Butts in Chairs—Cover Counts, Speedy Service and The Closing-time Guest

How to get the best service at your favorite popular restaurants.

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In one of the most competitive businesses in the world, including professional sports, restaurants have to do anything and everything to get your butt in the chair, keep it there long enough to empty your wallet, and get you the heck outta there so another butt can drop in.

In the restaurant industry, we call that a cover count. When cooks and chefs exchange stories of previous restaurants in which they’ve worked, they will inevitably discuss how many covers they used to do.

Keep in mind that cooks will almost always exaggerate this number, or perhaps use one of the busiest nights as the barometer. “We used to do over three-hundred covers a night,” might be adjusted to, “We once did a few covers short of three-hundred on our busiest night,” and should actually be, “We used to average over one-hundred covers on weekend nights.” This is an involuntary recollection cooks have—like a reflex—and I don’t consider it to be a lie, they are, rather, “mistaken in their minds.”

Long before I ever started counting covers, we used to do over ten grand a night—in sales (by the way, the average check was probably less than fifteen dollars). There were also quite a few nights that we did less than one-thousand dollars. But if anyone ever asks, the first number that jumps into my mind is the biggest, and that goes for just about every restaurant that I’ve worked in.

Unfortunately, the stories of covers and sales never mean anything to anyone except the cook who did the cooking, and the owner who did the counting. You see, covers are relative.

When I was the Executive Chef of the Front Porch Cafe in quiet Putney, VT, we used to serve over one-hundred covers (a few times), with a staff of myself, the two owners, an occasional server and a versatile dishwasher. Few people will appreciate just how efficient we were, considering many other places I’ve worked serve over one-hundred covers an hour.

Recently I read a retired chef’s story about a hotel kitchen serving over two-thousand covers a night sometime in the 1960’s. I did some math, and figured they probably averaged about seven-hundred on a weekend night. That sounds like a lot of work. I bet, though, that the Executive Chef didn’t work half as hard as the one from Putney, VT, where often times we’d serve less than fifty people.

Why is that, you ask? Because the more covers a place does, the more cooks and servers they will have helping. Not just as a whole, but isolated down to precise in-and-out times to maximize labor dollars and efficiency.

Let’s talk logistics, and figure out the best times for you, the butt, to get the best service and the fastest meal with the greatest number of people dedicated to your butt, and yours alone.

Restaurants have slim financial margins, and even the underpaid, overworked servers are on the clock. Though they are the lowest paid employee’s as far as management is concerned, those dollars—however few—add up quickly.

Logistically speaking, restaurants need several servers to prepare for the dinner rush, several more to execute it, and, as business fades at the end, several to clean up the mess. One thing you should know about servers: if they don’t have butts in their chairs, they’re going to clean real quick.

On the other side of the wall, in the kitchen, the logistics are similar, although many more hours go into preparing for the rush than the execution of it, when business fades, cooks are “cut,” or sent home. If your order comes in when clean-up has already started, the speed of your meal will decrease, as will the attention to detail, and flavor and garnish etc.

Don’t be the last one to show up at a restaurant. If you are worried that you might be, check your watch and ask the hostess what time the place closes. If she says, “in ten minutes,” you should consider going somewhere else. Restaurant workers passionately despise the last customer of the night. If I write enough of my experience on this blog you might someday understand why, but for now, know it’s a faux pas.

There is absolutely nothing worse than a customer who calls to find out what time you close, and says they’ll “be right there, we’re hurrying!”

Just don’t do it.

Anyway, in order to get the best, most attentive meal and service, show up for your reservation just in the waning moments of the dinner rush. You actually want there to be a short wait when you arrive.

The short wait will ensure management hasn’t made any cuts, and servers aren’t expecting to be cut just yet, so they haven’t started their cute little cleaning projects yet, and won’t completely ignore their guests for another half-hour or so. The kitchen has had a steady flow of tickets for a few hours, and should be in the zone, and they won’t recognize the lull until after your meal has been made, so you can trust they haven’t started drinking yet.

Specifically:

  • Lunch—about 1:30
  • Dinner—about 9 on a weekend night (if the place closes at 9:30, go earlier).

Of course, these times change depending on the location, atmosphere etc. Rural restaurants close early, restaurants in the heart of the night-scene will be busy much later.

Like The Sober Sous Chef’s Facebook Page—the best kept secret on the internet. (Let’s not keep it that way!)

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