Waiting for a Profit

Photos by Rick Daugherty & Josh Keown

Photos by Rick Daugherty & Josh Keown

On weekdays, the lunch crowd from the local police academy and nearby industrial park pack out Lido’s in Meriden, Connecticut. And on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s all about serving it up to the kids — soccer teams and Brownie troops alike. Although the folks at Lido’s pride themselves in turning the tables quickly, sometimes a waiting time just can’t be helped.

That’s why the restaurant recently re-designed its waiting area, says manager Linda Collins. Eight months ago, Lido’s installed red-striped awnings on the walls inside the front door. The awnings, which match those on the outside, hang over a wrap-around booth seating up to 15 people. A table in the middle provides space for drinks or crayon coloring. Plaques and photos from fundraisers line the entryway walls, a testament to the restaurant’s commitment to service.

“We’re good at helping with the community and also with relief in Haiti,” Collins says. “Our waiting area is designed to instill a sense of belonging. It’s a busy place. We’ve been here in this location 16 years, and the owners have been in business for 30, so we have a lot of regulars. We now serve kids who are grown up and bring their own kids.”

Lido’s has hit on a two-pronged strategy to keep customers happy while they wait: “Engage and Promote.” Is your entryway inviting enough that people are willing to hang out there, even if it means waiting up to an hour for a table?

“You want to engage people and use this as an opportunity to promote what you are,” says Chris Tripoli, president of A’la Carte Consulting Group, a restaurant consulting firm in Houston, Texas.

“The thing we preach is that being busy is a good thing. It’s not an excuse for something to go wrong. You don’t want to be so busy that the customers leave and then say: ‘I guess that happens! They left!’ Busy isn’t an excuse. It’s a reason for being in business. You have to figure out, ‘How can we profit from the reason?’ ” Tripoli says.

Here are some steps to consider:

Step One: engage. In the past, Tripoli says, “lobbies were afterthoughts.” Restaurant owners didn’t realize the value of capitalizing on the wait time.

“The last thing you want is for the customer to come in and think, ‘I missed out. I feel like the left over. I have to stand in this waiting room. I have to sit on this little bench,’ ” he says.

To make the customers feel included in the dining room action, streamline the surroundings. “So if you have a particular theme, design, color, background, music, style of seating, make sure it’s carried out into the waiting area. The lighting is the same. If you have a speaker in the ceiling with background music, you include it in the lobby,” Tripoli says.

Set the expectation with decor, says Liz Toombs, an interior decorator and owner of Polka Dots and Rosebuds Interiors in Lexington, Kentucky. Among others are two popular themes for pizzerias, she says: kitschy (black-and-white tile floors, bold red and vibrant greens) or “Old Tuscan” (tin tiles on ceilings, plastered walls, lower lighting and golden warm colors). You want to bring that theme all the way to the front door, she says.

“One thing that works well is wall art, because the things you put on the walls and the lighting when a customer first comes in creates ambience in the restaurant. The first thing people will see are the colors, the art, the lights — all of that fits into what you’re going for in the rest of the restaurant,” Toombs says.

Textiles in the waiting area also play a role in engaging the customer at first entrance, she says. For example, in a Tuscan-feel environment, you might have iron chairs, but add “a certain amount of velvet or suede or faux material. That’s good for making a place warm and luxurious,” she says.

For a family-centered restaurant, keep on hand kid-friendly items, Toombs says, such as a flat-screened TV with age-appropriate shows “to keep the kids occupied so they’re not nagging to get out the door. Flat screens don’t take up a lot of space. You might even have little tables where kids can do coloring activities. It makes them like going to your restaurant and makes it a novelty.”

Also, make “greeting” a part of the hostess’s job description, Tripoli says. Just like the people at Lido’s know their customers’ names, the hostess should be walking through the area, calling people by name, providing menus in advance and telling them about specials. “It helps you save time, because they know what they want when they sit down, and it can increase the per-person check average.”

Photos by Rick Daugherty & Josh Keown

Step Two: promote. This is the easy part, but it’ll take a little effort on your part, Tripoli says. Use the waiting time to promote who you are. This could be as simple as displaying the plaques of community service on the wall, like Lido’s does, or by circulating food samples to whet the appetites.

“This takes the feeling of being ‘a leftover’ to being someone special: ‘I’m getting something for nothing,’ ” Tripoli says. “If you have a dessert promo going, what a nice opportunity during the one-hour waiting list to give them a taste of a special strawberry cheesecake. You say, ‘We don’t want to ruin your appetite, but here’s a sample. Save room for this! It’s on special!’ They feel important, because they got something for nothing, and you stand a chance of selling more dessert.”

If you have a bar, make sure that those who wait for a table there get the same freebies you’re offering in the lobby, Tripoli says. “You don’t want them thinking, ‘You sent me there so that I would spend more money, and the other people in the waiting area are getting free stuff.’ If the bar is part of the waiting area, then the bartenders have the same promotional program.”

Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners.