Full Disclaimer – *This article was based on NPR’s excellent podcast, Planet Money and their recent episode called The Trouble with Table 101, which can be found wherever you get your podcasts from.
Take a seat.
There is an Indian restaurant in New York City called Adda. It’s a small restaurant with a long and narrow dining room. The food is worth traveling for and nothing on the menu costs more than 75 AED. Unsurprisingly, the narrow dining room fills up fast.
However, this isn’t a story about their Dahi Batata Puri, which bursts in your mouth like giant caviar. This isn’t about their Amul Cheese & Chili Naan either, that people travel great distances for. This isn’t even about the James Beard award they picked up either.
This is about their tables. Well, two of their tables. One is a small four top tucked into a tight enclave that used to be a mop closet; somewhat cramped, a little claustrophobic.
The other is table 101. A large high table, right in the window, big enough to seat 8 people who can look over the restaurant from their exalted position. It’s the top table, taking up the best real estate in the restaurant. It is also the worst table in the restaurant with the lowest spend per head.
Ironically, the cramped mop closet table is Adda’s best performing table in terms of average check. Customers who sit there, consistently spend more than other customers on other tables. Same menu, same prices, same service, just a different table.
Any good restauranteur knows how their tables perform. They know the romantic tables and the tables that are best for groups. They know which tables are for families with kids and which are for solo diners. Each table has certain characteristics that very subtly affect customer perception and behaviours. One table might have an AC duct directly above it. Another might catch a whiff of the kitchen every time a waiter walks past. Another might feel the cold winter air with every swing of the front door, or one might be slightly too close to the bass speaker. But as Planet Money host, Dan Pashman says, “The key for any restaurateur is you’ve got to get the most out of every table, every seat, every minute that you’re open.”
The mop closet table is a high performer because it is what’s called an anchored table. According to Stephani Robson, a restaurant psychologist, academic and senior lecturer at Cornell University, customers prefer tables that are anchored; up against a wall or in a corner. Those tables in the middle of a dining room are too exposed and some primal instinct in us means we like to protect our space.
Stephani has plenty of insights into restaurant design psychology. According to Planet Money, one study she did suggested that if a restaurant plays faster songs, diners finished their meal almost ten minutes earlier than compared to when slower music was played. Great for improving that table turnover. Other research also suggests that people might spend more per minute when listening to faster music. (I hope Dubai restaurants don’t all upgrade their playlists to hardcore extratone electronic dance music after this.)
On the surface, table 101 should be the best seat in the house, but due to several subtle psychological cues, it is actually the worst.
For starters, it is the only high-top table in the restaurant, which alienates the people who sit there. They don’t feel part of the restaurant and it makes for an uncomfortable experience. Chances are they might only order some drinks and snacks and then move on to somewhere else.
Next problem is that it is right by the window and front door, both of which create exposure issues. Customers like to have their own space, with a certain perception of protection. Table 101 has none of that. It is open from multiple sides and is too revealing and unprotected. If you sit there, you are clearly at risk of attack from wild animals or delivery drivers.
The final problem is that it is a table for 8 people and unless a group of 8 people arrives, table 101 is never going to be utilised fully. Remember, you’ve got to get the most out of every table, every seat, every minute that you’re open. Also, communal tables, although they look great, just don’t work. I have yet to see a busy communal table in any restaurant in Dubai. The best example I remember was More Café’s communal table in Al Murooj Rotana back in 2006, but even then, it was usually more empty than full.
So, in a busy restaurant like Adda, where, according to Adda’s founder, Roni Mazumdar, each seat is worth approximately 265k AED per year, every empty seat has massive financial consequences.
This is why Roni was more than happy for Stephani Robson to apply some psychological red
esign to table 101, to see if there could be any improvement in its performance.
Here’s what Stephani did, according to the Planet Money podcast. She built a 42-inch high pony wall perpendicular to the entrance that offered certain privacy from people who walked into the restaurant.
She removed the high 8 top table and replaced it with three low tables instead. However, she had to lose one seat in the process. Roni wasn’t particularly happy about this, but Stephani was willing to bet that the remaining seven seats would make up the shortfall and actually improve revenue.
They ran the new configuration for a month and compared figures pre and post the redesign. Four weeks of customer spending at table 101 before the renovation, and four weeks after the renovation.
Remember, the key metric in a busy restaurant when is trying to maximize sales is spend per minute.
Firstly, they looked at the lunch numbers. At lunch, after the renovation, the check average went up, but so did the time spent at the tables. Customers spent more, but they also stayed longer, meaning the key metric, spending per minute, didn’t change enough to be particularly interesting.
However, the dinner shift was a different story.
At dinner, the average spend per head went up from AED 135 to AED 168. That is 33 Dhs extra per person, which is statistically significant. In the words of Stephani herself, “It’s major.”
Also, because the new tables were smaller, people were quicker to leave (smaller groups eat quicker than large groups,) and Roni had better flexibility. He could pull a couple of tables together for a larger group or keep them separate for smaller groups.
The impact this had on the spend per minute metric was substantial. The spend per minute went from 1.80 AED to 2.50 AED. That is 70 fils extra per minute. That is huge.
Roni did some quick calculations and assuming that these results hold through the entire year, Adda will make an additional 66k AED extra per annum, just by making a few tables more flexible and comfortable.
Roni said it best when reflecting on this little experiment.
He said, “We sometimes get caught up on counting every inch, but maybe the answer isn’t just about that extra table, but the quality of the experience that can make a significant impact.”
I agree – the quality of the experience will always make a significant impact on how your restaurant performs.
However, my biggest take out from Planet Money’s podcast is that you can eat at a James Beard award-winning restaurant in New York City for 168 Dhs.
Now go download that electronic house album.