March 17, 2003

Study shows which restaurant table configurations make most money

ITHACA, N.Y. -- If you're opening a restaurant or renovating an existing one, a new study from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration could help you increase revenues simply by purchasing and arranging the right tables.

The study, by Professor Gary Thompson, reveals, surprisingly, that midsize (about 200-seat) restaurants, particularly those affiliated with chains that serve large parties of walk-in customers, produce the most revenues with dedicated tables. Such tables are built for a variety of specific party sizes rather than made up of flexible two-seaters pushed together to form larger tables.

The study, "Dedicated or Combinable," is the latest report from Cornell's Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) and can be viewed at this Web site, which posts all CHR reports: http://www.chr.cornell.edu .

What accounts for the finding, despite the lure of flexibility that combinable tables seem to offer? The study demonstrates that large parties in midsize restaurants with combinable tables are forced to wait until many small tables vacate at once and then can be pushed together to form tables big enough to accommodate the larger groups. Thompson explains: "Placing small tables on hold awaiting the departure of parties from adjacent tables actually lowers the restaurants' space utilization more than having an empty seat or two at the dedicated tables."

The study also found that, perhaps more predictably, small (about 50-seat) independent restaurants with party sizes that tend to be small do better with small combinable tables.

To come up with his results, Thompson developed a sophisticated computer model called Tablemix, using data from an actual full-service restaurant to simulate how customers use tables. The model can be used to search for the best restaurant table configuration or to evaluate a specific restaurant configuration.

In using his model or creating their own customized model, Thompson says, chains such as Red Lobster, Cracker Barrel, Chili's and TGI Friday's have an advantage over independents because they can draw on past data on average party sizes to determine what table configurations will work best for their anticipated clientele in a new or revamped restaurant.

Thompson's findings might be less useful for new independent restaurants that are unable to predict accurately their customer mix or anticipate how it will vary during different times of the day, week and year. Also, his study assumes that vacant tables would be assigned first to the largest waiting party. He hopes future researchers on the relation between restaurant revenues and table configuration will test to see if the results are the same without that assumption as well as account for customer reaction to the aesthetics of a particular table arrangement.

In the course of Thompson's study, he observed that there were more than 8,000 possible table mixes for a 200-seat restaurant. He and a colleague are fine-tuning a measurement tool to determine the best-performing mix of tables for midsize restaurants and will issue a report on it later this year.

The Center for Hospitality Research conducts and sponsors research studies aimed at improving the hospitality industry's fundamental operating knowledge.