Despite evidence from a recent consumer study suggesting that no-reservations policies result in lost traffic, many restaurant operators with such policies said they see no need to change their ways.
The study, conducted by Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research in Ithaca, N.Y., found that the majority of survey-takers said they prefer restaurants that respect their time limitations by taking reservations or at least offering call-ahead seating.
When it comes to business dining, 55.5 percent of the respondents said that they would always pick a restaurant that takes reservations. Only 2.6 percent reported that they’d select a restaurant with first-come, first-serve wait lists and only 5.6 percent indicated they would choose an establishment with a call-ahead seating policy. Fifty-seven percent said they would never pick a restaurant for business purposes if it did not accept reservations.
Although the study’s authors acknowledged that many operators long have shunned reservations because of no-shows, late-shows and short-shows—parties who arrive with fewer guests than expected—they nonetheless recommended that restaurants at least consider taking call-ahead seating.
“I think if a restaurant is in a superhigh-demand situation, it can get away without reservations,” said Sheryl E. Kimes, a professor of hospitality facilities and operations who specializes in revenue management and one of the two principal authors of the Cornell report. “But when it gets right down to it, customers do not like to wait. We looked at the influence of age on this preference, and there was no impact.
“We’re not saying that all restaurants should take all reservations, but they should definitely consider taking them or at least have call-ahead seating.”
The researchers conducted the study by asking nine questions about reservations, call-ahead seating and wait list polices to 131 people interviewed at random in the lobby of the Cornell Statler Hotel in Ithaca, N.Y., the home campus of the Ivy League school.
The survey respondents’ frequency of monthly restaurant visits to full-service establishments ranged from never, 4.7 percent, to as much as four times a month, 42 percent. Respondents ranged in age from 22 to more than 55.
But casual-dining chain executives and independent restaurateurs whose brands avoid reservations and who either read the study or were familiar with its thesis said they saw no reason to change their ways.
Guy Stanke, vice president of Nashville, Tenn.-based O’Charley’s, whose 240 units use wait lists, called the study informative and noted that he and his team discussed it.
But while he said that he could never see O’Charley’s accepting reservations, he conceded that the chain could test call-ahead seating in some markets as part of its rebranding to attract more affluent customers.
As it relates to the possibility that O’Charley’s may be losing business diners, Stanke said it probably doesn’t matter.
“I’m sure we are doing quite well with business diners at lunch,” he said. “But when you are only talking a $14 to $16 check average for lunch and maybe $18 to $20 for dinner, does it really make sense to hold a reserved table?”
Others shared that sentiment.
“I don’t see an urgency to change what we do,” said Glenn Drasher, vice president of marketing for Famous Dave’s of America , the 145-unit barbecue chain based in Minnetonka, Minn., that also uses first-come, first-served wait lists.
Drasher believes that the study speaks more to the time impoverishment of restaurant-goers than being a plea for the widespread adoption of reservations. “We’re always working to improve guest satisfaction, and the subject matter in this report reinforced our opinion that guests are short on time and anything you can do to speed up the time they get their table improves their perception of your concept,” he said.
Larry Bill, director of community affairs and public relations for Claim Jumper—whose units range between 350 to 400 seats—noted that while average unit volumes did not go up, customer satisfaction has never been higher.
“Taking reservations was a lot easier than we thought it would be,” he said. “It took a little education on the part of the staff and some table management software upgrades, but our customer satisfaction levels are way up, especially among parents with young kids because it just makes it more convenient for them.
“Families with older kids who have soccer practice or activities after school or are waiting on Mom and Dad to get off work love the convenience of meeting at one time at the restaurant, knowing they will get a seat at the time they want it.”
John Grady, president of Ninety-Nine, a Woburn, Mass.-based American-theme concept owned by O’Charley’s Inc. , said his chain uses call-ahead seating to great consumer satisfaction and sees no reason to change.
He said the ability to stop by the restaurants to sign the wait list or call ahead gives consumers the freedom to run errands, see a movie and accomplish other tasks knowing their table will be ready.
Jeanne Seet, manager of New York’s sizzling Spotted Pig  in Greenwich Village , where wait times at the first-come, first-seated hot spot can be longer than an hour after 8 p.m., noted that long wait times happen at restaurants that take reservations, too.
“So here we are, just as busy and just as hot,” she said. “But if you are willing to wait, you can dine here tonight. So what’s better? Chez Panisse a month from now or Spotted Pig tonight?”
Kimes and her co-author, Jochen Wirtz, wrote in the report that customer satisfaction sinks and guest expectations from advertisements or word-of-mouth praise plummets in situations where there is a lack of control over the wait time for a table.
Ironically, Kimes and Wirtz wrote, in reality consumers are really not waiting for a table as long as they think they are. But the consumer perception is that wait times are too long, so they become a source of deep frustration, they said.
Kimes said whether restaurants without reservations policies employ call-ahead seating or use first-come, first-serve table assignments with wait lists or both, consumers detest their inability to control the wait time.
The study also examined the current seating policies of 63 fullservice national and regional chains. Of those, about 20—primarily the tony steakhouses and a few Italian dinnerhouse concepts —took reservations, the survey found.
Outside of the upscale eateries that took reservations, most only did so for large parties. However, P.F. Chang’s , Houston’s  and Seasons 52 —like Claim Jumper —have begun accepting reservations in response to consumer demand.
The remaining 40-odd brands either accepted call-ahead seating or used first-come, first-served wait lists.
Under a subhead of the study, “Findings: We Hate to Wait,” 16.7 percent of the respondents said they would always select a restaurant that takes reservations for a social occasion. But 20.8 percent say they would never use a restaurant that uses wait lists for a social dinner.
“Perceived control is a key to customer satisfaction in the context of this study,” Kimes and Wirtz wrote. “We propose that customers have more control when their restaurant choice accepts a reservation than when it uses call-ahead seating or wait-list seating.”