How to Keep Restaurant Customers From Leaving When There’s a Line

A line creates good buzz but can also turn potential guests away.
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Entertaining and interacting with customers while they wait can keep them engaged and patient. (Photo: cornfield/Shutterstock)

Good things come to those who wait. Unfortunately, many restaurant patrons aren’t willing to.

Lines at your restaurant can mean business is booming, which shows passers-by that your place is popular. But no one relishes having to stand in one before they can sit down and order.

How can you keep customers from leaving to go somewhere else? Here are a few tips.

Related: Restaurant Owners: Should You Use a Meal Delivery Service?

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Set reasonable expectations for waiting customers so that they know what to expect, suggests Jennifer Martin, founder of Zest Business Consulting. (Photo: Jennifer Martin)

Minimize the chaos

“Customers hate waiting in what feels like chaos,” said Robert Edell, co-founder and CEO of Servy, a mobile app that rewards diners for giving private feedback to restaurants. Make sure the waiting experience is minimally stressful for your customers.
Train host staff on how to manage a growing crowd of hungry patrons and set reasonable expectations for waiting customers, said Jennifer Martin, founder of Zest Business Consulting. Guests are more likely to be patient if they know what to expect.

Also, look at how your waiting area is organized. Does it promote a smooth flow of traffic? Is it a comfortable space? If serving staff have to worm their way through a waiting crowd to reach a table, they are making an already stressful situation worse, so keep the table space as clear as possible.

Make their wait productive

Have plenty of extra menus on hand, recommended Edell. “Not only will this speed up ordering time and make the line move quicker, but it will also keep guests busy as they wait.”

Related: 15 Menu Tweaks that Can Increase Profits

Hosts should be able to answer common questions about the menu, said Thomas Nguyen, who owns three South African restaurants in Houston, Texas. “This makes their wait somewhat productive. You don’t want customers waiting in line and then having to ask a bunch of questions when it’s time to order.”

Dora Herrera, whose family owns Yuca’s in Los Angeles, suggests taking orders from customers while they wait. By letting the kitchen know what’s coming down the pike, she said, they’re able to deliver meals faster once guests do get seated.

Take the edge off their appetites

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Offer complimentary drinks or snacks to customers while they wait to dine in your restaurant. (Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock)

If the line is so long that a guest can’t be occupied by a menu alone, offer a complimentary beverage or snack while they wait. It’s a great opportunity to showcase samples of your lesser-known menu items, Edell suggested, “which can expand a guest’s order variety, and thus, increase frequency of patronage.”

Whether you’re giving away coffee, iced tea or soda, it’s worth the small expense, Nguyen said. “It also shows appreciation because before they have even ordered, we give them something for free.”

Leverage customer loyalty cards

Use the wait time as a chance to promote your customer loyalty program, advised Jim Angleton, president of Aegis FinServ, which creates branded reward cards for small businesses. “The host or hostess can give these cards to reward and thank patrons waiting in line,” he said.

If your loyalty card requires online activation, customers can go online and register on their smartphones while they wait, giving them something to do (and growing your loyalty program).

Provide entertainment

If you’re looking for a more creative solution, Chip Bell, customer service author and speaker, suggested inviting street performers to provide entertainment outside your establishment. Since many of these entertainers work for tips, it can be a low-cost or no-cost option for restaurants.

“Free samples of your food help, but people love being entertained,” said Bell. “Wait is part reality and part perception. We don’t remember the wait if we are having fun in the process.”

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