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How to plan for communal tables

Considerations, tips and best practices from restaurants with experience

Communal-style fixtures are increasingly getting a seat at the table in restaurant design.

These “communal,” “community” or “gathering” tables generally can seat eight to 16 people and have grown more widespread, from hip urban bistros and gastropubs to more suburban chain operations.

Burlington, Vt.-based Bruegger’s Bagels has been adding the tables in new construction and remodeled units since April 2010. Mooyah Burgers & Fries introduced them at new unit in Tyler, Texas, in February. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based True Food Kitchen has one and sometimes two in its four upscale health-oriented casual-dining units.

IN-DEPTH: For a closer look at these communal table implementations, see the May 28 issue of Nation's Restaurant News. Subscribe here.

Chris Dahlander, owner of Snappy Salads in Dallas, has outfitted two of his three Dallas-area locations with all “gathering table” seating. The third is in a mall with food-court seating.

The style of seating has built up camaraderie among guests as regulars start to recognize familiar faces, according to Dahlander. He said he also gooses the interactions by putting only two salt and pepper grinders on each of the tables, which seat 16.

“This promotes community by forcing the diners to ask for the salt and pepper from their fellow diners — just like they would at home,” he said, adding, “My only advice is to make sure that your restaurant can tolerate longer visits from groups that sit at these tables. They purposely promote community, and that community takes more time to dine.”

Panera Bread chief concept officer Scott Davis also offered his advice to those considering adding one or more communal tables to their restaurants.

Read Davis' 5 communal table considerations

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St. Louis-based Panera Bread has been using communal tables for about 10 years, during which the company has gathered some best practices and considerations:

The table(s) must work with the construction of the dining space.

“You have to consider how it fits into the space,” Panera's Davis said. “The good news for us was that [our communal table layout] 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.”

Consider how the table(s) will 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,” Davis 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.”

Be sure to determine the proper height of the table(s).

For Panera, it’s regular table height. “At one time we had higher-topped tells, 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 that bar-height seating.”

Plan for proper lighting.

“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.

Consider whether it will fit into the store’s demographic patterns.

“Our larger footprint, which can handle 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.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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