Building tools and products to power great dining experiences requires the teams at OpenTable to understand the ins and outs of restaurant operations, down to the smallest detail. From time to time, that means standing in the restaurant staff’s shoes — literally. Our product team regularly works shifts in restaurants so they can experience their challenges first hand and optimize products that offer solutions to those challenges. Here, Product Manager Adam Wagner shares his insights from a night behind the host stand.
Recently I had the opportunity to stand in as a host at Stones Throw, a neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco’s Russian Hill. Here are some interesting observations from what was ultimately an invaluable experience.
I’m pretty familiar with representing a restaurant’s performance in a post-mortem report: Net Sales, Covers, Average Turn Time. Until that night, I didn’t have a reference point for the activity these summary metrics represent. I watched as parties surged in, the first seating was complete, and table statuses updated to reflect meal stage. I listened as the restaurant’s co-owners Tai and Ryan reacted to new information about when tables would turn and adjusted seating arrangements for the next wave of diners.
I was struck by how distinct the two seatings are. As a diner, the restaurant floor seems constantly in motion with parties arriving and leaving randomly. From the restaurant’s point of view, the two (or three, if it’s a good night) seatings are carefully segmented.
In a restaurant the size of Stones Throw, it’s easy to observe the pulse of the whole restaurant and generate the post-mortem report in real time in one’s head (based on our reporting tool, Copilot). I have a new appreciation for the necessity of accuracy in reporting cover counts — operators saw who sat down, when, and what they ordered, so they need access to tools that represent that perfectly.
Tai is a fantastic hostess. At Stones Throw she’s really more of a maitre d’. Less than 30% of parties got a default experience; for the rest, Tai and Ryan had a plan. Even first-time diners were often referred by someone within their social network and received a personalized experience. For unknown parties, Tai Googles the name and records notable findings in the guest notes. When someone leaves for the bathroom, Tai makes sure their napkin is refolded upon their return.
If you have a stern resting face, hosting is probably not for you. I struggled to maintain a *twinkle* throughout the night. It was a mantra that caught my attention as soon as my face began to relax to its natural grim expression.
Tai is not shy about enforcing her seating plan. If a party lingers at a table that another party is waiting on, she greases the wheels on both sides: complimentary Champagne for the party that’s waiting, and a seat at the bar with complimentary Champagne for the party she has asked to get up from the table.
I was struck by how aloof diners appear when looking at the big picture. They seem completely unaware of other diners and the effort the staff makes to ensure their experience is perfect. And I suppose this is exactly how it should be. Hospitality is hard work; there is more orchestration behind a seemingly normal dining experience than may meet a diner’s eye.
Technology in a Supporting Role
Stones Throw appears to be on the cutting edge of technology adoption: They use Cover, OpenTable Payments, and Copilot. They use our Electronic Reservation Book system to send text message reminders to reservations. But talking with Ryan, it became clear that technology can only support and enhance — not stand in for — great hospitality. “If the staff can’t drop a check on time, then they can’t get drink orders on time or up-sell desserts efficiently, either. Either you have good staff or you don’t.”
When it comes to fine-tuning operations and setting goals for Stones Throw, Ryan shared his top-priority reports: a snapshot of how menu items have performed, with detailed breakdowns, and seating data from the nights when they have sat the most covers. “Whatever we did on those nights, I want to copy it.”