I visited one of the many popular, tasty and authentic South Indian restaurants in the Bay Area this weekend. Going to these restaurants on a weekend during lunch/dinner involves quite the wait. The experience waiting for a table and then the food in these restaurants is quite similar to the experience waiting for lunch/dinner at popular joints worldwide. The lines are long and the waits are indeterminate but proportional to the size of one’s party. The commute times to get to the restaurant and the quality of food typically make people stick it out however long the wait and however angry/grouchy their stomachs make them. By the time one gets to the process of ordering and eating, exhaustion is almost as much the emotion of the moment as satisfaction. The assignment of vacant tables to parties is also inefficient with several groups of 2 or 3 people occupying booths and tables meant for much larger groups. I timed a party of five (including a baby) waiting almost 45 minutes for a table while couples who showed up later were led to booths that seat four, much sooner. All of this is inefficient and frustrating and yet thousands of people go thru this, weekend-after-weekend to sate their cravings for the closest thing they have to home cooking from their childhood. Experiencing this last weekend, I wondered if there was a way for the restaurants to serve as many customers as there is demand while also making the experience more palatable to the customers.
Here’s what I think they should do – Price the dishes differently on the weekends so that a to go or take out order is cheaper than ordering the same dish for here/to eat at the restaurant. I think this model will work. Here’s why –
a) Food first – 90% of the people who visit these restaurants (Saravanaa Bhavan, Bhimas, Komala Vilas, Ananda Bhavan etc.) are there for the food first, the company of friends/family a distant second and ambience a distant 25’th. While almost all of us would prefer to be seated with no wait, eating the same food elsewhere (park, car, friend’s house, own house) is a very good consolation. These restaurants should realize that their unique selling points are the food and should do as much as possible to feed as many people as possible. The reason people are willing to put up with long waits is because the food is so darn good. If the same food can be made available without the wait, I think customers will shift to wanting the same food with negligible concern for losing the ambience they eat in.
b) Incentives work – Currently dishes cost the same or more if you order takeout. Some restaurants even eliminate take out during busy hours to service their customers who are at the restaurant. This seems ass-backwards to me. Why turn away customers who are willing to wait longer (as long as it is deterministic) and make the experience of those who are physically at the restaurant, much worse? By pricing the take out orders cheaper and by providing the customers a deterministic wait time, the restaurants will incentivize the same. Incentives work in a rational, free market and I would be shocked if this did not make more families and individuals to choose ordering ahead and waiting in the comfort of their home or weekend errands over loitering in the corridors looking in to their smartphones while their stomachs rumble.
c) Takeout logistics are easier than ever before – One excuse for these restaurants all these years was that the logistics to handle and implement ordering is hard. However this is not true anymore. With startups like eatstreet, grubhub and many others, the task of integrating online or phone ordering for a restaurant is easier than ever before. The restaurants can focus on cooking and packing while outsourcing the hardware and software needed to execute to go orders and payment processing to established players.
This makes too much sense to not happen. Giving takeout orders a discount to increase the foot traffic into a restaurant and improve the overall experience seems logical and intuitive to me. Here’s hoping some one takes this idea up and runs with it…’Cos I am hungry and can’t wait any longer and there’s only so many times I can check Twitter in a minute.