Position your pizzeria to thrive with large parties
An exercise: Go to a search engine and type “group friendly restaurants” and your area/town. Are you listed? Read the descriptions of the places ranked to see why they were highlighted.
If your pizzeria is quick-serve or fast-casual, you may be ready to serve a bus-load of people on the drop of a dime; however, accommodating groups in a full-service pizzeria can be a challenge and requires a balancing act for your kitchen and front of house to meet expectations of regular customers and large parties.
Often served family style, pizza is a natural choice for large groups; but, are you ready to handle parties of 12 or more diners on the spot?
With the rise of on-demand catering and bulk ordering on the fly, groups today are less likely to plan ahead; but that doesn’t have to leave you scrambling to seat groups. Accommodating large parties doesn’t happen on a busy Friday or Saturday night. It happens in the planning. It’s more than pushing some tables together. It’s working out the intricate details to feed groups without negatively impacting your regular volume.
Michael Shepherd, president of Perfecting Pizza LLC in South Carolina, outlines some considerations to plan for groups.
Create a game plan for success. Take a look at four key areas:
• Table Strategy. The No. 1 way to be group friendly is to always have a place for groups, whether it be a private dining and event room or separate area set aside.
Many pizzerias simply do not have the space to create a stand alone space to seat groups. There are several other solutions. A long banquet or bench seating that can be reconfigured with varying party sizes in mind is a great option.
Having a mix of two, four and six tops can also help accommodate groups, Shepherd says. “I always aimed to have at least two to three areas in my pizzeria that could be flipped from individual groups to large parties in just a few minutes,” he says.
• Large Party Policies. Spell it out for your guests. What can you and your staff feasibly accommodate? If you have a small dining room, you may only want to seat groups of 12 or less without being split up. Whatever those parameters are — based on your space, kitchen efficiency and staff — write it down. Create a group menu with varying serving sizes to make it easier to order.
Include group information on your Web site and make it available in house. “We created small cards that we would give to large groups explaining how they could make reservations, easily get sat during non-peak hours, and how our wait system worked,” Shepherd says. “We always handed these out to large groups to help educate them for next time. These policies and suggestions were on our Web site, too.”
You might instantly think to institute policies to control group efficiencies. Some of those include minimum order size, single payment method and automatic gratuity. Shepherd warns that having too many policies for large parties can be counter productive.
“People today want what they want when they want it,” he says. “They aren’t expecting to have to deal with a set of guidelines like you would at a fine dining establishment. If a group of 20 wants the bill split 20 ways, no problem. No minimum orders unless they are renting an entire section or room.”
One policy that Shepherd is adamant about instituting is a service charge to groups. “When it comes to service charges or mandatory gratuity, I feel that you should automatically add it on for very large groups of 12 or more,” he says. “Often these groups require multiple servers, are more ‘needy’, and everyone else often is expecting the other to pickup the bill or the tip. An automatic service charge makes this easier for everyone. Just make sure you follow the new rules on properly classifying service charges as a wage rather than a tip.” More on services charges, visit www.irs.gov/newsroom/tips-versus-service-charges-how-to-report.
• Staff Teamwork. Every employee needs to be on top of their game to handle groups.
Shepherd says hosts should be empathetic and well spoken. Language is important when trying to seat a group. “Hosts never want to retreat to ‘It’s our policy’ but instead need to explain the policy and reasons why without ever uttering the words ‘It’s our policy’,” Shepherd says. Hosts should also let managers and the kitchen know that a group has arrived, relaying its size and their estimated wait time.
Serving a group may require multiple servers and a manager should be ready to step in to help meet the needs of individuals within the group. Shepherd says it’s always a good idea to have guidelines in place when a party needs two servers.
Kitchen efficiency and execution is critical. “Party orders need to be treated as an emergency,” Shepherd says. “They won’t stand for half the group having their food while the other half waits another 20 minutes. All the food needs to come out together.”
• Wait Protocols. Walk-in large groups should not expect preferential placement on the waitlist. “If your wait list is full they get pushed to the end of the line just like anyone else,” Shepherd advises. “Upsetting dozens of people on the wait list isn’t worth accommodating one large group. Individual customers are your bread and butter. I never advocate holding seats empty more than a few minutes during a rush to accommodate a large group. Empty seats don’t pay the rent.”
How to handle large parties during a rush
Accommodating large parties can be a double-edged sword during peak dining hours. Groups tend to linger for hours, while you may be able to turn those same tables two or three times. Shepherd shares his experience: “I can remember numerous Friday nights at my pizzeria (with 120 seats) where we accommodated two groups of about 20 to 30 guests. Each group stayed for two to three hours and reduced my sales by about $1,500 for the evening. These groups stopped ordering food and drinks after the first hour and occupied nearly half of my seating. We had to turn away guest after guest all evening because they weren’t willing to wait two hours for a seat. We quickly changed our policy to only accommodate large groups of nine plus before or after peak hours of 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. afterwards. Otherwise they could split up and be treated as a normal customer.”
If large parties frequently walk in, Shepherd says “Then I would start considering making a dedicated party area.”
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.