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Best queue management tools for restaurants

5 min read

In this article we’ll cover:

We Britons are known for loving queues, but do we really love queues, is it something else, or are we just polite? A clashing of queue etiquette springs to mind particularly in parts of the continent – lifts in french ski resorts for example.

Our “love” of queues is probably somewhat synonymous with what lies at the front of the line, and perhaps how enjoyable the queueing experience is. Enjoyable queues are at my favourite restaurants, on the weekend, where I have nowhere else to be, with a good book. I will quite happily go-ahead alone, queue, read, make friends, and my partner will join 5 minutes before we sit down. This has been a common occurrence for us, at Granger & Co. in Nottinghill and Padella in Borough Market in particular.

As a restaurant, what is the best way to manage a queue? Well, you’ve already nailed one aspect, if you have a line what lies at the front of the queue in your restaurant is apparently worth queuing for. Great work, but how do you now convert all those queuers into sat down diners efficiently.

Ever watched as aimless passers-by join a queue simply because it’s there, due to a feeling of missing out perhaps or worry of missing an opportunity they’d later regret. Queue theory does exist. Seventeen people queues are apparently the common tipping point for a queue that is too long, under seventeen and you are likely to have a steady stream of joiners. I’ve spoken to folks that run festival food vans who actively slow down their service as a queue attracts more queuers, we are funny beings.

Restaurant queues have a little more at stake than churro vans, as each customer is worth a lot more. Each round of service is much longer, making it more challenging to keep those customers, so what are the ways you can manage that?

1 – Simple pen & paper

Minutes to setup, you probably have everything you need, cheap as chips and yours to define. It can merely be a list in order of those waiting with the number in their party.

Drawing up a table can also work well for planning seating. You can write out the table numbers, covers of each table, and have a timeline so you can predict which groups will sit where. It will be more efficient having a plan of who is sitting where next and will help you turntables more quickly.

You might ask why that is worth doing as everyone is going to remain in the queue anyway? Well, firstly, you might not be able to judge the number of people waiting to be seated by the number in the queue. One person might be kindly keeping their space for many.

Secondly, walking down a queue and speaking to your guests and taking details from them gives a greater feeling of commitment. For the guests, it feels like you have control of the situation (even if they are still going to stand in a queue).

Downsides to this method are it’s not great for your staff’s productivity levels. There’s plenty of room for human error, and it earmarks that as someone’s job for the duration of service. Also, your guests still have to wait in a queue.

2 – Ramp it up a notch with a computer or tablet

Upgrade to a pre-saved excel spreadsheet, yes it operates mostly like the pen and paper system. Still, it may save you having one person dedicated to hosting and queue management. Depending on your staffing levels, having an easy to read system that staff quickly check as they pass may free up some valuable labour time to wait on current tables.

When you’re walking up and down the line with a piece of technology, this may inspire a little more confidence in your organisation skills.

Downsides: you have to buy a computer or tablet if you don’t have one already, you still have a queue.

3 – Create your own phone alerts system

Buy a mobile phone that you can text off or set up a text system from your computer/tablet. What you’ll now do is collect guest information as above but include their mobile phone number.

Guests who are around 10-15 minutes away from being seated keep in the queue. The rest you send away and make them aware that you will text them when their table is 10-15 minutes away from being ready. In the text maybe ask them to text back confirming they will be taking the table.

This all requires a fair amount of accurate time estimations and organisational skills, and almost certainly one member of staff allocated the whole time. They need to be taking down the information of the new people in the queue, turning them away, organising those at the front to be sat down, watching the restaurant for those who are about to leave and texting the next guests.

Allowing guests the opportunity to wander the local area or grab a drink at a local bar before their meal is a much better experience. It also guarantees that you’ll have business later in the evening in, let’s say your second round of service. Guests aren’t going to not eat because they have to stand in a queue for an hour. If the weather is terrible (a common concern here in the UK), it’s not going to derail the rest of your service.

Downsides: you need to allocate a member of staff for this. Table turn time may be disjointed if they aren’t estimating carefully, or you may end up with annoyed guests waiting longer if misjudged.

4 – Bring in the professionals

In our connected world, there are plenty of opportunities to make this automated by paying for the service. These tend to be along the lines of your staff, adding the guests’ details to a system. Which automatically alerts or texts the guests when their table is nearly ready, or guests can join the queue remotely.  

There have been a few different innovative attempts at making a good restaurant queuing system. A US company called Q Less operates a system where guests join the queue remotely by calling or texting an automated number (see bottom of this webpage here for example https://www.qless.com/industriesrestaurants/).

Qudini allows guests to join the virtual queue by registering their details at the restaurant, they are sent a text once your table is nearly ready. They have to arrive in a specific timeframe or risk losing their table. We tried Qudini in Lina Stores in Kings Cross, the timing estimations the weblink gave weren’t at all accurate (it was much longer). We decided to change bars and get a snack due to the waiting time only to receive a message within a few minutes that our table was ready. We had to abandon (who am I kidding, neck) our drinks. Difficult to say if it was the queuing system or the staff that weren’t managing time expectations properly.

WalkIn allows guests to do both. Register at the restaurant and join the queue remotely, priority is given to those guests physically standing at the restaurant and then the remote queue is opened up for the remaining covers. Sometimes the remote queue never becomes available as the physical queue fills up all rounds of service (at Padella for instance).  

WalkIn texts guests when their table is ready and encourages them to download and register for their app, where all other restaurants using WalkIn are displayed. A plus point for increasing your virtual presence and marketing to future guests.  

The cons of these systems are that while they automate a considerable amount of the work, they are still reliant on staff initiating the action to bring in the next table. Whether it’s marking tables as available in Qudini, potentially providing in-accurate waiting times and delays between tables. Or marking checkpoints in the service in WalkIn so the app can best predict when to bring in the next guests. There is still room for improvement on all fronts.


5 – Embrace the queue and make that time enjoyable for your guests

Going back to the beginning of what makes a good queue, end game or enjoyment? Do away with all the above and make the queue part of the experience!  

I can actually remember queues where this has happened to me! I’ve been offered cups of takeaway coffee while waiting for brunch, I’ve sat on more than one occasion drinking wine on a bench outside a restaurant. Drinks at the bar before dinner aren’t as common as they once were, but drinks in the queue could be a lot of fun – wine not! (Licencing laws depending).

If you start giving out bottles of wine in the queue, make sure you secure payment. Saves you keeping track of who had what later, prevents people slipping away from the line once they’ve had their wine. In essence, it’s best probably to take payment then and there.  

Provide snacks! Popcorn, nuts, aperitif, canapes, soft drinks if you can’t provide alcohol. If you are charging for these items its a great way to dish out high margin products early on, even if they end up giving up on the queue at least you got some money out of them while they were there.

I still remember 5 years ago being given small plates of tapas food outside a restaurant in Budapest. When I next visit the city, I will most definitely be going back to that restaurant (Tripadvisor). Firstly the food was fantastic; secondly the personal touch with service of a couple of canapes and some bubbles while waiting was terrific.  

You could even go as far as making it entertaining with games, “shall we go to the restaurant where they give you a riddle in the queue, and you can win a free drink if you get it right the first time?!”. It’s a feature, it’s fun, its novel, be the restaurant where people don’t mind waiting because the queue is memorable.

Cons of this process: its weather dependent, there’s only so much fun you can make a rainy queue. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, you need to be careful with paying attention to payment.

There are people in this world that will just queue no matter what. Dishoom is one of those exceptional cases where people will stand for over an hour and a half for a table no matter the weather. Dishoom doesn’t use an automated queuing system. To get a table you have to be stood there, and as annoying as it is more often than not you’ll hear people marvelling at how popular it is and how long the queues are before they discuss the food.

We could bring this conversation right back around and ask should you have a queue at all? A backlog of demand would suggest there is something wrong with your supply; does service need to be quicker, can you add more covers, is it time for a new site or another site?

Or maybe everyone is right, us Britons, just love queues.