So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Small is beautiful

I had to drop into the local WalMart Supercenter to pick something up the other day. I don’t shop at WalMart very often, mainly because of ideological reasons, so I was surprised to see that the store was changing drastically. They were still renovating but much of the work seemed to have been done.

I was surprised to see that the display aisles were now only around 6 feet high, whereas before they were at least 8 feet tall.

There seemed to be less merchandise as well, although this could be a function of the unfinished nature of of the redo. Not only did there seem to be less of each item, there seemed to be less total items. I wondered if this was a concrete manifestation of the economic crisis that we’ve been going through. It looked like a fairly drastic downsizing of the Supercenter.

This seems to be borne out by this CNN article:

http://money.cnn.com/2010/02/15/news/companies/walmart_dropping_brands/

When I left the store, I noticed that the Superstore signage had even been removed. Perhaps they’re just changing the signage and it will continue to be considered a “Supercenter”, but I wonder if it’s being “demoted”. They certainly don’t seem to be shrinking the square footage.

Doing some superficial browsing, it looks like WalMart is contracting a bit. In one case, they actually cut the size of the store in half. It doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case here, but it does look like there’s going to be a much smaller inventory and assortment.

I think that we’ll see the same forces at work in restaurants as well. I wonder how long it will be before we see restaurants that used to open units with 200 seats start redesigning their new units to be 150 seats (just to use a random example). I wonder how long it will be until menus start contracting the number of items on their menus. And I wonder how long it will be before we start seeing smaller staff (larger sections, fewer hosts/hostesses/fewer managers stretched with more hours, fewer kitchen employees consolidating more and more tasks, etc.)  In many states, there’s not much savings in cutting waiters that make $2.13 – $4/hr, but there could be some savings in reducing the number of server assistants, putting more burden on waiters in general.

I saw this happen at P.F. Chang’s about 3 years ago when they went from one Server Assistant for every two servers to a couple of SAs for the whole restaurant. They did it the right way though and shrunk each server’s section by 1 table and added an additional server (that’s 1 more server and 2 less SAs).. SAs made 4.50 an hour, so this was a net gain against payroll and probably didn’t affect service too much. but I can see some big corporate entity with less savvy trying to trim staff without taking the impact on service into consideration (Darden, I’m looking at you!).

This trend could trigger some realignment of a large chain’s strategy and could also impact the gross number of jobs available to waiters in general. It could have a benefit of making it more feasable for smaller independent restaurants to make a go of it. If restaurants in general get smaller, then, in the eyes of the average consumer, a smaller indie restaurant might be on more of an equal footing with the larger chains due to the general perception in the US that “bigger is better”. On the downside, it could make waiters’ jobs more difficult and it might make great service harder to give and get.

These are just some random thoughts triggered by a mundane shopping experience. If anyone has seen some manifestations of this trend, feel free to comment. Or if you have any thoughts on the matter, please weigh in.

Yes, that’s a restaurant under the striped blue awning.

Photo is from “Rene G” at the “lthforum” at  http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=24958

It’s a “Chicago-based culinary chat site”.

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5 responses to “Small is beautiful

  1. Tara June 19, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    That’s a photo of Al’s breakfast in Minneapolis, MN!!! Near the U of M campus…

    Only stools on a service counter, you are about 3 feet away from where your meal is being prepared. If you are still waiting for a spot, you are probably standing RIGHT BEHIND another person who is eating!

    Check it out if you are ever in Minneapolis, the experience is well worth any waiting…

  2. tipsfortips June 21, 2010 at 8:39 am

    I read an article about this a couple weeks ago. Walmart is actually reversing this decision. Customers upset about not being able to find the products they used to be able to find there started shopping elsewhere.

    As far as restaurant size, I don’t see a trend towards smaller buildings. Size becomes important on holidays and weekends when you have to go on a wait. It is easy enough to not staff for capacity when you won’t reach it. Having those extra 50 seats when you need them more than pays for the expense of having them. I think the trend will move more towards smaller rooms off of the main dining room that can be easily shut down and rented for private functions at slower times.

    The trend towards smaller stations is happening everywhere in corporate restaurants.. 3-4 table sections are becoming the norm. This is seen as a measure to increase service. I have seen it fail pretty miserably though as it significantly decreases server income and leads the best members of the staff to head for the hills. My last two corporate restaurant jobs actually went so far as to introduce “zone” service. Two servers splitting a six table section and splitting the tips. This inevitably leads to the strongest server being paired with the weakest and so on in a NCAA bracket style. The idea being the stronger server will carry the section to preserve their income and the weaker server will become the de facto SA. The failure of this method is that the stronger server gets tired of handing over half the money to the person who just acted as the SA. When the stronger servers leave over this. management now has a staff of Server Assistants leading their tables.

    • teleburst June 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks for the comments.

      I note that some chains are already putting smaller locations into their rollout plans. Cheesecake Facotry for instance has some smaller locations being built. They have some new 8,000 square feet restaurants as opposed to their normal 10,000 square feet locations. I suspect that you’ll see more of this sort of strategy.

      http://seekingalpha.com/article/132822-the-cheesecake-factory-inc-q1-2009-earnings-call-transcript

      P.F. chang’s started a different approach around five years ago, spinning off the smaller Pei Wei restaurants about 5 or 6 years ago. Perhaps well see other restaurants trying to expand their reach by creating smaller restaurants with similar themes to their main concepts.

      And Palm Steakhouse has actually opened a micro version of their restaurant in JFK International Restaurant, creating “Palm Bar”, a tiny version of their concept.

      So there’s more than one way to skin a cat, I suppose.

      I like your idea of more restaurants subdividing their restaurants using separate rooms that can fuction as “private dining rooms”. That’s a good idea that’s used by upscale restaurants that could work for more mainstream and casual places.

      • tipsfortips June 21, 2010 at 6:45 pm

        That conference call was kinda funny. Those numbers were spun within an inch of their life. Makes you wonder if anyone on the call has ever done a PnL.

  3. Marta Daniels June 22, 2010 at 8:42 am

    My restaurant has already been doing the larger sections/smaller staff thing, and there have been rumors of a remodel, wonder whats next to go?Haven’t been to my local Walmart in awhile, I’ll have to go check it out, lol! God bless!

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