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How To Get Away With A ‘No Reservations’ Policy

How To Get Away With A ‘No Reservations’ Policy

There’s a sign outside Gaucho Parrilla Argentina declaring, “first come, first served, no reservations.” The no-frills, South American-focused BYOB in Pittsburgh’s Strip District expanded in 2016, yet diners will still find themselves waiting in a long line to get a table.

They’ll wait in the rain or icy temperatures for a chance to settle into the bustling dining room and nosh on flaky empanadas, grilled flank steaks or creamy seafood paella serving up to eight. Many will tell you the experience is worth the wait, especially the part allowing them to pop their bottles and drink as they’re in line.

It’s the same mentality at Gino’s East on Chicago’s Gold Coast, where eager pizza lovers will stand on the pavement for an hour or two to dig into classic deep-dish pie. There’s a “no reservations” policy here, and at Susan Spicer’s Mondo in New Orleans (except for parties of five or more), where guests hope to get a quick peek of the celebrated James Beard winner at work.

Part of the charm of Gaucho Parrilla Argentina, Gino’s East and Mondo is finally getting a table after a long wait. It’s like a reward. It’s also the thrill of snagging one of those coveted seats at a buzzworthy destination and the anticipation of waiting. The thing is that they get away with it because they can, says restaurant consultant Doug Roth.

“If you can get away with it, then run with it,” advises Roth, a former third-generation restaurateur who consults restaurant groups and hotels nationwide with his company, Playground Hospitality. “As long as you know how to market your restaurant, and you know how to brand it, and create a buzz, you will be there for a long time.”

Operators, however, must know their audience to pull off such a feat, he continues. “Who’s willing to wait? If you look at it from a standpoint of people who are Millennials, they might not mind waiting (without a reservation) because they’ll have cocktails at the bar.

“When you start getting into Boomers, they want assurance that the reservation is there. It all depends on who your restaurant is marketing to. And sometimes what happens, which is good, is that it is mixed up with all sorts of people.”

In the earlier days of his culinary career, Anthony Lamas worked at a few restaurants that didn’t take reservations. They operated in this manner, he says, because they were very small places that couldn’t afford to take hits of too many cancelations.

“If you’re not a Le Bernadin or Alinea, then it hurts you (when people cancel their reservations),” says Lamas, who serves as chef/owner of Seviche in Louisville. “Profits are very little in restaurants. If you don’t offer reservations—and there is a great demand (at your restaurant)—you’ll get the early seatings and later ones because customers will be clamoring to get there as early as possible.”

What are the secrets to creating a vibe that makes people want to wait despite a “no reservations” policy? Doug Roth has a few answers:

  • You must have a quality product that has gotten notoriety through the press or social media. Through word of mouth, through the press and through social media, all three of them are going to field the fire.
  • It needs to be somewhere diners want to be.
  • You’ve got to offer something that is a hook to get them in the door.