How restaurant bookings work

When Mezzo, one of the first of London's large scale
restaurants, opened in 1995 I was taken on a behind the scenes
tour by the company's then MD. A short corridor opened on to a
windowless office which was described to me as 'the brains of
the organisation'.

Inside were half a dozen telephone receptionists all busy on
the phone taking or reconfirming reservations. Or, in the case
of most of those phoning to book the most sought after table
in any restaurant, a table for four at 20.00 on a Saturday
night, telling them that sadly there was nothing available at
that time. Above the phones was a noticeboard with a list and
photos of all the main restaurant correspondents, including my
own, as well as their known aliases.

Despite the considerable increase in the number of good
restaurants, the demand to eat at those considered to be the
best appears to be insatiable and as a result there is a
simple and unavoidable bottleneck.

Not surprisingly, The Ivy is in a league of its own in the UK
in terms of incoming calls. Its 33 tables attract 1,200 calls
a day seven days a week via eight incoming lines handled by
five receptionists. Oxo, London's biggest-grossing restaurant,
recently received 3,927 calls for reservations in one week, a
figure that will rise in the summer and then again in November
and December. Assuming that each booking is for an average of
three people, this means that The Ivy is receiving roughly
25,000 individual bookings for the fortunate 3,000 it feeds
each week and Oxo 11,781 bookings for the 4,200 it serves.
Demand at The Ivy exceeds supply by 8:1 and Oxo 3:1, obviously
a healthy situation for its owners although disappointing
customers is not why restaurateurs go into business.

Across town at Zuma, the fashionable Japanese restaurant in
Knightsbridge, the ratio is no more favourable. Two full time
receptionists handle 2,800 personal calls a week (after the
automated system has weeded out all those calls checking on
the restaurant's opening hours or address) for a restaurant
which seats 130 at any one time and on busy days manages to
satisfy 430 customers: one full house at lunch plus 300 in the
evening. Each week 8,400 individual bookings are chasing 3,010
possible seats, a ratio not much better than at Oxo.

Restaurateurs have responded by investing heavily. Although
many small restaurants can still get away with a diary and
pencil (rather than pen to cope with all the cancellations and
changes) most have switched to software packages and computer
consoles which handle not just bookings but also the food and
drinks orders, the bill and assist with stock control. In the
UK most restaurants use Quadranet although a Norwegian system,
Loghos, is making inroads while in the US OpenTable, through
which customers can also book online, is widespread.

The main exception is once again The Ivy where Kevin Lansdown,
who has been masterminding restaurant reservations for the
past 20 years, cannot find a software programme responsive
enough. Instead, he has utilised his initial training as an
engineering draughtsman to mastermind the organisation of 360
pages of paper which hold the lunch and dinner reservations
for the following six months. Each booking lists the name,
number of covers, table number, arrival and departure times
and, in pink crayon, a cross reference to any specific request
such as a birthday cake.

There is definitely a genuine desire on the part of
restaurateurs not just to improve this service but also to
fully utilise the information that is being collated.

At Oxo, where the receptionists report to Sian Cox, a former
English teacher, the role of reservationist and receptionist
have now been merged so that anyone taking bookings has also
worked greeting customers, knows the menu well and knows where
there may be room for manoeuvre to find that extra table. The
1,500 calls a week which Quaglino's in St James receive has
developed into a database of over 12,000 who are mailed three
times a year with news and upcoming promotions and events.
Possibly the biggest change as to how reconfirmations could be
effected is currently being investigated by Cox and Quadranet
to see whether this could be done efficiently and effectively
by text at three pence per minute rather than a telephone call
at thirty pence, a significant saving.

Russell Norman, who has raised the service standards at Zuma
to equal those of its impressive kitchen, cannot see a place
for texts or email in his restaurant's handling of
reservations because, as he explained, "It's just too
impersonal, they are not live enough. A fundamental part of
our training is that our receptionists are trained never to
say No. That if we cannot accommodate them at the time they
want, they are offered an earlier time or at the sushi bar
where the menu is the same but where we don't take

But there are, it would appear from talking to those at the
coal face  of managing these thousands of phone calls a week,
definite factors which can make booking that sought after
table a little easier.

Firstly, book as far in advance as possible particularly for
Saturday evenings because at the moment the most popular
restaurants are already full on these nights for the next
three months (for the next six months at The Ivy!).

Secondly, when the option is to go on a waiting list, take it.
On certain evenings Norman has been able to accommodate a
waiting list that initially included over 140 patient but
ultimately happy customers.

And never believe that slipping any kind of pound note into
the hands of a receptionist will result in favourable
treatment. This practice, recurrent now that economic good
times seem to be back and restaurants are busy, is widely
condemned by managers generally and invariably results in the
recipient's instant dismissal.

Finally, if like so many restaurant goers, you believe that
restaurateurs treat their regular customers unduly favourably
then Norman's advice is quite simple. "Become a regular, it's
very easy. Get a booking whenever you can and introduce
yourself to the manager. Keep on using the restaurant and the
restaurant will in turn continue to look after you."