In my last two columns, I explored the etiquette of outdoor seating and best practices for indoor seating. This month, I’m taking a deep dive into a topic that has certainly resulted in some of you stomping off in a semi-quiet rage: walking into a restaurant full of empty tables and still being given a long wait time.
In late May, my partner, a friend, and I drove out to the Gorge for some hiking and dropped into Hood River to eat. My partner suggested either Solstice (known for its pizzas) or pFriem Family Brewers, as she’d been to both and knew that if the wait was too long at one, the other was right next door.
Instead, we ate at neither. The wait time at Solstice was 70 minutes, while the wait for a table at pFriem was three and a half hours. The kicker, of course, was that half the tables in each restaurant were empty.
My partner and my friend were annoyed. Steamed, even. I knew there must be a reason, so I reached out to both restaurants to get to the bottom of it.
“The wait list struggle is real down here at the waterfront, and can be frustrating for both sides as there’s no bulletproof solution to the massive swings in seasonal business,” says Natalie Price, Solstice’s co-general manager.
And she says it gets even crazier between Memorial and Labor Day, when the tiny town of 11,000 swells to around 35,000. There’s no way to argue the math: More people equals longer wait times.
To mitigate the situation, both Solstice and pFriem use the phone app NoWait. When you show up, the host gives you an estimated wait time. If you’re cool with it, they’ll take down your number and use the app to send you two texts: one to confirm you’re on the wait list, another to let you know your table is ready. The catch? You have a mere 10 minutes to claim it.
Here’s where the empty tables come in.
“When we call [the wait-listers], I would say the split is pretty even,” says Jakob Lillvik, pFriem’s assistant general manager. “A third say they’re on their way, a third say they’ve made other plans, and a third don’t answer at all.”
That’s where things can get sticky. If a third of those parties are no-answer no-shows, those empty tables are going to be empty a lot longer.
“When you have two or three parties no show, a table may sit empty 20 to 30 minutes before being seated again,” says Price.
Both Price and Lillvik know that long wait times for a half-empty restaurant isn’t a good look, but there simply isn’t a better solution outside of expansion. (Price says Solstice has plans to add another 40 seats during the winter months.) That’s why they do their very best to explain the situation.
“Many of our guests haven’t worked in the industry and may not understand the nuances of balancing the wait,” says Lillvik. “Our aim is to be empathetic and clear, and as briefly as possible explain that we’re simply waiting for guests to arrive.”
Does it always go well? Usually, but certainly not always.
“All it takes is one guest making an 18-year old hostess cry to ruin everyone’s day,” Lillvik says. “Often it’s taken out on the staff via social media or Yelp reviews.”
So if you plan on hiking the Gorge this summer and want to swing by Hood River for a bite, remember the town has tripled in size since winter and you’ll be fighting for tables with all the other hangry tourists.
That said, Lillvik has some tips to help you make the most of your wait: Bring snacks. Go in with the expectation that it’s going to be packed, then feel really good if it ends up being a shorter wait.
In the end, the proper response to long waits and empty tables is simple: Be patient and kind to everyone. Even if the wait is long, the restaurant really is on your side.