When a restaurant is full, its managers have to determine which of several tactics they will use to seat the customers who are waiting in line for a table. The waiting guests generally might expect that the restaurant would seat them in the order they arrived, but not all restaurants use a first-come, first-served policy. Because restaurant operators seek ways to achieve the greatest possible revenue from a particular meal period, they may use approaches for seating the waiting guests that shift demand and violate the first-come, first served expectation. This study tested the following four demand-shifting tactics: seating guests according to party size (by matching party size to available tables), accepting reservations for large parties only, seating VIP guests in preference to others, and allowing guests to call ahead to put their name on the waitlist for an approximate seating time. The study found that guests would accept some of those approaches as being fair, while others are dimly regarded. In response to a series of scenarios involving these four seating policies, the 268 respondents rated seating by party size and call-ahead seating as being relatively fair, but large-party reservations were seen as a neutral policy at best and VIP seating was considered to be essentially unfair. In general, respondents who said that they were not familiar with a particular policy gave that policy a lower fairness rating than did those who had experience with that policy. One interesting finding was that fairness ratings were generally not influenced by whether a respondent gained the advantage of an earlier seating from a given policy scenario. With regard to the respondents' likelihood of returning to a restaurant, however, the likelihood of return was greater when a particular demand-shifting policy gave the respondent the advantage of fast seating. Of the four policies, VIP seating was mostly likely to drive customers from a restaurant. Although it makes sense to use demand-shifting tactics to boost revenue during busy times, restaurateurs should be wary of using any tactic that guests see as being unfair. Offering a clear explanation of a policy, particularly call-ahead seating and seating by party size, may assuage guests who would otherwise be unhappy, but accepting reservations for large parties is a chancy tactic and seating VIPs ahead of others might well be seen as unfair no matter how it is handled.
McGuire, K. A., & Kimes, S. E. (2005). Perceived fairness of restaurant waitlist-management policies [Electronic article]. Cornell Hospitality Report, 5(4), 6-14.