Having an entryway full of guests waiting for a table is a mixed bag. While it’s a sign the restaurant is popular, it also means cramped quarters, impatient people asking where they are on the wait list, and hosts or hostesses seeking out customers when a table opens.
Allowing consumers to phone in for a spot on the wait list helps to a certain degree, but it still doesn’t let them know their precise spots on the list at any particular time.
Some operators have found a solution in mobile phone applications and wait management systems that make waiting for a table a lot easier for both customers and restaurant staff.
First Watch created its wait-list system in conjunction with technology company Nowait, while Outback developed its own as part of a more extensive application that also allows users to pay from their phones, choose their food in advance, and to get coupons.
The apps show guests how long the wait is at a restaurant, allow them to put their names on the wait list, and track their place in line, all without stepping foot in the restaurant.
In both cases, systems were the result of talking to its guests.
“It came out of the consumer research we did,” says Chris Tomasso, president of Bradenton, Florida-based First Watch, which completed rolling out its system chain-wide last year. “You’re always figuring out ways to improve.”
Similarly, Outback included the wait-list capability in part because “customers really wanted to know how long it would be before they were seated,” notes Desmond Edwards, vice president of global innovation for the 775-unit chain.
First Watch’s mobile app gives users the ability to compare wait times at First Watch restaurants within a 30-mile radius. Once on the real-time seating list, they can see their place in line and show up when their table is almost ready.
The breakfast-and-lunch company began talking to Nowait in 2012 and started testing the system two years later. “We asked for some things up front that we wanted with our app, and they were able to provide that,” Tomasso says. “We continue to work with them.”
Ware Sykes, chief executive of Nowait, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, notes that Tomasso was among the early adopters of the tech company’s product. “He saw what we were trying to accomplish,” the CEO says, “and we worked closely with him.”
Early on, Nowait decided it was best to collaborate with its clients to fit a restaurant’s needs, rather than the other way around. “We tailor the product to the restaurant’s work flows, floor maps, and customer needs,” he notes.
When First Watch began testing the app and wait management system, one of the chain’s regional managers was so impressed with the technology that he stated “he would pay for it himself” to get it in his area, Tomasso recalls.
The result of the national rollout has been that First Watch units are unclogging entryways, making customers happy, and turning tables faster, the company’s president states. Soon, the company will roll out the app at its sister chain, Egg & I.
Outback introduced its multifunctional mobile application in March. Although the wait list capability was built into it’s website, the new app “allows us to take that to the next level,” as customers rely increasingly on their smartphones, Edwards says.
After the app was created in-house, it was tested internally before being tried out in the Tampa Bay area for five months. “We knew how it was performing early on,” Edwards says, “but wanted to make sure no late-breaking bugs came up” before going national.
So far, the results have been positive. “Our customers love the simplicity,” he states. “They are saying ‘Thank you,’ for saving them time and making dining with us easier.”
By Barney Wolf