2010 November: Table Games

2010 November: Table GamesTables don’t just hold utensils, drinks and food. These important pieces of furniture can also set the right ambiance for your restaurant.

“The tables, along with all the furniture, are a piece of your décor package,” says Michelle Bushey, a partner and the creative director at Vision 360, a hospitality design firm in Dallas. “The tables bring continuity to the brand.”

It sounds simple enough, but there are many details to consider when you are choosing a tabletop. You have to choose not only whether to go with wood, plastic, metal, or a combination of these, but shapes and sizes are important too. You want to make sure you can fit enough customers during your lunch or dinner rush to keep waiting times to a minimum. At the same time, you need a minimum amount of space between tables in order to meet local ordinances about the number of people you may have at one time in the restaurant.

Most importantly, you want your eatery to look a certain way, and you have to stay within your food and fixtures (FF&E) budget. Michael Solomon, the northeast sales manager for the Web site division of College Point, New York-based Restaurant Depot, recommends 36 inches between tables, and 42 to 48 inches in the main aisle. That leaves enough room for staff and customers to walk, but there is another advantage to having some room between tables. “My biggest concern is flexibility,” he says. “You want to be able to slide tables together to accommodate parties of six or eight.”

He recommends buying tables that are the same width so that they can be pushed together. He doesn’t like round tables, especially drop leaf tables, because they take up too much room.

Michael Nolan, manager of franchise operations for Elkhorn, Nebraska-based Sam and Louie’s New York Pizzeria, says it’s important to choose the right tables to make the place look like a restaurant, not a mess hall. “We use a mixture of tables, booths and banquettes in our locations,” he says. “We also use a combination of square tables, rectangular tables and round tables.”

At Sam and Louie’s 19 locations, the tabletops are laminate covered plywood. “When picking a laminate, it is important to consider the pattern,” he says. “You don’t want something that is too busy. At the same time you typically want to stay away from dark colors and solid colors as they typically show scratches and fingerprints more prominently.”

Phil Hartman, owner of the New York City-based Two Boots Pizza, agrees that the right tables can set the tone for the restaurant. He wanted Two Boots’ ten restaurants to have an old-school vibe, so he chose a laminate called “Cracked Ice,” which he says looks very close to vintage 1950s Formica. “We edge it with ribbed metal trim,” he says. “We also like to intersperse traditional red check tablecloths, which soften the feel of the place.”

Hartman adds that Two Boots Pizza uses cotton tablecloths, “not the polyester ones that linen companies love to foist on us.”

Bushey says some restaurants don’t want to use linens because they are expensive. However, if you do cover your tables with tablecloths, you can get away with buying less pricey table tops that are made of particleboard or plywood covered with vinyl or plastic laminate. “If we have a client that is using tablecloths, we will spec something inexpensive,” Bushey says.

Another important factor is cleaning. “You want to look at it from an operational standpoint. Your staff is going to have to be trained so that they’re not cleaning granite with Windex,” she says.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the various materials. Plastic laminate is easy to clean and it’s among the least expensive tabletop materials. Plastic laminate is often referred to as Formica, but Formica is actually one brand of plastic laminate. There are other brands such as Wilson-Art. Plastic laminate comes in many colors and patterns, and then you can add a metal edge or wood edge.

Kurt Petersen, who owns the restaurant furniture supplier Petersen Furniture in suburban Chicago, says plastic laminate is popular because of the cost, but also because it comes in many patterns, and is durable. “If some kid wants to carve his initials in your table, they can do it in wood or steel, but plastic laminate will make that carving a lot of work,” he says. “It used to be plastic laminate was popular because it stood up against cigarettes.”

Vinyl is also inexpensive. Bushey says one popular choice now is a sort of hybrid of a wood edge with laminate inlay. “It can give you a nice wood feeling but it’s easier to clean, and it cuts down cost.”

Solid wood can be expensive, depending on the wood species and the thickness. “The only caveat with wood is someone has to take care of it,” Petersen says. “You have to keep it clean with mild soap and water and make sure it stays dry.”

Stainless steel, or stainless steel with wood cores, is easy to clean but can be scratched.

Then there is the square corner versus round corner decision. “The square and rectangular tables need to have rounded corners to help protect children’s foreheads,” Nolan says. “They’re still hard, but at least they aren’t sharp, too.”

Bushey says furniture could total 10 to 15 percent of your budget. Table tops can cost anywhere from less than $100 for a 36-inch by 36-inch square made of plastic laminate on particleboard, to about $400 for the same size table top made of plantation grown sustainable Brazilian oak.

The tops are sold separately from the bases. The bases are typically steel or cast iron, and the shapes vary. In general, your customers will likely not see the base, so appearance is less important than whether the base can hold whatever size table top you choose.

Finally, go ahead and make the pizzas as large as you want. “You don’t need larger tables,” Solomon says. “Use a stand.”

Nolan says Sam & Louie’s uses a cake stand. “Of course we call it a pizza stand,” he says. “The pizza is elevated above the table so you have room for your plates, drinks, shakers, etc., even if you have an 18-inch pizza, which most of ours are.” ?

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.