Written by: Tom House & Les Noteworthy
Another busy restaurant season is just around the corner fellow servers, and we all know what that means. Large American sedans with varying license plates are soon to be clogging our highways. Large, powerful vehicles that seem to drive themselves, but on closer inspection reveal that the drivers are less than 5 feet tall are and simply looking through the steering wheels. Yes it’s season, and we’ll get our share of demanding guests, Atkins diets, gluten-free requests, late arrivals, incomplete parties, sauce on the side and the dreaded CAMPERS!
You know the scenario. A busy night in your restaurant, tables turning as they should, everything going according to the book, but some guests just have to stay a little too long. They just sit and sit and sit. You’ve refilled their decafs, their waters, the Sweet & Low caddy, yet still they remain. The bill is paid, tip is left, but they’re still there, talking about family, friends, weddings, funerals, Amy Winehouse’s demise, the national debt …whatever. Some servers continue to clear the table as they finish certain items, such as coffee cups…gone, water glasses…gone, napkins…gone. But still they remain….camping.
Come on you guys, you didn’t rent the table for the night…you simply had dinner!
Your manager corners you, “I need that table buddy!” Of course he does, and so do you! Your income is based on another turn. So what do you do, pull the chairs out from under them? Remove the table? Tell them there’s been a bomb scare? Offer them breakfast menus? Ask them if they’d like another meal? What? So just how do you get the campers to leave, or do you…or can you?
That is a question that has been tossed around since…well, since restaurants began, and of course this scenario happens throughout the hospitality industry worldwide! Contemporary restaurants need to do more than one seating to make money, and the servers need the same. As busy and sophisticated as restaurants have become, no one has yet perfected a nice way to get diners to vacate a table in a timely manner while the restaurant is busy.
I have however, experienced a wide variety of methods to “encourage” campers to vacate. Pay attention to some of these, even though I do not endorse any of them. One of the most unique events took place early in my career. An 8-top had finished, paid their bill and I collected the check. It was obvious that they were intent on camping. I got the evil eye from my manager, promptly informing him that I had done my part. I added, “The rest is up to you boss!” …and he didn’t like that much. While walking past that same table a few minutes later, I noticed a man speaking to the host of the camping party. I moved closer and overheard him telling them that they had exceeded their allotted time and were now expected to leave. I had never seen the guy before, and I knew he didn’t work at the restaurant, so I asked him who he was. It turns out that he was a customer waiting for that very table. He had taken it upon himself to move things along. He was embarrassed at being exposed, and the table we all wanted to leave was embarrassed and a little angry. I got stuck waiting on that creative customer on the next turn. Imagine the size of MY tip!
I would not be surprised if some of these customers pitched a tent and stayed overnight! Some restaurants will actually tell a table that they have to leave in no uncertain terms. It happens in a lot of high traffic areas where business is not necessarily based on a loyal repeat customer base. It’s pretty rude in my book, but it gets the job done. It frees up the table, but probably doesn’t do much for repeat business.
A former co-worker of mine had a great system. When a table had paid, been totally cleared of everything, even water glasses, yet weren’t able to “get the message,” he would tell another server, “I need you to visit my table”. This meant that the other server would approach the table, inquiring if everything was to their liking, etc., etc. He would then politely inform the guests how the table was made available for them at the time of their reservation, and that another party was waiting and hoping for the same courtesy. It usually worked well, but was not well received by management.
I’ve seen servers approach tables and invite them to leave because “the restaurant” needs the table. This fits right in with accosting the table about the amount of the tip. It stinks! The best solution that I have experienced and the one I recommend the most is for a manager, or owner to approach the campers and invite them to a round of drinks or coffee at the bar, or another table that is not in demand. It’s slick, courteous, polite and professional. It gives the guests a feeling of being given special treatment. It also totally removes the server from the picture, and most importantly, frees up the table for that much needed turn. The cost to the house is minimal when weighed against another seating. It just makes sense!
If campers plague you, and yes friends, it’s getting to be that time of the year again, pass this suggestion on to your management. A server’s job is to serve and above all else…remain on good terms with each and every guest. When the bill is paid the service is technically over, management is there to manage things like getting customers to vacate tables if they are camping. It is their job, not the servers, so don’t be bullied by management into making a poor decision that you may ultimately pay for with your job.
Dear restaurant managers everywhere… Perfecting the art of getting Campers to leave your tables after a reasonable time is very difficult, but it is a very necessary weapon in your management toolbox. Give it a try and let us know how it works.