Finance & Operations

Restaurants with Walk-In Seating Only: The Pros & Cons

By Katie McCann

Two waitresses talking in front of the restaurant

Let me guess…

You’re here because you’ve experienced one too many no-shows. You’re tired of having to turn guests away for others who eventually don’t bother to show up or cancel a reservation at short notice. It’s costing you business, and more importantly, revenue.

And now, you’re wondering if being a restaurant with walk-in seating only is the solution to your problems of lost revenue. 

Wonder no further. 

This post will:

  • Help you decide whether you should be a restaurant with walk-in seating only by listing both the pros and cons and sharing three crucial questions you should answer 
  • Show you how the right restaurant reservation system can help reduce the number of no-shows, so you don’t have to contemplate a no-reservation policy in the first place

But first, what exactly does it mean to be a restaurant that only offers walk-in seating? And what does this look like in your restaurant? 

Let’s explore this idea.

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Restaurants with Walk-in Seating Only: An Overview

Being a restaurant with walk-in seating only means you don’t take any restaurant reservations and instead adopt a first-come, first-serve policy. With this policy, patrons can expect to wait in line, especially during peak restaurant hours and when visiting popular restaurants in their neighborhood that are always at maximum capacity.

The concept of refusing to do reservations is nothing new. The New York Times reported about it way back in 2010. Several restaurants in New York like Má Pêche, Breslin, and Fatty’s all embraced a walk-in seating only policy. 

Since then, many other restaurants have also followed suit. The Washington Post reported how Washington D.C., for example, has become filled with restaurants not taking any reservations.

While there certainly has been growth in the number of restaurants saying “no” to reservations, the reactions from people to this policy were mixed in 2010 and remain mixed today. Some absolutely love it and others find it utterly infuriating.

The Pros and Cons of Restaurants with Walk-in Seating Only

A waiter helping a couple find a walk-in seat

There’s a clear difference in opinion over whether to implement a walk-in only policy. So how do you know whether it’s right for your restaurant?

When trying to answer this question, one of the best places to start is listing both the pros and cons.

The Pros of Walk-In Restaurant Seating Only

  • A no-reservation policy eliminates no shows altogether because you no longer open yourself up to the possibility of guests not arriving for their reservations.
  • You don’t lose business and revenue from having to turn people away. If you consider that the average rate of no shows in the restaurant industry is 15%, you begin to understand the potential power of not accepting reservations.
  • You reduce overhead costs – such as the cost of the reservation system and payroll expenses – because you don’t need staff to manage reservations.
  • There’s no delay between tables (a regular occurrence when accepting restaurant reservations), which means restaurants with walk-in seating can turn tables faster, boosting their sales and profits.
  • The food takes center stage. Pretensciousness takes a back seat. As David Chang, the owner of Má Pêche and avid proponent of a walk-in restaurant seating policy, says in The New York Times, “By not taking reservations, there is a certain lack of pretension. It is saying that we just want people to eat something delicious. And that people aren’t there for the scene — or anything else but the food.”
  • Customers view you as a more exclusive restaurant because seating is limited. If guests want a table, they need to arrive early and on time. 

The Cons of Walk-in Seating Only

  • People don’t like waiting in line. If you have full tables, you risk losing walk-ins who are looking for a table now. Diners on a tight schedule or families with hungry children likely won’t wait.
  • It’s not suitable for all restaurant concepts and types. If you’re an upmarket restaurant, having a reservation policy is probably wise as patrons expect it. Just think about it: How often do tourists going abroad call fancy fine-dining establishments months in advance to book for a special evening?
  • You miss out on potential new customers and leave tables open. When people can’t find a table, they turn to the Internet. If you don’t take reservations, you risk missing out on these new customers trying to find a table. If the tables are available, why not give people a chance to book them?
  • Planning for the evening is difficult for your team. Not accepting reservations means you don’t know how many guests you’ll have to feed and at what times. If your front of house team doesn’t have any idea how many people to expect, they can’t prepare the best floor plan. It also puts unwanted pressure on the back of house and may cause the staff to become slammed when things get hectic.
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Guidelines to Determine If Walk-In Seating Is Right for Your Restaurant

Reviewing both the pros and cons of restaurants with walk-in seating gives you all the information you need to help you make an informed decision about whether walk-in seating is right for you or not. 

But, you still need to actually make that final decision yourself.

The good news? There are a few guidelines that will simplify your decision. Answer the following questions to help you decide if walk-in seating only is right for you:

1. Who Are Your Customers? 

Your customers are the ones that make or break your restaurant, so it makes sense to get feedback from them if you plan to change your policy to no reservations.

If the majority of your target market consists of customers who will not like this policy (like older customers or families), it’s probably wise not to implement it as the drawbacks of losing your core customers and revenue will far outweigh the benefits of not having no-shows.

2. Are You Regularly at Capacity?

You have a steady stream of regulars from lunch to late-night, and even then the regulars have been known to fight for the good seats. 

If you have lots of regular volume and have no issues filling tables, then a no-reservation option may work for you. 

3. What Is Your Restaurant Type and Concept?

This is arguably one of the most critical questions you need to answer. 

Generally, casual restaurants with reasonably priced menus or even trendy establishments with a unique concept that people are happy to wait in line for are a perfect fit for a walk-in seating only policy. 

On the flip side, only offering walk-in seating won’t work well for fine-dining restaurants as these diners expect a certain level of exclusivity and don’t want to wait in a queue.

Server taking a customer's order at a restaurant

How a Properly Implemented Reservation System Reduces No-Shows

A potential downfall of taking reservations is the risk of these customers being no shows and you losing revenue because you have to turn customers away. 

The good news is that a correctly implemented guest engagement solution, such as a reservation system, can actually solve the problems of no-shows, so that you don’t even have to consider a no-reservations policy in the first place.

The right reservation system will help you reduce and manage no-shows by:

  • Sending automated reminders to guests who make any bookings. Your reservation management system will do the heavy lifting for you and can send these reminders via email, SMS, or even Google calendar events! You don’t have to worry about someone on your team wasting countless hours calling and following up with guests.
  • Connecting with guests in real-time thanks to two-way SMS communication. This communication lets the guest confirm, change, or cancel their reservation well in advance. In turn, you’ll have ample time to fill that table without losing any revenue if a guest chooses to cancel.

The right system also offers other features that will improve your customer experience, help you manage your operations, and boost your bottom line. Some of these features give you the ability to:

  • Accept reservations through your website, Google Reservations or a mobile and desktop app
  • Optimize floor plans and improve table management to increase your revenue
  • Customize reservation notes for dining preferences, allergies or any other special requirements to help you turn a first-time customer into a repeat one
  • Allow guests to conveniently manage their booking via mobile or desktop
  • Integrate with your  POS system, so your FOH and BOH are working together
  • Better manage your waitlist during busy times by easily letting customers know (via text) when a table opens up
  • Create and view advanced reports about trends and average restaurant check size, and share any reviews from your guests
  • Access all the reporting features from anywhere and on any device – even when you’re out of the office

The Bottom Line on Restaurants with Walk-In Seating Only

No-shows are part and parcel of running any restaurant that accepts reservations. But, because these no-shows translate into lost business, restaurants are always looking for ways to reduce or eliminate them altogether. 

So, when deciding whether to offer walk-in only seating or not make sure you review the pros and cons to help you make an informed decision. Don’t forget to use the following key factors to guide your decision: your customers, your concept, and the risk of missing out on new customers.

And finally, remember this: The right reservation system will solve most of your problems with no-show. This way, you don’t have to contemplate a no-reservation policy in the first place and risk losing any customers in the process.

Preview of 2 pages inside the guide to writing a restaurant business plan
The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Restaurant Business Plan

Learn how to draft the best business plan to get financial support.

Download Guide
Photo of Katie McCann
by Katie McCann

Katie is a former Content Marketing Specialist at TouchBistro where she writes about food and restaurant experiences. She doesn’t shy away from the finer things in life, but no matter how much success she continues to acquire, she stays true to her roots and still considers imitation crab as gourmet. If she isn’t writing, you can find her on a patio with friends and a pitcher of white wine sangria.

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