More restaurant concepts are pushing aside the two-tops and setting a communal table into their dining room floor plans.
Once found in only a handful of independent restaurants, shared eating spaces are popping up in both hip urban bistros and suburban chains, creating more welcoming environments that operators say help to build community, loyalty and sales — as long as they fit a concept’s image and don’t disrupt traffic flow or other diners.
“Communal tables deliver a more inviting, welcoming restaurant experience for two reasons,” said Judy Kadylak, marketing director for Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger’s Enterprises Inc. “First, they send a clear message to guests that large groups are welcome, which helps to build loyalty and drive sales. Second, they send the message that this is a welcoming place where neighbors can catch up or strangers can become friends.”
Bruegger’s has been adding communal tables in new construction and remodeled units since April 2010, said Kadylak, noting that the tables underscore Bruegger’s brand message that it is a neighborhood bakery.
Other chains also are bringing groups to the table, including Mooyah Burgers & Fries, which introduced communal tables at a new unit in Tyler, Texas, in February, and True Food Kitchen in Scottsdale, Ariz., which offers one or two such tables at its four upscale health-oriented casual-dining units.
Sitting down to the idea
Panera Bread installed its first communal tables about 10 years ago, said Scott Davis, chief concept officer for the St. Louis-based bakery-cafe chain.
“The idea came out of a trip we made to Paris in January 2001 with a small group of design folks,” he said. “We were working on the next generation of the prototype, which is what we now know as Panera. We wanted to get our heads around bread and bakery in a different culture from America.
“We spent the week walking through all the great bakeries and shops in Paris, and we kept bumping into these communal tables,” Davis said. “Our designers immediately fell in love with the idea, but I was a little skeptical. I come out of operations, and I said to myself, ‘I’m not sure Americans want to be sitting with someone else at their table during lunch.’”
But patrons have embraced the tables — if not quite on the European level, Davis said. Panera debuted the communal table element in the fall of 2002 at a prototype in Aurora, Ill., and it’s now in more than 1,300 of the chain’s 1,500 units.
Most people use the communal tables as gathering places for groups, Davis said, pointing to their use by those in scrapbooking clubs and those holding business or community meetings. For example, at the Panera in Davis’ hometown of Cicero, N.Y., one group meets every Friday.
“It’s a great place for an extended group to do work or just get together and chat,” he said. “It has taken on its own life, maybe a little bit different from the European experience but certainly a core element of Panera.”
Alexis Barnett, marketing director for Dallas-based Mooyah, said that larger groups can pose a challenge when they pull smaller tables together, sometimes blocking walkways and disrupting other diners.
“Communal tables offer a specific place for these groups to sit every time,” Barnett explained. “The opportunities within the community are numerous — think about sports teams, school groups, book clubs and Boy Scout troops, just to name a few. Mooyah is perfect for group occasions and dining out with friends and family. We also feel like we are breaking through with marketing messages like ‘Let’s Meat at Mooyah!’”
The first communal tables debuted this year, and Barnett said Mooyah plans to continue including them in future units.
“Mooyah’s brand positioning supports being anchored in local ownership, the use of local ingredients, local support, down-to-earth values and truly being an active difference maker in the community,” she said. “We strive to be an icon in the neighborhood — the place to gather with friends or family, share a great meal and maybe celebrate a moment like a team win. Communal tables send the right message to our guests that we are a place to hang out and enjoy a great burger.”
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Chris Tripoli of A’la Carte Foodservice Consulting Group in Houston said he is seeing more communal tables.
“I refer to them as the ‘today’s chef table,’” he said, adding that they are less formal and more fun. But he warned that communal tables need to fit into the casualness of the overall concept, which is why bakery-cafes are particularly suited for the larger tables.
Since April 2010, Bruegger’s has “remodeled nearly 75 bakeries around the country and installed the communal tables in every bakery that had the available space,” Kadylak said. “We will continue to add the tables when bakeries are being refreshed, if the space allows.”
Consumer reaction has been positive, Kadylak added.
“Overall, our guests appreciate the community table — especially those patrons that like a little extra space, enjoy gathering with their neighbors or enjoy meeting new neighbors,” she said.
“Some guests prefer sitting alone or with their companions, so the community table is sometimes used by only one or two guests, which can be a little problematic when the bakery is very busy,” she noted. “Additionally, we do have some bakeries where the space just doesn’t allow for the tables.”
Given his 10 years’ experience working with communal tables, Davis of Panera suggested several questions a concept should consider before installing them:
Does it work with the seating configuration? “You have to consider how it fits into the space,” Davis said. “The good news for us was that it was designed as part of the ground-up construction. If you are retrofitting one into a space, you have to consider how the traffic flow around it works. Because it is so big, it can easily disrupt your dining room if you’re not careful.”
Will it affect other diners? Larger tables create bigger noise, Davis said. “You’ve got six, eight or 10 people together all talking, that can create its own set of noise that could be disruptive to people on the periphery,” he said. “It could be a big negative to the people in booths next to it if there’s a lot of commotion going on. You have to be thoughtful about how the space is set up and positioned.”
What’s the proper height of the table? For Panera, it’s regular table height. “At one time we had higher-topped tables, at stool height, that could fit six people, but we tended to find the shorter, more standard table height works better,” Davis said. “It feels more comfortable than bar-height seating.”
How is the area lighted? “We put specific lighting in for that table,” Davis said. “I’ve seen retrofit tables where lighting wasn’t a match for it.” Experts warn against accidently leaving the big table in a black hole of light.
Will it fit into the store’s demographic patterns? “Our larger footprint, which can handle a large lunch volume, can afford a larger space dedicated to a larger table,” Davis said. “If it became 50 percent of our dining room, it wouldn’t work so well.” Panera units typically have 4,200 square feet and 120 seats, with communal tables usually seating eight to 10, Davis said.
Communal tables have expanded Panera’s customer market, Davis said.
“It’s been satisfying seeing how new groups of folks find ways to use Panera because of the tables being there, from people holding meetings to families meeting there,” Davis said. “They may view Panera differently than they have seen it in the past. That’s been great for us — giving customers new ways to use Panera in their lives.”
Davis admitted that the larger tables have overcome his earlier skepticism.
“For me, it was a great way to discover a new way to do something different,” he said. “Sometimes your first reaction is not the right reaction. We took a step out on the plank and made it work.”