FIGHTING A WAIT PROBLEM

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Restaurants are trying to play the waiting game.

Fatter paychecks and harried working households have bumped up the incidence of eating out -- and consequently, the time diners wait for a table. That's led dining chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Bennigan's and Bahama Breeze to devise a variety of marketing fixes, from quasi-restaurant waiting areas to advertised takeout fare, beepers and new reservation systems -- all to reduce, bypass or eliminate the wait.

The National Restaurant Association does not keep statistics on wait times, but even casual diners can attest to longer waits and shorter fuses. Chicagoan Pat Dando won't go to casual chains anymore, especially when the wait exceeds 15 minutes.

"There isn't anything that good that I would wait that long" for, she said, citing the numerous times she cooled her heels another 20 minutes beyond the 20 minutes she was quoted by the host. "I'll walk out."

CREATING WAITS

In the 1970s, restaurants were designed to create waits. The idea was to make the restaurant smaller than needed so patrons would spend the evening there, said Bob O'Brien, president of NPD Foodservice Information Group.

"It would boost profits because customers would drink and eat appetizers," he said, noting that cheese sticks, nachos and potato skins all came out during that period.

But in the late '80s and early '90s, many chains revived the idea of reservations, which often set off complaints by customers who still would have to wait for their reserved seats.

More disposable income also has led to more dining out; in 1999, Americans dined away from home 3.7 times per week, according to Zagat, up nearly 9% from 1997, when people ate out 3.4 times weekly. The number of restaurants has also grown, up 26.5% since 1990, according to Technomic.

One method to circumvent the wait is a pseudo reservation. Some customers have been driven to make a reservation in person, then leave to go home and later return with the other guests. California Pizza Kitchen eases the process by letting customers call ahead to put their names on a priority waiting list. Cell phones have made this highly convenient. A new survey by the National Restaurant Association found that one-third of mobile phone users made restaurant reservations using their cell phones. Even more respondents, 41%, used their mobile phones to place carryout or delivery orders.

The pre-reservation idea, however, can create as many problems as it solves.

"The problem with call-ahead service is when you have consumers waiting an hour and someone walks in and gets a table right away," said Nancy Schneid, VP-marketing for Outback Steakhouse.

OFFERING HOSPITALITY

Waits, in fact, are such a sore subject that they are taboo as a point of differentiation in Outback's ads, handled in-house. Rather than eliminate the wait -- and possibly reduce the check -- Ms. Schneid said her goal is to offer hospitality during the wait with food and drink service or special "billabong rooms," hospitality rooms that are neither a bar nor a dining room, but where people can drink and eat appetizers.

Restaurant consultant Bob Goldin, exec VP at Technomic, said his focus group research shows customers don't so much complain about wait times as they want to experience a more pleasant wait.

That fact hasn't been lost on Darden Restaurants, which has been experimenting with buffer areas to divert customer attention from wait times.

"Waiting in line is a barrier to getting a basic human need met: Feed me," said Roger Thompson, senior VP-strategic marketing and research for Darden, who noted that company research showed waiting was the chief complaint among customers.

Since the company's first Bahama Breeze unit opened in 1996, "we've never had a day where we've not had a wait," said Gary Heckle, president of Bahama Breeze, adding that the wait can top 2 hours on weekends and 1 hour most nights. The chain offers a tropical deck to accommodate those waiting for dinner, featuring live entertainment, drinks and appetizers. "At Bahama Breeze people stay longer than any concept," he said. "We like to think of it as the memorable 2-hour island vacation."

Since the first unit was built in Orlando, Fla., the original deck has been expanded five times, creating unexpected rewards for Darden. Customers typically spend an hour on the deck before dinner, stay for an hour or so inside, then come back outside for the remainder of the night.

"It can extend [the visit] to a whole evening vs. a 50-minute table turn," said Blaine Sweatt, president-new business. More importantly, the deck can generate 5% to 20% additional revenue for a restaurant's daily take. The chain, which serves only dinner, brought in $5 million last year per unit. There are now 14 units, with another eight planned.

Based on the success of the deck, Darden has tried them at its other restaurants, including Red Lobster and Olive Garden. But that's not to suggest the idea works for everyone. "A lot of people rush into decks as a cure-all, and they perform poorly," Mr. Sweatt said.

GET IT TO GO

Another increasingly popular way to circumvent long waits is through takeout service. Two-thirds of consumers surveyed in 1999 by the NRA said the food they purchased for takeout was worth the additional cost. The survey showed that two in five adults believe takeout service is essential to the way they live. So essential, in fact, that Outback and Bennigan's are creating dedicated entrances and marketing efforts to promote new takeout service. Brinker International's Chili's chain has had takeout since the 1970s and is now retrofitting existing units with dedicated entries, parking and staff.

Outback has been testing in 10 markets a curbside take-away program that targets consumers who don't have time for the dine-in experience. Customers order their meal and within 20 minutes can pull up to a designated parking area where their food is brought to them by carhops, who complete the transaction at the car.

"It's not drive-through, it's call up, pull up, pickup," Ms. Schneid said. To promote the test, a direct-mail campaign via Advo was sent to households with incomes of $75,000-plus, inviting them to try the service.

"We found that between family time and stress, the wait was interfering with people being able to dine in," said Ms. Schneid, who added that takeout now represents about 5% of total sales.

Bennigan's also will open a new unit in Frisco, Texas, later this year with a takeout service that features a dedicated order station, entrance and parking areas. Its On the Go takeout program is an alternate option for customers who don't have time for the on-site experience.

While the first wait option is the bar area, restaurants also have a lobby area and outdoor seating in warmer climates. From Thursday through Saturday, wait staff work the lobby and can offer free appetizers, said John Beck, VP-marketing at Bennigan's.

TOUTED ON RADIO

Bennigan's On the Go program is targeted to working parents with incomes of $50,000 and up who are looking for better quality food and more variety. The program is also promoted with in-store merchandising and in tags on local radio ads from Doner, Cleveland, that suggest, "Try Bennigan's On the Go service -- a great way to have Bennigan's food if time doesn't allow."

To pitch On the Go, the chain has used refrigerator magnets and a direct mailing in fourth-quarter 1999 aimed both at businesses and residents within a 5-mile radius of its 3,000 restaurant locations. The direct-mail ads made a specific offer from the local unit, which initially doubled the units' to-go business.

The chain will outfit new restaurants with to-go areas and is evaluating curbside service similar to Outback's. Three new restaurants will be outfitted in fall 2000 in a 120-day test, and the chain's 2000 objective is to double its current takeout business, now at 2.5% of total revenue.

"As long as the economy trends well and consumers have higher demand for better quality food, there could be some establishments doing 8% to 10% of total business" from takeout, Mr. Beck said.

Reservations, meanwhile, are making a comeback. Outback is testing a new reservation-based concept that opened June 3 in Tampa, Fla. Called Zazarac, the casual fine-dining restaurant features a southern Louisiana theme. Boasting a more upscale menu at about $35 per person, the unit will target baby boomers with high disposable incomes.

KEEPING THEM THERE

A major challenge continues to be keeping impatient diners from leaving, a task being tackled by automation. Dave Miller, president of JTECH Communications, which supplies pagers to 60,000 restaurants such as Outback and Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar, said the pagers allow for a more relaxed wait -- and once relaxed, customers are more likely to stay and have a greater propensity to order drinks.

To provide more accurate wait time estimates, some restaurants also have purchased automated reservation systems that calculate the wait based on the number of guests, the time, day and other criteria. Wayne Rock, VP-product development at EZ2Get.com, said his system allowed one restaurant to increase nightly table turns from 8.5 to 13 after using the system for six months. The company currently is testing an online system for theme parks and casinos that gives patrons a printout with a time to return to the attraction or game.

A noble goal, although consumers appear resigned to the situation. "If you ask consumers about waits they go into a tirade," Outback's Ms. Schneid said, "but they still wait."

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