its sales cycle by allowing sales leaders to quickly respond to inquiries and offer customized event proposals. “The Capital Grille strives to develop superior guest relationships and create exceptional dining experiences by taking a customized approach to both staffing and sourcing that focuses on one meal and one event at a time,” says Capital Grille president John Martin. 

Speeding up Payments

Imagine you’re a guest at a busy bar, standing behind other customers for 15 minutes trying to hail a bartender just to close a check. That scenario inspired the creation of Rooam, which allows customers to close and pay a bar tab all from a mobile device.

“We integrate with the existing [pos] systems and from there we send an API signal through our back end to their specific system to open a tab. And the tab is opened just like a normal tab that would be created in person at a location,” says Rooam co-founder and CEO Junaid Shams. “The main benefit comes from how Rooam removes the paper process. From a consumer side, it’s very efficient, but more importantly it’s efficient from the bar side. From the moment a customer asks to close their tab you have to turn around, find their name and credit card, find their name in the POS system, close the receipt, print the receipt, put it in that small holder, and give it away. That’s a several-minute process that we’re completely eliminating, and those are the several minutes per customer that they now could be serving other customers.”

Shams says when the platform first started, he expected to gain traction from high-traffic bars, but, surprisingly, large restaurant groups such as José Andrés’ Think Food Group and Neighborhood Restaurant Group implemented the platform at their restaurants. Erik Bergman, director of operations for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, says Rooam’s remote checkout feature and amplified marketing have brought more guests through the door and resulted in a greater return on investment. 

Across its user base, Shams says, clients say the biggest benefit is an increase in sales and revenue. “The biggest game changer for us has also been an increase in sales,” Shams says. “[Restaurants] have also seen an increase in tips. … We default at 20 percent. I think there’s so much we can do with the data we’re getting.”

Improving Guest Management 

At the Painted Pony restaurant in Bethlehem, Connecticut, suggesting a beverage for a table is a matter of looking at an online system. Using CAKE’s Guest Manager platform, the restaurant is able to build more personal relationships with customers because the system keeps track of customer seating requests, what they have ordered in the past, and if they are repeat or new diners, says Painted Pony owner Jeannie McColgan.

“Having this information on hand can help us make recommendations on what they may want to order. For instance, the server can recommend a wine for the table based off of what the customer has ordered in the past,” McColgan says. “We have many regular customers who come [here], so CAKE is incredibly helpful for us to keep track of what they like and where they like to sit in our large, three-room restaurant.”

The platform is also able to schedule parties of all sizes and sends a text message to customers when their table is available. “It’s a great communication tool because we’re able to message our customers directly through the system when they make a reservation and let them know that we look forward to seeing them, and they can respond to thank us,” McColgan says. 

With CAKE, Painted Pony’s front-of-house staff can estimate the most accurate wait times for customers, which McColgan says leads to a higher retention of guests. “CAKE has saved me a lot in operational costs because its analytics of payroll and labor have helped me to staff the restaurant efficiently. I can see what days and times are the busiest so I have adequate staff, and can arrange the reservations in the Guest Manager to maximize efficiency in table turns, service, and seating layout,” she says. “We are also able to look back over the course of a year, see which days are busiest, and staff accordingly.”

CAKE CEO Mani Kulasooriya says focusing on the interaction between restaurant operators and their customers has been a driving force of the platform’s development and design philosophy. The company also offers a POS system on its platform that integrates with Guest Manager. “If you take that POS and enhance it with Guest Manager, you now combine guest profiles—whether it’s a waitlist management, simple table management, or reservations— directly with your POS information,” Kulasooriya says. “This allows you to really understand the throughput of your waitstaff from a service standpoint and from a consumer standpoint, like the time it takes for a person entering the restaurant to actually get a table. All of that helps operators take cost savings and revenue opportunities to a whole new level.”

For restaurant waitlist app Waitlist Me, adding a table management aspect was all about a simple design. 

“When we look at how people used floor plans, they had to look all over to find the information needed. It was organized by space, not necessarily how long someone has been at the table or what table you want to choose,” says Waitlist Me CEO Brian Hutchins. “We think people are getting by with this because the problems with floor plans are not immediately apparent. Maybe things aren’t going as smoothly, or one waitress gets less customers than the other, or they get busier at certain times, so it’s not immediately linkable that all these bad decisions on the floor plan are translating to lower sales.”

Avoiding a complicated spatial floor plan interface, the app organizes table sections as lines that can be read from left to right and top to bottom. It also lists how long the tables have been occupied. Open tables for each section stand out in green, and tables that have been occupied the longest show next in the row.

Waitlist Me has also provided benefits for operators through its main waitlist management component, which notifies customers through text messages that their table is available and provides wait estimates.

“We went from using handheld pagers to the Waitlist Me app over a year ago. The pagers were antiquated and costly to replace or repair, so this option made financial sense, in addition to being more operationally efficient with better table management and faster seating,” says Tim Yoder, director of technology at South Bend, Indiana–based Hacienda Mexican Restaurants. “I think by using this technology, the guest has the perception that this technology will result in a quicker seat time for them because they perceive the human element is removed from the equation.”

With POS system Toast, tapas restaurant Cava Mezze can capture customers’ contact information and order history through the integrated customer relationship management (crm) system.

“We can use the customer report to see the customers who have visited Cava Mezze the most or spent the most amount of money in any timeframe,” says Cava Mezze founder Andreas Xenohristos. “By selecting an individual customer, we can view detailed information about the guest such as their average check, days since last visit, and most frequently ordered items.”

Xenohristos says the cloud-based platform also allows him to maintain consistency across the restaurant’s five locations in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., through tracking inventory, pricing, labor, and menu performance.“Before using Toast, I had to cross state lines to change the menus and export inventory reporting at each location,” Xenohristos says. “The full-service tapas environment is complex and requires a lot more functionality. Servers need to be able to make modifications to standard items, and chefs need to account for substitutions guests have requested.” 

Feature, Technology