Hacking Queues – sit-down restaurants

Hacking Queues – sit-down restaurants
December 19, 2019 Adam Stead
In Hospitality, Special Projects
sit down restaurant

‘How long for a table?’ 

When you have tables rather than people coming in and out, it’s possible to hit maximum capacity very quickly. Unlike QSR and cafes, your output is less likely to be defined by your speed of serving than by your table space. There are 30 tables in the restaurant, and when they’re full – they’re full. 

This article will be exclusively about allocating customers tables in the first place when there is greater demand than supply. That means we’re going to leave some of the experimental models for picking up your food, out; and we’re not going to discuss how to keep customers happy while they wait for their food.

It also means that all of the queue types discussed below are closed car park queues – where a table is assigned centrally by the restaurant rather than fought over by queuers. 

Restaurants are at maximum capacity a greater proportion of the time than other kinds of hospitality – and punters are generally happier to wait longer for a restaurant table than they are for coffee, fast food, or alcoholic drinks. For restaurants, then, doing queue management well is a bit like playing tetris. In order to maximise your take on a given night, you want to have every table filled for as long as possible. 

Booking Versus Walk-In: The Basics

booking versus walking in

Before we get to fancier technological solutions for taking bookings, it’s worth understanding some principles about both walk-in versus booking.

Here’s what we think is relevant to inform your queue decision: 

– The rate of bookings which don’t turn up is around 20%. So for every five parties that book, one doesn’t turn up. That means we have a higher maximum capacity for walk-ins than for bookings, because nearly everybody who walks in and asks for a table subsequently sits down. Any restaurant which is *always full* is likely to have a walk-in component, whereas *bookings only* might get to 80% full even when they’re fully booked.  

– When driving demand is more important than limiting space, both booking and walk-ins should be available. For most restaurants, this is most of the time. When you “choose” between walk-ins and booking, you define yourself as being unavailable to a percentage of customers looking for one or the other. If you can’t fill your restaurant, try both! 

– Based on this, many restaurants offer “peak times walk-in only”. The combination of the two facts above means that for many restaurants, it becomes more profitable to become “walk-in only” after they fill about 80% of their tables, which they can expect to on some nights of the week. This is the dominant way that restaurants organise walk-in versus booking in London. 

– Bookers spend more than walk-in customers. That means your average booker is slightly more valuable than your average walk-inner, because bookers have booked ahead; meaning that it’s more likely to be a special occasion when they’re primed to spend. 

– Big parties spend more per person than small parties. The bigger the party; the bigger the likely occasion; the more likely individuals are to spend. So be careful writing out higher risk big parties just yet…


Holding Onto Walk-Inners

Where you have more people walking in than you can handle, that’s great – it’s the gold standard for filling all the tables you have available. You may wish to hold onto the people queueing for as long as possible, so that when things do die down, you can still get them as customers. It’s also good to try to make people who do have to wait for your service happy and comfortable; as an end in its own right.  

That said, it might be that you want to turn people away – rather than push them into a bad night. If you’re confident you will be at max capacity all night, there’s no real upside to making people stand for a long time. 

Here’s some queue options to hold on to walk-inners: 


queue out the door

This one isn’t complex – you station your maitre de at the front of your restaurant, and ask everybody to queue backwards out of the door, so that the queue snakes down the street.  


– Mimetic Desire. Everybody wants what everybody else wants; and there is no better advert for your business than a queue of punters standing outside waiting for it. This is as high a quality of advertising as “word of mouth” – but will reach more people, faster, as every passer-by will notice how many people want to eat your grub. 

– Low tech. There’s no need to do anything or think about technology; no need to “assess what’s out there”; no need to speak to us. If this is your queue, this is your queue! 

– Free Shop Floor. The outside is shared between all of us, and, therefore, it’s free. Unlike building a bar specifically for your queuers to wait in, you’re getting extra shop floor, for free.  You could effectively “sweat” the floor, too – although you might not be able to get away with bringing people alcohol, depending on your style, you could send people out with baked goods and appetisers designed to be eaten there and then. 

– Queue = Enhanced Enjoyment of the Food. There is evidence that that which you’ve queued for tastes better, so if you want to access the uppermost tier of haute cuisine, maybe you should force your customers to wait a little bit, first. 


– A bit cruel and uncomfortable. Do you really want to make your patrons stand outside your restaurant? 

– Low retention. Compared to some other queueing systems described here, a higher proportion of customers will turn away or give up. 

– Customers may not come back. In one survey, 70% of customers said they would not return to a store if the queue was too long. This is asking a lot of your customers. 

– Council Complaints. We can’t say who, but we know of one or two hospitality businesses in the Soho area which have gotten in trouble for their outdoor queues. A long queue outside of your venue could rub people up the wrong way. 

– An outdoor queue can spoil indoor enjoyment. If everyone is waiting for you to leave somewhere, it makes you want to leave – whether that’s a restaurant, or a birthday. 

Tips for “queue out the door” success

– Be honest. Received wisdom in “user experience” practice is that it’s good to “front-load” most of the pain points – so if it’s going to be 45 minutes, its best to tell them it will be 45 minutes. 

– “Bank” the queue as early as you can. Come up the queue and take some kind of preference, log how many are in the party – or otherwise show some marker of progress. Remember, a feeling of “not making progress” is what annoys people about queues!  

– Entertainment. The way that theme parks handle queues might not be right for your restaurant… but you may wish to brainstorm about ways to keep the queue interesting, whether that means inviting a musician or street performer, or simply making sure your WiFi extends to the whole queue.  


samsung phone

In 2020, a customer should be able to communicate with a venue via methods other than face-to-face. 

There are lots of “notification by text” queuing systems which we can recommend. (If you want a full run down, give us a ring) But here are two of our favourites:  

Walk In is a queue management system which works great! It has both a restaurant side interface and a customer-facing app. The restaurant interface is a very simple queue management system from which you can send customers a text to inform them it’s their time to queue. The customer app is a discovery portal some customers use – when they’re in the area, want to book a spot, and join a queue. 

Qudini is a competitor of Walk In; and do something similar! Although qudini also offer things like appointment booking, their queue management solution also enables you to text customers to let them know their table has freed up. 



– The easiest for customers. This is a great experience – you can go and have a drink in a bar elsewhere; and enjoy the night, as you wait for your restaurant table to free up, whereupon you’re informed by text.

– This is a marketing channel. In addition to helping you manage your queue, at those times of night when people are hunting out a queueless restaurant in the area, your restaurant might be advertised!  

– These solutions are inexpensive compared to the lost custom – and certainly compared to creating a workable bar space. 



– We’re not sure what the data looks like for the percent of “no shows” and lack of retention would look like through apps like these. Both apps have location controls which only enable you to “join a queue” when you’re in the area… will this mean that customers will beat that 80% non-cancellation rate for bookings? We’re not sure. 

– Awkward at short time intervals. If you only have to wait 10 minutes for a table; well, that’s not really enough time to go and enjoy a drink elsewhere; but enough that you’d be stood awkwardly for a short while at the entrance of the venue. 


stand in the bar

If you have a bar, it makes sense to invite customers to stand there while they wait. If you have a bar already, you should absolutely do this! If you don’t, and you’re not sure whether to custom-build a bar for this purpose; here’s our pros and cons. 


– You capture all the value in a queue. When you use a text notification system and send customers to drink elsewhere, you’re not capturing some of the value from their night 

– Great for “short waits”. You don’t need to send someone away and ask them to find somewhere else to wait; or get them to stand there in a car. Their journey into the restaurant has 

– It’s comfortable and easy. For short queues, it’s a much better experience for customers than the other types of queue; for long waits, it’s still much more comfortable than an outdoors queue. 



– You need a bar. Which goes without saying, really.

– We’d expect your average square metre of bar space to be less profitable than a square metre of restaurant floor. If buying extra square meterage isn’t a concern, that’s great – expand. But if you’re deciding to actively dedicate more of your available space to a bar, and less to a restaurant, we’d expect it to be less profitable, even as each extra customer takes up less space. 

– There is a maximum capacity for your bar, too. Eventually, you’ll run out of space here as well. 



Booking : Queue Ratios

Allowing customers to book prevents queues, because customers know when to turn up. As we’ve already covered, there’s a higher drop-out rate among bookers, which at peak times could mean that you’re operating at less than maximum capacity.

There’s a couple of ways to handle this. 

First, there’s a series of ways to reduce no shows – check out our tips for reducing restaurant no shows here

Some restaurateurs have walk-in only at peak times; where they expect to reach full capacity. Others have specific portions of their restaurant designated for booking, and for walk-ins. 


What Next?

The best way to reduce queues of all is to make sure your point-of-sale is as slick as it can be. If you’re interested in the kind of front-of-house features you can get in a POS, try our front-of-house page. 

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