One of the most notable changes in the dining-out landscape since the COVID pandemic involves the hype around restaurant reservations. Tables listed on reservation apps like Resy and Tock get snatched up as soon as they’re made available, and according to Bon Appetit, an entire cottage industry is now devoted to selling reservations to in-demand spots. Guests cherish the ability to book their reservations 30 days out more than ever, which is why walk-in-only restaurants seem like a daring and trend-bucking choice.
For many no-reservations restaurateurs, the appeal of ditching a formal booking system rests on a desire for spontaneity. “We wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant, [so] it was really important that people could come in on a whim, even if it was a last second [plan],” says Co-Owner Arjav Ezekiel of his Austin restaurant Birdie’s, which opened in 2021 as a walk-in-only eatery and which received the Restaurant of the Year Award from Food & Wine in 2023.
The nostalgic charm and appeal to locals can make this uniquely challenging restaurant style worthwhile, but if you’re wondering how to turn a walk-in establishment into a success, pay attention to this advice from seasoned no-reservations restaurant owners and managers.
Embrace the benefits of operating a no-reservations restaurant.
A walk-in-only restaurant can feel like a risky proposition, which is why it’s only advisable if it really feels right. “Follow your own intuition. Don't listen to what everybody else tells you to do. Be a trailblazer. Create the restaurant that you want to create,” suggests Joel Bleskacek, who has operated his daytime restaurant Plow in San Francisco as a no-reservations spot since 2010. To back up his view, Bleskacek points out that avoiding reservations “really simplifies everything.”
Ezekiel views the simplification that Bleskacek refers to as an unburdening of sorts. “We aren’t burdened with the fear of making turn times [to appease] guests who make 7 pm reservations and expect to sit at 7 pm. We [also] don’t have to invest in the hardware or software that reservation [systems] require, and we’re able to eliminate a host or maitre d’ completely, saving the business money on labor and bolstering the tip pool so that everyone makes a little more money,” he says.
Also, because reservation systems “always hold a percentage of tables that they don’t need,” they’re not “100% accurate,” explains Matt Pearson, general manager of Uptown Sports Club in Austin, Texas.
That can risk alienating guests who assume that they can’t get in, and it can also cause “ebbs and flows” in the dining room’s energy, says Trigg Brown, co-owner of Win Son in Brooklyn. A walk-in-only dining room, on the other hand, fills up on a real-time basis, so the vibes are more consistently lively.
The dominance of reservation-based restaurants means that there’s a novelty to walk-in restaurants. “If your market is saturated with restaurants that book out months or weeks in advance, you could potentially carve out a little niche in the market for yourself by ‘zagging’ when everyone else is ‘zigging,’” says Ezekiel.
Pearson acknowledges that running a walk-in-only restaurant can “put more strain on the operation,” since FOH and BOH doesn’t have a tentative roadmap for the flow of service. However, because the ability to walk in and grab a table without having to plan ahead for weeks “gives more freedom to your guests,” Pearson sees it as “a more welcoming environment” for said guests.
Be clear and communicative about your policies.
The more direct a restaurant can be about its no-reservations policies, the less likely it is to face serious blowback from potential guests. The restaurateurs we interviewed all assured us that they make their walk-in-only rules very clear on their websites and on social media, and many of them will take prospective guests’ phone numbers and send them a text when their table is ready, allowing them to leave the premises to take a walk or enjoy a drink up the street.
But Bleskacek instead chose to implement a Plow policy in which guests must be physically present when their names are called. His FOH staff provides a wait time estimate, and while guests are free to leave, they do so at the risk of losing their place in the queue. “Say we have a two hour wait list. [If we] gave someone a call and they said, ‘Oh, we’ll be there in 10 minutes,’ that’s 10 minutes where that table is just sitting. If you do that for six turns, that’s a full turn that you lose every day. Margins are tight, and we try to clean and reset tables within 1-2 minutes,” Bleskacek says. Because the Plow staff explains this policy to guests when they put their names on the list, he tells us that the restaurant has experienced very little pushback as a result.
Think about your location and hours of operation.
The viability of a walk-in-only restaurant depends on its location. If your restaurant is, like Uptown Sports Club, on a high-volume street, that gives you “the ability to take people as they would like to come in. With spots where there’s not a lot of street traffic, you’re going to struggle. But we’re on Sixth Street [in Austin], and it gets busy,” says Pearson.
For the Win Son team, building their restaurant in a space with substantial seating provides “ample [seating] to accommodate guests. This way, customers can feel confident that they are able to get a table within a reasonable time frame,” says Josh Ku, co-owner of Win Son. While Win Son is primarily walk-in-only to “maintain the neighborhood priority and stay neighborhood-focused,” they do allow reservations for parties of six or more, which keeps them accessible to bigger groups while still benefiting from the advantages of a walk-in system.
Our sources do acknowledge that no-reservations policies can pose more challenges for dinner service, as “people have different expectations for dinner. They book a table and they want to sit down at that time,” says Bleskacek. But Plow, being a breakfast-and-lunch-only spot, is able to avoid those pitfalls and operate smoothly without taking reservations since any breakfast reservations are hard to come by in San Francisco in general.
Use service models that require a smaller staff.
A huge determining factor of whether a no-reservations restaurant can work in 2023 is “the style of restaurant itself and the service style, which affects whether reservations or no reservations are appropriate,” says Pearson. He admits that fine dining “white tablecloth restaurants” aren’t well-suited to a walk-in-only model, but a casual environment can be an ideal place to toss aside those old-fashioned reservation structures and be more freewheeling and improvisational.
Counter service establishments, for example, can enable walk-in restaurants with a lean and well-compensated staff. “In a model like ours—fine casual with counter service—the added labor of a host and maitre d’ and the cost of a reservations system couldn’t really be justified,” says Ezekiel. That’s why he and his wife and business partner Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel chose to “operate as a counter service restaurant, which was a business model we arrived on after the pandemic as a [way for] the restaurant to be financially healthy while allowing us to take care of our team with a host of benefits like paid family leave, health insurance, paid time off, and subsidized therapy.”
By researching the market, choosing an appealing location, widely spreading the word about your policies, and employing a style of service that doesn’t require an enormous team, restaurateurs can sidestep the reservation system supremacy that’s quickly conquering the industry without compromising the financial well-being of themselves and their staff.
Taylor Tobin is a food and beverage journalist based in Austin. She's been covering bars, restaurants, and other hospitality venues for eight years, and her work can be found in publications like Eater, Food & Wine, HuffPost, Southern Living, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
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