Six Strategies to Improve your Restaurant’s Wait Time

When you are hungry and short on time, many things seem to stand in the way of you and your food. Whether you are grabbing a snack at a limited-service, fast food restaurant or dining at a full-service sit-down establishment, wait times exist throughout the experience. For example, there is a gap between walking in the door and ordering, and then another gap between ordering and waiting for your food to be ready. These inefficiencies throughout the customer journey may frustrate customers, so the question is, can they be reduced or replaced with meaningful experiences? The following tips can help to either eliminate these gaps of nothingness or turn them into positive connections to your brand.

Customer journey at a full-service restaurant

Gap 1: Waiting for a table

Long wait times for tables can turn customers away or be uncomfortable experiences. Some people may even argue that restaurants make you wait for a table unnecessarily to give the perception of exclusivity and popularity. However, the number of staff or available seating is what often dictates the flow of the restaurant.

If waiting can’t be helped, look to create more pleasant experiences during this time. A welcoming seating area, with access to WiFi/entertainment and free appetizers or drinks can help make the wait more enjoyable. Another strategy is to inform customers of the estimated wait time to give them a greater sense of control over the situation and reduce their uncertainty. For example, some digital tools, such as the NoWait App, show customers a restaurant’s wait time before arrival at the restaurant. They can then plan accordingly to avoid this inconvenience.

Gap 2: Waiting to order

While it is appropriate to give customers a chance to look at the menu and decide their order, it is not ideal if they feel like they are being ignored or the wait staff is too busy to attend to them. Some restaurants solve this problem by using bells or buzzers for customers to press in order to notify wait staff that they are ready to order. Another solution is to allow customers to order through tablets at the table. Ensuring all staff are trained in customer service as well as taking drink orders first can also help create a more seamless experience.

Gap 3: Waiting for order arrival

Allowing some space between ordering and food arrival is acceptable and builds anticipation. And after all, patrons chose a slower restaurant experience instead of a fast-food one. Too much time, however, will irritate hungry customers. While the time required to cook food is often unavoidable, this gap can be broken up by offering appetizers and options for entertainment at the table as well as providing a pleasant restaurant atmosphere and decor to enjoy.

Gap 4: Waiting for the check

In North America, it is usually standard to pay for a full-service meal at the end of the experience. This norm has its challenges: customers are in a different mindset after they have eaten and may be more impatient to leave after their needs have been fulfilled. Trying to wave down a busy employee for the check or waiting to use a card machine can leave customers with a negative final experience. If staff is too prompt with this transaction, however, it can create an equally negative feeling that customers are being rushed out. Therefore, the right amount of time between asking for the check and delivering it can be ambiguous. But it is generally never wise to make a customer wait, especially if they have requested the check. The apps Glance Pay and qkr! are attempting to solve this awkward moment by allowing customers to pay and leave on their own time. While some restaurants solve this ambiguity by providing cashiers, which puts the onus on the customer of when to cash out.

Limited-service restaurant

Gap 1: Waiting to order

In a limited-service restaurant, where customers order at a counter (or digital kiosk), there are often line-ups before ordering. Even if all bottlenecks have been assessed and strategies to reduce these queues are implemented (for example, using express lines or enabling faster mobile payment processes), they still may be present during busy times. One way to decrease the negative impact of this process gap is to reduce “perceived wait time.” Perceived wait time is not in reality any shorter, but it appears to be that way because it is made to be more entertaining and enjoyable. Digital signage, for example, is one way to keep customers from becoming bored and it keeps their mind off being stuck in a line-up. An alternate solution is to avoid line-ups entirely by pre-ordering through a mobile app, such as the Starbucks Mobile Order & Pay app.

Gap 2: Waiting for order pick-up/arrival

Once an order has been placed, there is often an awkward period of time where customers are unsure of where to stand, where to look, and how long they will have to wait. The latest McDonald’s design partially solves this problem with digital screens that display your order number once it is ready. Other restaurants take this solution further by giving customers devices that buzz when their order is ready, which allows them to sit and relax while waiting.

If these strategies are implemented, inconvenient wait times in the customer journey can be avoided or reframed as meaningful brand interactions. As is the case with other industries, digital technology is enabling processes that create more seamless, convenient experiences. Yet, more traditional brand experience strategies can also go a long way in creating a more positive customer journey.

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