The wait to be seated at a restaurant usually depends on the time of day you visit as well as the size of your party.
But one study suggests it’s not that simple: Restaurant personnel may cherry-pick who to serve first, especially if given the choice between small parties and larger groups.
After surveying 263 individuals who worked in restaurants around the world, Cornell University researcher Gary Thompson found that 17 percent of respondents admitted to restricting or discouraging parties of six or more people from dining at their restaurant. He also conducted a simulation using 384 restaurant environments to look at when cherry-picking works as a business tactic.
In this case, cherry-picking was defined as routinely preferring high-value customers and denying — directly or indirectly — low-value ones. Such denial may come across as overestimating wait times, turning people away, limiting the times of day larger parties can dine or even giving guests a less diverse form of the menu.
Although the motives of the respondents weren’t recorded, Thompson writes that restaurants may do this because smaller parties usually spend more money per person and take less time to dine when compared to larger parties.
U.S. and Canadian respondents more frequently tried to provide guests with accurate waiting times, while Asian respondents admitted to overestimating times to discourage larger parties, according to the survey.
Yet cherry-picking isn’t always advantageous. When both small and large parties spend similar amounts per person and as well as take the same amount of time to dine, cherry-picking makes little difference and may hurt profits if guests feel alienated. Restaurant size, customers’ patience for waiting and peak dining hours matter, too.
The research, published in the Journal of Service Research, is the first to analyze cherry-picking customers among restaurants. In the United States, the industry is projected to amass $604 billion in sales this year, according to the National Restaurant Association.
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