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R&IEditorial Archives2005April 1 — 10-Minute Manager

The Ten-Minute Manager's Guide to...
Handling a Crowd

It’s a tense moment when a crowded bus pulls into a restaurant’s parking lot. The challenge: How to cope with the unexpected onslaught of dozens of hungry customers.

“First panic, then take a deep breath and then realize you’ve done this before,” says Ann Gentry, chef-owner of three Real Food Daily restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

Karen Lenning, general manager at two Michigan McDonald’s locations, says her staff adopts a positive attitude and a sense of urgency when it comes to crowds. “They’re actually kind of fun sales boosters,” she says of the two or three buses that visit her stores every month. “We know we’ll have a good couple of hours.”

Two-Server Solution
Putting an extra server on the schedule has helped Real Food Daily’s three units handle unexpected crowds during nontraditional dayparts.

“When we get hit, it’s in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. period, when the lunch people are gone, there’s one person on the floor and the dinner guests aren’t in yet,” says Ann Gentry, owner of the Los Angeles-based chain of full-service vegetarian restaurants. “And then we’re slammed.”

Gentry discovered the scheduling glitch while sifting through comment cards and e-mails, in which customers complained of sub-par service in the period after lunch but before dinner. “If they’re going so far as to complain to me, the owner, then it’s an issue,” Gentry says.

She responded by requesting that managers add an extra server to that time slot. Managers initially balked, saying that they’d rather add a bus person, but Gentry insisted on a server: “Busers don’t have the contact with guests that servers do—they don’t take food orders.”

When the restaurants are swamped during normal meal periods, managers (and Gentry, if she’s on the floor) pitch in by taking orders, running food and helping out at the front door. Gentry is careful not to turn tables too quickly, lest the kitchen staff become overloaded. “We try to give the kitchen breathing room for about five minutes,” she says.

Details Count
Because the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, a two-hour wait isn’t unusual at Al Forno in Providence, R.I. Still, Brian Kingsford, chef and chief of operations at the 160-seat upscale-casual restaurant, takes care of waiting guests.

During super-busy times—for instance, graduation at nearby Brown University—Kingsford sends out appetizers such as grilled pizza and fried risotto balls to customers waiting at the bar as a gesture of hospitality and to help them absorb any excess alcohol. “I certainly don’t want people getting drunk because they’ve had to wait. That causes more problems than it’s worth,” he says.

Kingsford also takes guests’ cell-phone numbers so they can stroll to the waterfront or a nearby shopping district while they wait; staff calls patrons when their table is ready. In an experimental crowd-control move, Kingsford has begun taking reservations for the first floor of the restaurant and seating walk-ins upstairs. That way, walk-ins can take the place of no-show reservations.

Thank Heaven for the Bar
Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. are “when everyone wants to eat in Kansas City,” says Craig Christopher, general manager of City Tavern (right), a 120-seat upscale restaurant.

The operation, in an up-and-coming gallery district, is a destination spot, so unwieldy crowds usually don’t form, according to Christopher. But the bar comes in handy for the four or five parties on a waitlist, he says.

The 30-seat bar, which Christopher describes as “pretty lively,” makes an attractive waiting area for customers. “People settle in and start to have a good time,” Christopher says.

The bar also offers a full menu for customers who’d rather not wait for a table in the dining room. “It’s another area to generate revenue—I would suggest that anybody who doesn’t serve a full menu at the bar should do it,” Christopher says, adding that 10% to 15% of food sales are generated there.

The only downside is that the bar is a smoking area. Hosts and hostesses are careful to keep nonsmokers, who wait in the foyer, updated on the status of their table. “The most important thing is to look people in the eye and be smiling and friendly,” Christopher says.

Extra Hands Help
Saturdays, the line starts forming outside Hot Doug’s, a self-proclaimed “encased meats” stand in Chicago, before the restaurant even opens at 10:30 a.m. Owner Doug Sohn handles the crowd the old-fashioned way: with an extra set of hands.

“That helps a lot,” says Sohn, who re-opened the restaurant earlier this year after a fire destroyed its former location. “It’s tremendous, the difference one additional person can make.”

The new location—1,400 square feet with 44 seats compared to 900 square feet and 30 seats at the old—also helps accommodate crowds. Dry storage is in the basement, creating room in the kitchen for prep and cooler space and allowing staff to prepare and store hot-dog toppings before rush times. “We don’t run into problems where we have to prep on the fly,” he says.

Taking advantage of the new space, Sohn designed the kitchen and the cook line to work better than it had in the former space. “Everything is more self-contained on the line, and the work flow is more efficient—there’s no cross-traffic,” he says. The staff’s experience in building custom-made hot dogs, one at a time, also moves customers along, Sohn says.

Service With a Smile
Two or three times a month, buses pull into the parking lots at McDonald’s restaurants in Warren and East Pointe, Mich. Rather than being terrified, crews greet the crowds with smiles and good attitudes.

“Everyone steps into high gear,” says Karen Lenning, general manager for the two locations, owned by 12-unit franchisee ECS Partnership, based in Warren. “I say, ‘We can do this, let’s set a target and see how we do.’ The staff gets pumped up if they have a goal.”

The positive attitude helps, and so do some strategic operational moves. Lenning dedicates one of the unit’s three cash registers to solo customers so they aren’t required to wait behind dozens of kids. A crew member stationed in the lobby directs traffic and makes sure that the dining room is kept clean, though Lenning says most groups are good about busing their own tables.

It helps if the bus driver calls ahead, as some occasionally do, with a head count of children and adults. That way, Lenning knows to stock up on kid-friendly Chicken McNuggets, burgers and Happy Meals.

To keep the groups coming in, Lenning offers bus drivers free meals. “It shows appreciation for stopping at our facility,” she says.

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