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Jan 4, 2010 01:30 PM

Why do restaurants do this when you're trying to book for large parties?

**Commiserate with me or share the view from the other side. I'm interested in what restaurant owners/staff have to say about this one!**

As a part-time event planner (I plan 8-10 large-scale dinners a year), my jaw drops every time a restaurant simply tells me "no." Especially in this economy.

Not that they don't have the space available or the capability to handle the event, but that they are "closed that day" (4-6 months out) or that they won't consider a buy-out (even if I ask them to name their price). Or best one yet, "You can come in, but we can't guarantee the space or advance order a menu." As if I am going to take 60 people to a restaurant just to see if they can fit us in! Sometimes I truly wonder who is answering the phone/email, is it Sara the disgruntled hostess or is it the maitre d' who has so little common sense?

What would the right answers be?

"We're not typically open on (day of week here), would you be willing to consider another day of the week?" - Don't make me work for it, offer me suggestions to spend money at your establishment. Worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work out, but at least you tried.

"We can open the restaurant for a food and beverage minimum of $10,000, plus a gratuity of 15%. We will need an advance deposit of 50%." - Set your terms. There's a point where you WILL open, right? You don't know my budget, so hit me with your terms and let me decide. You might be really happy to find out what I can work with.

And if you really, truly will not open for a large event, don't just say "we're closed" or "no." Thank me for my interest, recommend another local restaurant that you know accommodates large groups, and/or give me some sort of explanation (religious reasons, a commitment to staff, AA meeting, whatever it is), this will go a LONG way to getting me to recommend your restaurant for an impromptu dinner (remember those 60 people I was bringing with me?) for another night or to try it myself when I'm in the area. A flat no gets you checked out of my list. For good.

Vent over. :)

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  1. jennifer42, I sympathize with your plight. I am usually the one to book our holiday office party and teambuliding events throughout the year. While I've never received a flat-out NO, I do find myself asking more questions than necessary when planning these events. The ones that do offer suggestions and work with my (usually small) budget get my repeat business.

    I will say the places that set their terms too high--even by NYC standards--will get the polite "thanks" and I move on. One place wanted $6500 for the space plus a min of $6500 in food and bev for 30 people and wouldn't budge. My budget for that event was only $3000 and the venue normally served $20-25 entrees. (throws hands in the air and sighs)

    4 Replies
    1. re: iluvcookies

      you have to consider that those 30 people will take up more time and space than 15 couples the same night. plus the logistics are completely different than the everyday work in the kitchen.

      1. re: thew

        You have a point... it's more of the attitude that bugs me. Really I was trying to share in the plight of the OP and assure her she isn't alone. And the $$ amount mentioned above wasn't for the entire place, just a private area large enough for our group on a weeknight during a traditionally slow time of year. If it was in December, I would have been more understanding.

      2. re: iluvcookies

        To me, if they quote that high, they're basically saying they don't want the business. Which makes me want to ask the OP, which is better? A place that says NO flat out and up front or a place that makes you work for it by naming a price so out of line they know you'll never go for it? I would rather the flat no myself! I see your response below and it seems you are more concerned with etiquette and communication skills than the restaurant's actual policies/ability to handle a large group. I agree with you in a general sense - people in general could be nicer - but I'm generally more concerned with a restaurant's food than their email skills. I don't really even expect them to keep their websites updated or answer emails, they're not online businesses after all.

        1. re: julesrules

          Well, if I didn't like their menu and they didn't have impressive reviews and a stellar wine list, I never contacted them in the first place! ;)

          A restaurant experience is about more than just the food and it starts from the second they greet (or don't greet) you at the door, over the phone, or via email.

      3. I'm astounded that you're having the amount of trouble you're having getting restaurants to say "yes." I'm astounded at the restaurants! A banquet can be a fabulous opportunity to showcase a restaurant's talents to a captive audience of potential repeat customers. What's wrong with these idiots? Unless the organizer of the event is asking the restaurant to price things so low they're essentially giving you a silk purse for the price of a sow's ear, there's also a chance to make money.

        Our restaurant's open 7 days a week, so it's easier to arrange overtime, rather than opening on a day the staff's counting on the place being closed. Diners with small parties who want to eat there on the one day of the year we're closed, Thanksgiving, are given several other recommendations for the day -- including a competing restaurant that remains open that day.

        The restaurants that tell people "no" if they don't want to do things "by the book" are operated by people who, though they may complain they don't have enough money, don't know how to *make* money.

        I know plenty of restaurateurs in my area (Hartford County, CT) who like myself would never give you a "no" for an answer. I compete with them for a fair amount of group bookings.

        I recall a group that wanted to buy-out our place on a busy Saturday night. They had a large group of people and were going to do a seminar with audio/visual at lunch and then a big sit-down dinner with cocktails preceding and following. We just figured that people trying to get into the restaurant would get frustrated being turned away on a Saturday, and that these arrivals would be frequent enough to perhaps become distracting for the guests.

        We convinced the client to utilize some lovely rooms at a local college. The rental was amazingly inexpensive for the very charming facility. We absorbed the expense of the party rental for dishes, glasses and napery, and the college kindly provided attractive seating and tables. Shortly before the event, the client upped the ante and asked us to provide coffee and tea service for the time in-between lunch and dinner. We cooperated with a caterer who buys products from us -- they provided most of the staff. Everyone ended up profiting from this arrangement, and it's what got us into the off-site catering business for good.

        1 Reply
        1. re: shaogo

          " A banquet can be a fabulous opportunity to showcase a restaurant's talents to a captive audience of potential repeat customers."

          This. Exactly. We had a local event that we wanted to have with a recently opened downtown restaurant where our office is located. All with LOCAL staff and guests who worked within walking distance of the restaurant. They were the ones who gave me the "You can come in, but we can't guarantee the space or advance order a menu." response.

          Guess what? They're not very busy a year later.

        2. If a restaurant is not set up for 7 days a week it is tricky to just give up the free day and catch up on the required rest later.

          Also, depending on cuisine cooking for a large crowd can be a much much different process then then the regular single portion line cooking. They may not even be set up to handle that.

          1. Jennifer,

            Being an owner/operator of several restaurants (5 units, 3 concepts) for over twenty years let me explain to you some of the problems. But first you need to understand one important point, from all studies that have been done; customers who attend a banquet/event at restaurant and have a good time are the least likely of any group to come back to that restaurant for a return visit. With that in mind follow along with my logic.

            #1 I am in business for our regular clientele and walk-in customers first, they must take precedence over everything else. Selling out a restaurant for an evening that you are normally open actually creates more ill-will with your regular customers who expect you to be open than with the positive good will you might get from the banquet.

            I know of a good restaurant that went out of business because they were constantly closed for ‘private events’. In the end the regular clientele gave up on them and the restaurant withered and died.

            Don’t get me wrong, I will work with you to try to get you to use a specific side of the restaurant during slow periods but that would limit you to Su-W for an evening or M-Th for an afternoon.

            #2 We would have to work out a menu and I would have to see if it is logistically feasible to put out your banquet food while keeping the restaurant patrons food flowing smoothly.

            #3 On my concepts that were closed on specific day(s) the last thing I would do is ask the manager, chef and crew to work on what might be their only day off. The disgruntled employees will never outweigh the monetary awards you may bestow upon me.

            #4 Banquets are also disruptive not only to the kitchen but to other patrons they are usually loud, take up valuable space for much longer than regular dining patrons do, create lines for the restrooms, etc. All of these items must be considered because if you piss off several of your regular customers and a couple of first time regular patrons you have actually lost.

            The bottom line is that I am first and foremost a restaurant open to my customers not a banquet hall, if I can accommodate you without causing any problems to my primary goal of being a restaurant than I will bend over backwards to do so, however if your event will compromise my restaurant guest satisfaction I will politely decline the business offer.

            Hope that makes sense.

            Retired Chef/Owner

            6 Replies
            1. re: RetiredChef

              This mirrors my side of things as well. Large parties change the whole dynamic of a restaurant, and especially of a kitchen that is not specifically set up for large parties. A 40 person party is either not going to get my best food, or else they are not going to all eat at the same time, because I simply don't have enough space to properly cook 40 pieces of salmon along with accompaniments at the same time. If I can't give you my best, then I would rather not serve you.

              I do agree though, that a simple "no", is not good enough. I would say, "Our restaurant/kitchen is not set up to handle a party of that size and still put out the quality of food that we think our customers deserve". Hopefully then I would be cognizant of the situation and recommend that you contact a local hotel or some other establishment that has a banquet staff and is set up for parties like yours.

              1. re: RetiredChef

                I totally get that not every restaurant can do large parties and that everyone deserves a day off, it's the flat no that I have a problem with. It creates ill will with a customer (me) who has the potential to refer your establishment to any number of people, both local and out-of-towners. I have honestly received responses via email that say "sorry we're closed on Sunday" and that's the entire message. Not signed, no thanks for asking, nothing. That's not the kind of place that I am going to refer to friends and colleagues.

                I think that keeping an eye on the bottom line and focusing on your main customers is extremely important, but there's also that side where you don't know who is calling you. You don't know if they are attached to a local group, a magazine, or someone you might be interested in having visit your restaurant. A flat no shuts that door. The point I'm trying to get across is that anyone who contacts your restaurant should be treated just as well as your best paying customer. Hello, thank you, I'm sorry we can't work together, etc. etc. takes two seconds out of your day, but can help you get more business in the long run.

                1. re: jennifer42

                  Jeez, when I owned my place we were thrilled to do big groups and partial or complete buyouts depending on the night. We'd let our customers know way in advance that we'd be closed on X nite and no problem... WTF is up w/ places that have NO customer service??!! adam

                  1. re: adamshoe

                    You'd be surprised, adamshoe. I used to coordinate dinner meetings for a civic group of approximately 50 members. Due to schedules and transportation problems, our usual attendance was around 25-30 members. These were not requests for evenings that restaurants were closed. They were usually Wednesday or Thursday evenings. We only contacted restaurants in the city that had banquet rooms or separate spaces for group meals. Since we were a civic group, with the city's name in our title, we wanted to support local city restaurants and not move to the suburbs.

                    We had so many negative experiences, we ended up holding our dinner meetings at a college with a culinary school.

                    City restaurants would require that we commit and pay for a minimum of, say, 30 dinners, even if we called in a reservation for 25 several days prior. We often were served overpriced, god-awful food ("roast beef" that would crack your teeth, canned corn, etc.) that had absolutely no resemblance to the actual restaurant menu. At one place, during a snowstorm, we were charged for 30 dinners. About 25 people miraculously showed up, and one of them had the bright idea of auctioning off the 5 unused dinners for member to take home to their spouses. The restaurant refused. We had to pay for the dinners; they kept the food.

                    The college was MUCH more accommodating to our needs, and through word of mouth (some of our members were pretty influential in the city) the college increased their bookings and thanked us profusely.

                  2. re: jennifer42

                    I guess what puzzles me a bit is your anger around the flat no. I mean, if they are actually just saying 'no' and hanging up, sure, but if this flat no is more along the lines of 'I'm sorry, but we cannot accommodate your request' then what's wrong? It seems to me you're seeking justification for their decisions, which makes your request sound like a demand. (A request allows for 'no' as an answer.)

                    I appreciate your wanting to know, and I do like hearing from all the people who do this work. But I don't know that I'd be angry at a restaurateur for not sitting down with me and breaking down all the reasons this can't be done. Particularly as that kind of approach can sound more like a negotiation and can be misleading.

                  3. re: RetiredChef

                    I enjoyed reading your post, and as one of the regular patrons of a number of restaurants, I completely agree with your perspective about protecting those customers and those relationships.

                    About two years ago, my husband, teenage daughter and I decided to go to our usual little Italian restaurant here in the Dallas area. We always liked their food, and since the family who owns the restaurant originally came from New Jersey, we always felt it was nice to eat there and support another family of Jersey ex-pats.

                    It was the first week of December, and the owner's wife asked us to wait by the door for a table. Since DH and I are not inclined to wait long anywhere, and DD hates it even more, I asked her how long she thought it would be. Her answer, with what appeared to be a sincere smile, was "Not very long. People are getting up." We waited about thirty minutes with three other parties who came in after us. To our surprise, when the tables started to clear, the busboys started moving the empty tables over to one side of the restaurant in order to set up for a large party for a church group. It was annoying to see them do this with the first two tables, but since the party hadn't yet arrived, we had no idea how many tables were going to be needed. So, we still assumed that we would be seated when the next table opened. I motioned to the owner's wife once again, and she said, again (this time to all three parties), "It should be soon". Guess what? Two more tables opened, and she instructed those tables to be grouped with the others too. To say that I was completely pissed would be a severe understatement. I complained to my husband about how I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and insisted on leaving, swearing that I would never eat there again. It seemed to me, at least, that greed had somehow entered into this picture, because if the owner valued our regular business, it would have been simple enough, and certainly courteous, to explain that a large party was coming in and that the wait was going to be very long as a result. When I left the restaurant, the large party was starting to arrive, Christmas presents for Secret Santa in hand, and we had been standing by the door for nearly 50 minutes.

                    Bad feelings? Oh yes. I really don't think we have been back there in two years. We found another place that we like better, even though it is not nearly as nice looking a restaurant. However, at least that place makes us feel welcome. We felt abused after this episode, and I think we could have even understood if the hired help had used this kind of bad judgment -- but it was the owner's wife who was the guilty party here. That is hard to forgive.

                    So, RetiredChef, I appreciate your sensitivity. You must have run a helluva place(s).

                  4. yikes!

                    i don't think these responses are outrageous at all. they are not your personal chefs/event spaces. in planning my wedding, i've tried to secure a lot of places (prestigious and local dives). some said no flat out. they just have too much other business and don't need to be bothered. that's bad for me - good for them. the whole reason i want to go any specific place for an event is b/c of some "it" factor. clearly, i could call the olive garden and i think they'd take my group. but that's not what i want.

                    like others have said - events take up a lot of time/energy not normally used. they have to prepare for some huge onslaught of people, dedicate space/staff, and try to execute dishes to their normal standards. some restaurants can do this - some can't. for those that can't - they don't want to try. for those that can - it really may cost a lot more.

                    i cannot imagine why a restaurant should suggest another venue. they are not in the event planning business trying to find the right location for you - they are running their own business. they should be polite and say good luck, but apart from that - what more do you want? a gift basket?

                    i also agree that some staff members REALLY like whatever day off they get and simply do not want to work on that day. if they are hauled in, the event may be subpar if the restaurant hires substitutes, the event may be subpar. so, why risk it?

                    and - even in this economy, some places are doing great, serving great food, and aren't at the mercy of every demand foisted upon them. thank goodness! i hope you also have success in your future efforts. but some places may just be out of reach until you want to pay $$$$ pp ++.