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Is it right for restaurants to stop seating people before closing time?

Just adding my $.02. Whether it's right or not for restaurants to stop seating people before their posted closing time, I would never arrive at a restaurant and expect to get served less than 15 minutes before their closing time. I've been in too many restaurants around closing time and have seen the staff cleaning up, chef getting ready to leave, etc. I feel like I would not get the best service or food if the wait and kitchen staff were annoyed at me and wanting to get out of there for the evening. Again, not saying it's right of anyone to be rude or inappropriate, but it's just a courtesy I give to the restaurant.

ETA: For those who don't have context, this thread was moved by moderators from the Midwest board.

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  1. Read "Heat" by Bill Buford to find out what kitchen staff think of people who arrive just before closing...

    6 Replies
    1. re: whs

      Hopefully it says, "We as a community of the gainfully employed persons in the US understand that the way business works is that closing time is the time a business closes, not 30 minutes prior."

      Having worked in the industry throughout college and still on occasion now, I can tell you that were I to expect customers to owe me some courtesy of not eating even when a restaurant is open, I would find or have found myself frustrated by, lamenting and likely beligerant towards my customers (the most important person in my world at any given moment).

      As a consumer I tip waitstaff well and if they are responsible, they tip out the kitchen. There are days (in every job I've held) when I would love to drop everything and leave work at 5pm, however it is more often the case that I am here several more hours than I expect as my work is not done. Somehow I think my customers might take it the wrong way were I to request that they do me the courtesy of not giving me more business so I can go home earlier. Why should I expect it to be different from someone in this line of work?

      Full disclosure: my wife works part time as a server in a restaurant in NE Minneapolis that typically has customers that arrive at close and stay sometimes for 1+ hours after closing time.

      1. re: Foureyes137

        Fully agree with foureyes. As a customer I am the reason for and source of their business. That being said, I'd never unduly lollygag after finishing, and I tip well. In my line of work I've had to stay longer than I'd planned on occasion. Boo hoo.

        I can't stand all the differing and ambiguous definitions of "closing" times as relates to restos. It can mean when the lights go out, last seating, or kitchen closing. The latter is my favorite: one time I was seated only to be told the kitchen already is closed. I asked what they CAN serve me, and it was pretty much bread & water. Why even bother to say you're open if you can't serve any food (it wasn't a bar)?

        1. re: Leonardo

          I realize this is an old post but I wonder why this thought that we open as long as a customer wants service, since they are the reason for our existence doesn't apply to department stores, car dealerships, medical offices etc.?

          1. re: scubadoo97

            How many department stores tell you "Yes we are open for another 30 minutes, but we won't sell you anything"?

            1. re: PotatoHouse

              When a restaurant is open but the kitchen is closed, you can still get a drink and perhaps a dessert which doesn't require special preparation, so it is not comparable to a store which is open but "won't sell you anything."

      2. re: whs

        I will definitely check this book out.

      3. having owned a restaurant, I would say it is all according to a lot of different circumstances. If the restaurant is busy anyway and there are people seated whose orders have not yet gone into the kitchen then it makes no difference to seat more. Ditto if orders have just gone to the kitchen.

        The differences lie when the restaurant is now empty especially if it has been a quiet night anyhow and it is a few minutes to closing. It is costly to stay open for another hour - wages, utilities etc. A difficult problem for both owner, staff and customer.

        17 Replies
        1. re: smartie

          I agree with you smartie. If the place looks pretty full and bumping, then I'll ask if it's okay if I have a seat and take my meal. If it looks pretty empty, I'll go elsewhere. If I'm absolutely starving, I'll ask if it's possible to get an order to-go, but I try to avoid even this option unless I'm really desperate and there's at least 20 or 30 mins for them to get the order prepared.

          1. re: misswills

            i will concur. i think it's rude if the place is fully empty, even 20 minutes before closing time, when a customer walks in and the insist on being seated. regardless of if they are the source of our business, they are not helping us to make any money by keeping a manager, a chef, a bartender, a busser, a waiter and some kitchen staff and dishwashers for half an hour or an hour longer. it's losing money. that's the way i look at it. it doesn't make business sense.

            there will be some nights the restaurant is opened an hour beyond usual and there will be some nights when it is completely dead. accept a no and get over it. people who don't understand this haven't worked in a restaurant.

            1. re: tinymango

              Tinymango-buddy

              Oh please, give it up on the "people who don't understand this haven't worked in a restaurant" self-serving stuff. People outside "the biz" do understand. First you post that the resto is in the hospitality business and should do whatever it takes to please a custo and that only people who are well off should pay for a "split fee" and now everyone outside the biz is an idiot and the resto can close at will? Very confusing.

              Any retail establishment who posts hours of operation should abide by those posted hours. How would you feel if your grocer felt likewise at 15 minutes before closing and locked the doors because no one was shopping yet you needed a quart of milk.

              If the sign would give a little more color to what the closing time means, it would save a bunch of headaches. "Customers seated until X", "kitchen closes at Y", "All orders must be given to the server by Z", what's the big deal about some information (see parallel thread on verbal specials and prices). Every time there is a grey area, there is room for interpretation, confusion and ill-feelings.

              So if the resto would just spend ten minutes with a Word Processing System and print one page and place on the door, the disagreement is over.

              1. re: jfood

                i think i'm coming from a slightly different perspective as i work in a small town on the chesapeake bay of virginia. we are 2 hours from richmond and 4 hours from dc, in the middle of miles of cornfields.

                we boom in the summertime, easily seating people until 11, 11.30. however, the rest of the year we are hanging by a thread. we have no restaurant conglomerates or chains, everything is very much independently owned. almost every restaurant is very new as well (in their first two years or *less!*), as the tourist industry has reached a boom around here.

                for instance, a chef/owner that i know and worked for could tell you the price of every green bean that was dropped on the floor, every paper towel used to dry someones hands. imagine how much they sweat if they are torn between serving people or saving themselves a buck. if they feel that it would cost them more to take the customer than to serve them, then i think it's at their discretion to accept or reject tables. even though some hounds hate to hear this, we will also make exceptions for special or fequent customers.

                these are the the situations i'm talking about. my post was more about nights where it's been particularly slow and costly to even accept all the reservations and walk-ins (it happens rather often, especially in the winter season.) most close for a short period during the winter, but for the most part stay open year round, since weekends are still decent and we have a few booming nights around the holidays. i just know there are many nights during this period where we have to close early and sometimes turn away a table or two. it's just what happens.

                also, i think that comparing a grocery store to a restaurant is absolutely apples and oranges. grocery stores are dealing with an actual inventory and everyone goes to the grocery store. even people on food stamps. not everyone can afford to eat out or even desires to. restaurants have intangible products to sort out. grocery stores are almost always chains and have a higher profit margin and standardized service and hours.

                also, 2 out of 3 of the restaurants i've worked for around here always posted their hours as "open from 5.00 until close," and though i didn't specify that earlier, it's also part of what i had in mind when i made this post. although there are perceived hours for these businesses (closing at ten or so), but we're actually quite non-commital about it.

                i hope this clears things up a bit. thanks.

                1. re: tinymango

                  thanks tiny, very nicely described. many who do not live in destination spots with variable seasons (jfood included) are not as conversant in the vageries of the variability of custos. And once you mentioned the 9-close sign it did trigger the memory.

                  Restos are tough businesses and it's hard for an owner to sit and watch the lights burn in step with the cash.

                  thanks for the explanatin and jfood is a bit jealous that you live in such a beautiful part of the country.

                  1. re: tinymango

                    Places such as the one you describe are odd. I had a similar experience in the Outer Banks once. By the time I found a place to stay, it was almost 9pm and I had to run to the only place on the island still open (TT-I'm on an Island?)!!

                    TT

                    1. re: tinymango

                      "...until Close." does communicate that it is at the discretion of owner/manager and that it will vary depending on circumstances.

                      I much prefer this to a sign that says "Close at X" and when I arrive at X minus 20 minutes am told that I am not welcome.

                    2. re: jfood

                      Very well put Gordon, er, I mean jfood.

                      It's not uncommon for establishments to put "last orders by" these days. Of course, when you eat out as much as TT does, you get to know who serves what and when.

                      TT

                      1. re: jfood

                        Nicely said jfood. I have been at a loss to understand why restaurants do not make it clear what the rules are. If they gave you the information as you described it, there should be no problem for the customers or for the staff.

                      2. re: tinymango

                        I've worked in several restaurants and work part-time in one now, and understand that posted business hours are the hours that a business is open to serve it's customers. I've managed to invalidate your entire argument by existing.

                        1. re: tinymango

                          in the situation you describe everyone goes home except the server and the chef. server serves the customer and closes the front of the house, bussing for her/himself. i am the chef. i cook & plate the food, working all stations-- not hard for just one table. since i also know how to bartend i can do that too if the customer requires it, or the server can do own beverage serv if capable. since i am also a mgr, i can close the server's tickets at the end of the night. kitchen floor gets mopped by dish/bus before s/he leaves or i do it at the very end. far from the first or the last dang time. i wash the last load of dishes and close the kitchen while the server lets the customer out the front door and sets the table for the day shift. after the doors are locked, the server and i have a drink together and i say thanks for taking one for the team tonight, bob.

                          work with a restaurant that's trying to close, yeah-- verbally ask staff if it's fine or not-- sit at the bar or a bar-area table, put your order in right away, offer to take it in to-go packaging, yes generally recognize that people need to go home and it's not all about you, don't be a PITA or linger over coffee refills and ice water-- don't forget to TIP generously, your server could be home with her/his family but is serving you instead-- all this i could see, but i make my living in the biz and you have to show a customer hospitality if they walk in 20 to close-- i don't get tinymago's post at all. if you close down 20 mins early on a regular basis you're going to get a reputation for erratic late night hours and your late customers (read-- other restaurant staff just getting off work--i.e. great customers) will stop coming.

                          1. re: soupkitten

                            This last, excellent, point by soupkitten is exactly the right one in all of this. If a restaurant starts "closing" or turning customers away at comparatively random times toward the end of the night, it will start losing people who might otherwise have come. This happened with a sushi bar that was a favorite of mine (and my staff when I managed a different, nearby restaurant). On a few occasions, they turned me and my dining companions away because they were shutting down anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes before the sign on their door indicated that they'd be closing that night. I stopped going after about 7pm without a reservation, and I stopped going after about 8:30 period (and if they hadn't been the best sushi in town, I would have stopped going period). Ultimately, they lost out on, probably, 2 or 3 visits a month from me as I went elsewhere rather than risk the time and effort for naught should they have decided to close down. I would presume that they also turned away other people on those nights and perhaps lost them as customers at other times, too.

                            I get wanting to shut down and go home, but as I've said elsewhere on this site and in many other places and to the general manager when I was running a restaurant...."if you want to go home earlier, close earlier." And, really, just have a "last order" time. It's unambiguous and if it's posted, there's no issue. A customer might still come in and ask at which point you have the option to do them a favor and win some favor, or you can say "I'm sorry, its past our last order time and the kitchen is closed" which the customer already knew or could/should have known from the sign. Laundromats have this figured out, they post a "closing" time and a "last load in" time. Everyone knows what's going on.

                            1. re: ccbweb

                              And yet, no matter how many times it has been suggested that restaurants save themselves and their customers hard feelings by putting up a sign that states what time the kitchen closes and what time the restaurant closes, the result is people wanting to find a can of Raid to put a stop to the sound of chirping crickets.

                              1. re: Seth Chadwick

                                Yep, it's a mystery. Traditions...they can be problematic sometimes.

                                1. re: ccbweb

                                  Restaurants that close early are demonstrating a lack of will to survive. If I were the owner and found that my chef had closed early or that servers were turning people away I would find new employees. May sound harsh, but the owner or manager should set that tone. How do you expect to build that late evening clientelle if you are turning people away? It's a cumulative effect. In fact it should be an opportunity for a restaurant to shine where the chef can focus on everything that goes out of the kitchen and the server should be able to offer superlative service. What greater opportunity do you have to make a real impression? If management doesn't want to their staff to work when business is thin then close earlier.

                                  If you turn away that person at 25 of and there is only one table left wrapping up their meal, what happens when someone looks in the window at 20 of, then 15 of etc, etc. and they all turn away because they don't want to be "rude" to the wait staff. These same customers then never think of that place as a place to get a late bite again except maybe on the weekends. You can make it into a self fullfilling prophecy that weeknights suck.

                                  There are enough reasons for restaurants to die in this town. I think it is a death nell when an unbusy restaurant turns away business.

                                2. re: Seth Chadwick

                                  Yes,restaurants should put up a sign saying when the kitchen and restaurant closes.The help wants to go home.
                                  I work part time in retail and am the one who usually does the closing announcement.I think they perfer I do it since I don't sound like a little mouse on the pa.I'm loud and let the customers know that all registers,fitting room,jewlery extra close in 30 minutes.I also make an announcement at 9:15 and 9:25 as warnings so they get their keisters to the register and get out,hopefully before 9:30 when we close.
                                  That's what restaurants need to to is post signs and TELL people what time the kitchen closes.

                        2. re: smartie

                          I've seen both sides of this smartie and you are right it is hard all around. If you turn away the one couple on a slow night that shows up shortly before closing you might be punishing the faithful. Why lose the only customers you get? But from a practical point of view as a patron, I would not feel comfortable being the only table in a restaurant shortly before closing and I would rather just come another night. This might be more of a US thing, I've heard in Spain they are way more laid back and don't rush the last table at all. But this is just second hand.

                        3. A pet peeve here for sure!

                          If you are open untill 10pm then I should be able to walk in at 9:55 and get a seat and friendly service. If that's not the case then close earlier!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jbyoga

                            While I do understand all the perspectives expressed on this, I really have to agree with jbyoga. We have a wine bar within a wine retail shop and our weekend posted closing is 9PM. If someone comes in at 8:55 I really have no proper way of saying anything other than "Welcome". If I don't want guests at that time the sign should say closing is earlier or I should turn off the OPEN sign and lock the doors. The latter makes no sense to me as it simply tells customers that our closing time varies - not a way to grow a business. I am just as anxious to go home as any one else would be after a 12 hour day, but that's my issue not the guest's.

                            We actually just added a plus (+) to the 9PM (it says 9PM+) because many customers told us they didn't bother to come after around 8:30 because they thought we "closed" at 9. So...... there really is a variable definition for people as to what a posted closing means. In our case, I think much of it is because we're mostly a retail wine shop and closing tends to mean closing in that type of establishment. Our wine bar makes it more like a restaurant in teh evening, though......at least that's how we see it.

                          2. I have found myself (due to late flights) getting into cities late and very hungry.
                            What has worked is asking the only barely open restaurants if they can fix something fast or to go, as I explain that I have been flying and foodless.Or can they recommend a decent place that's open later (and not a raucous bar). And being as nice as I can in explaining that I know it's inconvenient for them to have someone come in so late.
                            Being apologetic has worked wonders. And I've never left hungry.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: shallots

                              Being nice gets points just about everywhere. And if you ask (politely) about recommendations for dining elsewhere, the owner or manager is much more likely to invite you in and maybe even take care of you themselves utilizing maybe just one or two stations (while letting the rest of the staff clean up theirs). The wages are a big deal as margins in most places are skinny so getting staff clocked out as soon as possible is a concern. But a good owner/manager can cover several jobs - and should in the case of the 5-minute-before-closing diner.

                            2. Have noticed a recent trend in SF, and I hope it continues, where the message on the door and/or menu states, "Seating until...." As a lifetime chef I like that idea rather than stating a closing hour...In all honesty, you have no idea what is going to be done to your food if you and your merry party of six arrive at 10:59...