Restaurant Table Numbers: Reduce Wastage & Improve Service
Restaurant table numbers–pretty simple right? You would think so, however, in my day I’ve seen thousands of dollars worth of product fall victim to wastage due to confusing, inconsistent, or unnecessarily complicated table numbering schemes.
A bad table numbering system also creates the potential for frustration and conflict among your team. Of course people will get frustrated when mistakes are made, but people will also get defensive when they feel those mistakes aren’t their fault.
But perhaps most importantly, guests generally don’t like to see a server wander around aimlessly, trying to figure out where the product they are carrying is meant to go.
An effective table numbering system will reduce wastage, clumsy mistakes, and create a magically smooth service where everything ‘just works.'
Keep in simple, stupid. Generally speaking, you want your table map to be as simple and consistent as possible—emphasis on simple. Every restaurant is different, but there are some general rules of thumb you can implement to ensure you are operating at peak efficiency.
Stick to 1 or 2-digit table numbers
In the past, I've worked in a 70-ish capacity restaurant that used 3-digit table numbers, and all it added to the service was create confusion.
If your venue is too big for this, consider descriptive prefixes instead of arbitrary letters. Ex: Patio 11, Mezzanine 23, etc.
Sections shouldn't begin with a number that ends in 0
For example, instead of "Table 10," have the 10s start with "Table 11" instead.
This keeps your single-digit tables in line with your double-digit ones (because you probably won't use "table 0"), and reduces the odds a food runner will only hear the first part of a table number (for example, “run this to table 32,” and they only hear “thirty” or “two).
If these tables don’t exist, they will certainly have to clarify what they heard. This kind of thing happens surprisingly often on busy nights.
Consider naming key & unique tables descriptively
Examples might include “Chefs Table,” or “Communal Table,” etc.
If you are going this route, keep it under 3 named tables, max. Asking your staff to remember more than this is difficult and guaranteed to cause problems.
Seat numbers standards
Seat numbers should always flow clockwise, and begin at a consistent spot for every table. Avoid heuristics like “standing with the back to the kitchen” or “walk up direction.” These are okay for booths, where there is only one direction of approach, but for other types of tables, these can be more confusing than they are worth.
It is also common standard to start with the first (clockwise) position on banquettes as your seat 1.
Marking seat 1 with an X on your printed table map is a general convention most restaurants use when designing printed table maps.
Keep your sections in straight lines
Spiral or circular table number patterns only serve to further add complexity. Keep in mind, it is also good practice to design your section in such a way that there is a clean break between two servers if possible. It's always best to avoid splitting one section between multiple servers.
When joining tables, always round down
It's all about target acquisition. Typically people count up to find their target table. Also, skip the absent numbers instead of changing the rest of the tables in the section.
Always count empty seats
This one is controversial, as it may be more intuitive for some people to count heads vs seats–but skipping seats removes flexibility to add more guests easily. What if someone else joins this table (graphic)? Now you have to change everyone's seat number (lest you have two "Seat 1s").]
Not good on a busy night, especially when the kitchen and bar chits have already been printed.
Further tips for success:
Have a clear and simple table map printed
Post it somewhere useful for the staff. Near the pass is best, as having it hidden away in the back isn’t much good for a new server in the heat of the moment. Again, don't forget to mark your seat 1 position with an X.
Ensure new staff are trained properly
Have them practice and run food for a full shift to get a feel for the system. Do not compromise on this.
Do not allow staff to use their own, personally preferred system
It’s not okay for people to break conventions and drive on their preferred side of the road.
Staff may have personal preferences that they insist are easier for them, but having multiple ‘ways of the road’ will just lead to accidents.
Just because people are used to the current system, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. But, if you do change it, be sure to communicate the changes effectively–preshift notes, a communication board, and email notifications are good tools.
To save money on wastage, reduce staff conflict/frustration, and generally improve the service experience, it is vital to have a consistent and sensible table numbering system. If not already used, try using some of the strategies above. They will certainly help your restaurant run more efficiently.
These strategies may seem strict, but any experienced manager knows how a little inefficiency in the wrong place can throw a wrench into the gears of an otherwise well-functioning restaurant.
Did I miss anything? What are some tips you use as part of your table map strategy? Feel free to leave them in the comments below 👇.