Why your restaurant sucks when it’s slow and it’s your fault!

Having spent 20+ years of my life working in, managing and hanging around restaurants, I have some pointed opinions about the good… and the bad. Nothing bums me out more than lousy service when a restaurant is slow. It’s defies logic and is a really dangerous time for your business reputation. 

The key to solving a problem is to admit you have one, which is where I run afoul of the typical manager in our industry.

I was having dinner at a beautiful Mexican-themed restaurant at Boston seaport recently. It was early February and you can imagine, without the outdoor dining component and beautiful summer weather, the restaurant wasn’t too busy. Our server was pleasant, professional and took our drink order. Fifteen minutes later, he returned and apologized that the bar was busy and it was taking a little longer than normal. 

Fair enough. It’s Saturday night, so being busy makes sense as a reason for slow service. Then I glanced over at the bar. There stood three very handsome bartenders having a tête-à-tête at bar center. They didn’t look busy and seemed to have plenty of time to entertain each other. So what was the deal? Was the bar really busy? Did the server forget to place the order? Did they simply not give a…? 

This exact scenario is played out in restaurants all over the world when business is slow. It’s incredibly infuriating to customers and completely avoidable.

Waiter and waitress wait to help a diner

There is a really interesting Reddit about this very topic and it’s filled with excuses and rationalizations. Comments like, “Restaurants will trim back their staff to maybe one or two cooks during slow hours” or, “You're in server mode when it's busy. When you only have a table or two during the weird hours of the day, you're just not with it like you should be. Shitty, but the truth.”

It comes down to a simple fact…You aren’t paying attention. 

I get it. You’re trying to recover from revenue, you’re trying to get ahead for tonight, you’re trying to manage inventory, you’re trying to get that schedule written… but those are just excuses that cover the real problem. 

No sugar coating it: When a guest gets inferior service during slow periods, it’s YOUR fault


The real question isn’t why does this happen, but how do you avoid it? Here are four gentle reminders/tactics to insure you don’t damage your business by not executing when it’s slow.

  1. Never go into the office for an extended period. Disappearing into the office to “work” is the first and best way to screw up service, therefore not doing it must be the first and best way to avoid it. Work at a table in the dining room. I know you just want five minutes to yourself, but that’s not always possible. You’re a professional. Deal with it.
  2. Assign someone the job of Service Advocate. When you are forced to be unavailable, identify someone formally as the leader. It’s like when Captain Picard left the bridge of the Enterprise and said, “Number One, you have the bridge.”
  3. Don’t forget, this happens during regular revenue periods, too. My experience at the Mexican restaurant happened on a Saturday night at 8pm. It was just slow. People will not work if they aren’t engaged, and it’s our job as restaurant managers to keep them focused. Lulls in business is the most important time to manage. Your staff knows what to do when it’s busy; you have to keep them movin’ when it’s not.
  4. It’s the schedule, stupid. Problems often arise because of scheduling. It’s true that a post-revenue employee is less focused on their dining room duties and more focused on their side work. So bring in a swing shift person that works from 2pm to first cut. They are fresh when they arrive and not focused on side work because the post lunch server is managing that responsibility. The same is true of late night service. Have your closing servers come in as late as possible and make clear that they have guest service responsibility while the earlier staff do the side work. It just make sense to assign and follow up rather react and manage.

Some of the worst Yelp posts I have read specifically reference that the restaurant was slow and how incredulous the reviewer was that the service sucked. It’s one of the easiest fixes of a real problem in our business. 

Pay attention and as the a famous football coach always says, “Do Your Job!”

Waiter image by Roger Jones.
Snail image by Marilyn Peddle.