Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to run a successful Indian restaurant (Part Two: Seating and Staff)

This is the second part in a series on how to run a successful Indian restaurant. The three parts address:

  1. Look and feel: the ambience of a restaurant
  2. Seating and staff: providing great service
  3. Website: most of your customers will find you online

These are written from the perspective of the consumer: what works and what does not. Nothing here is Earth-shattering or difficult to implement, but having seen many restaurants that do it incorrectly, I thought a set of tips to restaurant owners might help.

Rule #1. Have a fixed waiting list.
Many Indian restaurants get this wrong, and the only successful ones are the kind that get this right, so listen up. In this day and age, it is inexcusable to be clueless about a waiting list. Yet, many restaurants have no organisation skills. The result is a messy waiting area, and every customer is told to wait 20-25 minutes. The result is queue-cutting and frustration for well-behaved customers, and early seating for aggressive, loud customers.

The easiest way to get organised is to maintain a clean sheet of paper on which you write down the name of the person, how many seats he wants, and his cell phone number. Most people carry a mobile phone. Tell the person you will call them when you have a table ready. Allow them to walk about and do other things, especially if the wait will be longer than fifteen minutes. This is especially true if you are in a mall where your customers can get something done while waiting. When you have a free table, the previous customers have left and you are turning it around (changing the tablecloth, clearing the dishes), call the person and let them know their table is ready, and will be held for ten minutes. That's all it takes, and your customers will love you for it.

It is easy to roughly estimate the time any customer will wait. First, you measure the number of customers who leave during any fifteen minutes. Say ten people leave every fifteen minutes. That's a churn of roughly 40 people an hour. If there are eight people in line ahead of the current customer, his wait time will be 8 / 40 hours, or roughly 12 minutes. If you measure this on a few weekdays and weekends, you will find that the churn is roughly constant for a restaurant. The churn varies greatly by time of day, if you get more customers at 12:30 than at 11:30, adjust your estimates. Customers love realistic estimates. The advantage of this method is once you get good at estimates, you don't even need to call people up: they'll know your estimates are good, and they'll show up right on time. Plus, rather than waiting around, they'll walk about, building a healthy appetite.

Rule #2: Comfortable seating
This should be obvious, but many places go the cheap route. I've been to restaurants where a table or two have cheap plastic chairs that cost $15 at Walmart. Avoid the urge to go cheap. Your customers will be sitting there for about 45 minutes, and if they aren't comfortable, they won't enjoy the food, and they won't return. Get comfortable chairs, and comfortable tables. Get a few of your friends, covering a variety of body shapes and sizes, and have them sit on the chairs for about an hour, while they read a book. Stand back to see their reaction, and you'll immediately notice if something is wrong with your seating arrangement. Once you are reasonably confident, try the setup yourself for an hour. You'll notice if the table is too close to the chairs, if your knee jams into the table.

Testing your own chairs routinely is also a great idea. Chairs shake at the joints, the cushions come loose, and generally need maintenance. My favourite restaurant proudly said in its menu, "the owners of this establishment eat here". In addition to inspiring confidence about the food, it also said volumes about their seating. Good restaurants are as comfortable as your dining room.

Rule #3: Don't save good tables for later
Many restaurants seat early customers on crappy tables: near the bathroom, near the kitchen door. The intention is to insure against large crowds later, but the effect is to devalue the customer. If a customer is sitting on a crappy table while the entire restaurant is empty, he'll feel like a chump. Value every customer. Give them the best service you can offer. If all tables are taken, and the only table is the crappy table, apologise for it, and allow the customer to wait. Plus, if the table is so crappy, you probably need to eliminate it.

Rule #4: Uniforms are good
Uniforms make it easy to tell who works at a restaurant, and who is a customer. In addition to making a place look organised, clean uniforms inspire confidence. You don't need to spend much money: clean white shirts and clean black pants work perfectly. Keep many spares in the back, so waiters can survive tables with messy kids. If you can spend money, thick cotton uniforms also protect against hot spills, make average-looking waiters look handsome/beautiful, and many online websites give a great deal for bulk purchases. Everyone, including the cashier, should wear identical uniforms.