How to Manage Long Wait Times

Long wait times are a problem that any operator would want to have on a nightly basis. But that doesn’t mean every operator knows how to handle them. Guests who are forced to wait a long time for a table can quickly feel alienated and irritated by the experience. This can undermine the entire meal before they sit down at a table, even if it’s through no fault of management or employees.

A throng of guests in the lobby is a good sign for business. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a bad sign for anyone walking in the door. Here are a few tips for handling a large crowd at the hostess stand.

Manage the Reservation Sheet

As they stand and wait, watching fellow diners slowly trickle through the door and others being called occasionally, most guests want to discern two things:

• A logical process
• A light at the end of the tunnel

Guests want to know that the staff is working as quickly as possible to get them seated. A logical process and clear ETA sends the message that their fate is in the hands of fellow diners who are already seated. This relieves some of the pressure that can mount in the lobby, especially as guests are waiting for a half-hour or longer.

Be Honest

It can be tempting to underestimate the wait time for a guest, especially when they scan the crowded lobby and full dining room anxiously before turning to the hostess for a favorable answer. Many young, hourly hostesses have folded under this kind of pressure from an older, stern-looking diner, giving an impossibly soon estimated wait as a result.

The truth is that diners appreciate honesty and they dislike false information. It is very important that diners hear an accurate ETA from an experienced hostess or manager. This will help them understand that they are in good hands and the staff is working quickly.

Have a Manager up Front

A surprising number of restaurants have no managerial presence at the hostess stand during the busiest stretches of service. This is a critical error for several reasons, not the least of which is the chance to communicate to waiting guests of who is accountable for their dining experience.

A manager working calmly at the hostess stand should immediately indicate two things to guests:

• There is someone in charge of this process
• This procedure is running smoothly

The manager at the hostess stand can serve as a focal point for guest questions and can expedite the seating process. The manager should usually act as a liaison between the dining room and the hostess stand, communicating when tables are about to leave and when they are ready to be seated. An experienced manager who takes charge of this situation can alleviate a lot of the building pressure associated with long wait times.

Buy a Round of Drinks

There are many environments in which it suddenly becomes difficult to remember that this is supposed to be fun. An experienced manager can overcome this by putting guest concerns at ease and talking amiably with guests.

A manager should recognize their strategies when guests become anxious, and this should begin with buying a round of drinks or a couple of appetizers in the lounge (or once the guests are seated). Managers should express contrition, but this should also be fun. They should work to earn a smile from guests, and one way to do this is to spend $20 of the restaurant’s money and buy a round of drinks for the guests that have been inconvenienced.


Guests need to know that employees are working as quickly as possible to get them seated. This must be communicated by hostesses or managers, and it should occasionally be visible to guests at the hostess stand and in the dining room. This means no standing around, leaning against the wall, or cracking jokes while guests wait.

There is an appropriate tone that should be evident to waiting guests. It should include managerial leadership and hustle from staff members. This is important for handling waiting guests and should be part of hostess training from their first day on the job.