Thursday, August 11, 2011

Your Table is Ready

Forgive me if this is old news but I had a terrific first time experience at a local restaurant last Saturday night. After seeing Cowboys and Aliens, a most entertaining movie by the way, we strolled over to a nearby restaurant to have dinner. At the hostess station I requested a table for two. It is a popular place and it was a Saturday night, so no surprise when we were advised there would be a wait. When asked for my name to be added to her queue, I gave her "Joe P" my usual abbreviated moniker. It allows the staff to avoid the embarrassment of trying to spell my last name or pronounce it when they are ready to call out for me.

But this time I was also asked for my cell phone number. If you read my columns, you know I use Google Voice and so I see no risk or danger in releasing my number. Without a thought I rattled it off and the young lady punched it into the terminal at her station.

As we stepped to the side I felt that familiar and all too frequent vibration in my pocket that signals a text, e-mail or phone call coming in. Pulling out my EVO and glancing at the screen I saw a text informing me the restaurant would text me when my table was ready. It came from a service called HostConcepts which I later learned offers a suite of restaurant management applications including this neat customer notification system.

How many times have you stood a few feet away in the lineup of anxious, hungry and impatient people, one of whom is always at the desk asking how much longer will it be? How often have you sat shoulder to shoulder on that long wooden bench, hoping the next name called is yours? Have you ever walked away for five to ten minutes, then returned to wait ten or fifteen more, only to find out they already called your name and you missed it! This was so much better, giving us the freedom to wander around without that fear.

Just a few minutes later my phone was vibrating again with the brief message, "Joe P, your table is ready." It directed me to see the receptionist immediately and suggested I text back in case my plans had changed and I was no longer coming.

This is technology innovation at its best. Who doesn't carry a cell phone today? Who doesn't text? So why not leverage the availability of this nearly universal medium to enhance the customer experience, making it infinitely more convenient for customers waiting for their table. No one is bellowing out your name hoping you are still within ear shot or setting off that electronic gypsy disk that vibrates and blinks like the marquis at the old Bijou theater. Customers are free to use the time they have to wait to do anything they choose, secure in the knowledge they will not miss out.

Moreover, from the restaurants perspective you have a simple system that provides better customer service. There is no longer a need to keep a paper list with names scratched out as people are seated.  The system also provides all the metrics you could ever want like the number of turns, average wait times, cancellations and no shows. As a bonus you now have customer cell phone numbers in your database which can be used in loyalty or other marketing programs.

Today, there are restaurants using iPads for wine list applications and others expanding to the full menu. I imagine some will allow you to place your order. Ultimately you will be paying the check using the tablet or, like my Starbucks experience, another smart phone application.

Smart phones and tablets are changing the complexion of the restaurant business. Beyond the in-store, operational impact, there are a number of social networks like Yelp also changing the rules of the game. But we'll save that discussion for another time.

Waiter, check please.

Captain Joe

 Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC


  1. Interesting use of texting, but unless the restaurant and/or HostConcepts promises not to use my cell-phone number for any other use (or sell it), I am not going to hand over my cell number and risk the run of being bombarded with un-solicited incoming texts that I have to pay for.

  2. When does this technology go too far? Seems like we are rapidly approaching the time when the entire monetary system will change altogether. Will this create a new divide in the class system for those who refuse to use the "new technologies" ie. RFID chips that will carry your electronic currency on them? Pretty soon it seems cash will be obsolete, and those who refuse to "upgrade" will be left in the dust. Literally.

  3. As someone who has worked in the industry for 7 years, I have to say this is a FANTASTIC IDEA! (One I wish I would have thought of!) Having a cell phone is crucial in today's world.. It used to be you'd have to think twice about giving your number away. Now you can do EVERYTHING from your phone. For example, did you know that if you link your cell number to your Facebook account you can text "like (page name)" to a number and it'll automatically like a page? So many cool things. I look forward to reading more of your stuff!!

  4. Nice service. I still move in places without cell phone reach - fortunately - and it wouldn't do us any good there ;-)

    But there's no stopping progress, especially electronic progress.... until the power runs out. Which maybe won't be long now, since everybody, now including the Chinese, is only increasing use instead of reducing it !

  5. OK, a little off topic, but I thought I'd share:

    A number of years ago, when they started handing out those buzzers at restaurants, I was with friends waiting to be called. The buzzer was big, and not wanting to stuff it into my jean pocket, I put it in my shirt pocket (left side!).

    A few drinks later, I feel my chest buzzing. I thought I was having a heart attack. 10 seconds of near panic later, I realized!

  6. Thanks, David, for the amusing story. We still need someone to break the tie. First two comments expressed strong concerns about privacy and social injustice. Chiara, the service industry veteran, was very excited by this while Francois, our international guest, likes it but only when he can get it.

  7. As an update to this column, here is an article about De Santos, reportedly the first restaurant in New York City to use iPads (as predicted) in lieu of paper order pads.