St. Valentine’s Day is probably the busiest day of the entire year in the restaurant business. If you are not busy on this day, you definitely are doing something wrong. It is busier than New Year’s Eve, busier than Easter brunch, yes even busier than Mother’s Day.
Since we know that, and since you want to be as busy as possible, I propose that you not say yes to every party of two that calls for a reservation. I have worked in places where starting in November I instructed my staff not to say yes to any more parties of two for St. Valentine’s Day. As a consultant I have suggested it, too. Now this really only works if you take reservations. But, it’s okay! Our only true duty is to our business, and therefore, to our employees, making sure they have a job.
The biggest expense in a restaurant is an empty seat
The point is, we want to fill our restaurant to capacity. This is not achieved if we are filling our four-tops tables with parties of two. If the capacity of your place is eighty, and you are putting two-tops on all of your four-top tables, you are doing about fifty dinners per turn. That is about thirty less than you should be doing. If you get two full turns on a busy night like Valentine’s Day, (you probably are getting closer to three), that is sixty less dinners. Let’s say your check average is about forty dollars per customer. That is $2400 less money. That’s a lot of lettuce. You cannot afford to throw away $2400 ever–and with the extra turn, and guys wanting to show off to their dates by buying that expensive bottle of champagne, it will probably be closer to $4000! And, think about this: St. Valentine’s Day falls on a Friday this year. If you fill your restaurant with parties of two, you will probably end up doing less business than you would on a normal Friday!
It’s all in how you handle it
This is how I recommend you manage it: A customer calls to reserve a table for Valentine’s Day. You say, “Sure, let me run to my reservation book. How many are in your party?” If they say 2, you simply say, “Let me check. Gosh, I am sorry, we are booked already.” (With sincerity.) This, by the way is your chance to get them to come in on the 13th, or the 15th. Remind them that they will probably have a nicer time if they come in the day before, or the day after. That restaurants tend to be pretty insanely busy on the actual holiday. Not only will you be filling your place to capacity on the actual day, you will also be turning it into three days of extra business. This works if and only if your approach is nice. I will save for a future post the bad attitude trap that many cool, trendy restaurants fall into at the front door.
Now if they say four people, or better yet, six people, you say yes! It turns out that Valentine’s Day isn’t just for parties of two. Larger groups eat out on that night, too. The beautiful thing about this particular holiday is that the phone will keep on ringing. There are literally thousands who want to impress their significant others by taking them out. So, if it is just a couple of days away, and you have not yet filled up, then you can start saying yes to everyone who calls.
You have other options, too. You could do a prix fixe menu that is a bit more expensive, and will make up for some of those empty seats. Or, you could do communal seating. Putting two 2-tops on a four top. This is a tough one for Valentine’s Day, and only works if you are very upfront about it on the phone. But, let’s face it, romantic couples celebrating this holiday are not going to want to sit at a table with strangers. Which brings us back to my original proposal.
This is an absolutely fair practice. Don’t worry that you are not being fair to those customers who only eat out once a year. Work on being fair to your business and to your employees.