Sit-Down Dining Challenges Revealed by Mother’s Day Visit

May 15, 2024 | Finconomics 101, No Bull Economics

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Restaurant traffic has been challenged since covid, with the most current explanation attributed to elevated menu prices & a punk economy. Further, traffic declines have been most notable at sit-down restaurants which offer a more expensive, discretionary experience relative to fast food. A Mother’s Day trip to an independent sit-down restaurant provided us with an eye-opening 360-degree view of the sector’s problems.  

Details of Mother’s Day “Due Diligence” Restaurant Visit

  • Early in the week we made an online reservation for six at 6:30 PM on Mother’s Day Sunday in South Charlotte at a favorite high-end Asian restaurant. 
  • Our party, with a mom in tow, arrived 5 minutes before our reservation to a crowded lobby. After a few choice cusses, our hostess found the correct tablet to check our reservations (after casting off the tablet used to process off-premise orders with great fanfare).
  • To our shock, we were seated right away & found that the restaurant was mostly empty with many available tables for our hostess to choose from. What about all those people in the lobby?
  • Soon after our seating, our waitress greeted us & gave us a hard sell to upgrade our app order. After starting off on the wrong foot, we were happy to give her the benefit of the doubt – maybe she had strong convictions about her recommendation to upgrade our app order.
  • She eventually brought our waters which were short 1 count. After we sorted that out with her, we noticed that we were also short 1 place setting which we fixed ourselves by pinching one from the empty table next to us.
  • At this point we settled in for what turned out to be a very long stay. After some time, she came to top off our waters & we asked if we could order dinner (it was a while before she returned with her tablet to take our order).  
  • I ordered my favorite Coconut Chicken Soup as an entrée & found myself in a fight to keep her from bringing it as another app for the table. After further aggressive questioning about whether this actually would be my entrée, she graciously accepted that this was all I wanted for dinner & took the rest of the orders.
  • 30 minutes passed before she came around to top off our waters at which time she made some comments about how the kitchen was busy with to-go & DoorDash orders, sorry for the wait…
  • 10 minutes later she passed by to say our food would be ready soon.
  • 10 minutes later we went up front to complain & found our waitress pleading with the cooks to hurry with our orders. Finally, the orders came to the table along with a profusion of apologies & an offer for 2 free desserts.
  • The food was good & it was time for the check. Our waitress, who was now much more personable, explained that she added a 20% gratuity to the check because that was mandatory for parties of 6 or more. No previous warning about this in writing or verbally. She was just making it easier to pay the $175 tab.
  • After scanning the credit card, she handed over the tablet for a signature (which first prompted for another tip!).       

Lessons From Our Due Diligence Visit

  • There were 3 primary problems with the visit: 1) the restaurant’s emphasis on to-go orders at the expense of dine-in; 2) an inability for the waitress to earn enough money to live in an expensive metro; and 3) an exorbitant check.
  1. Why does the restaurant bother with sit-down? To-go is clearly a priority for both the operator & its customers who appreciate: the no-tip requirement; faster service speed; and an ability to bypass rude wait staff. This operator could seek to find a cheaper lease for a smaller footprint store & eliminate or minimize sit-down. We will only order to-go at this restaurant going forward. 
  2. Recognize that wait staff cannot earn enough on tips to live in an expensive metro area. Maybe only very expensive fine dining can offer sit-down in expensive metros, while mid-scale sit-downs may only work in lower-cost metros.
  3. Inflated menu pricing is aggravated by a 20% tip requirement. Wait staff is incentivized to push the bill higher & guests increasingly feel that they are being forced to absorb too high a share of the operator’s inflated labor costs. Is there a more cost-effective model for sit-down? Maybe let customers order from their phone or at the counter & have a busser deliver the food for a 10% tip? In any case, sit-down traffic would undoubtedly benefit from lower wait staff costs.        

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