Vibrating pagers shake up ‘the waiting game.’

Vibrating pagers shake up ‘the waiting game.’ – restaurants use radio-frequency pagers to call customers waiting for tables

Milford Prewitt

A growing number of independent restaurant operators say they are reaping huge marketing dividends from a silent paging system that allows managers to inform their patrons when their tables are ready.

For noisy, boisterous, fun restaurants where waiting time can be as long as an hour or more, the pager – which vibrates instead of beeps – is leading to quicker table turns, improved guest experiences and reduced stress levels on the wait staff, who normally would have to yell patron’s names or search for them in crowded lounges.

Some operators say the word-of-mouth kudos from patrons who have tried the system and told their friends about it has led to a modest increase in new traffic and repeat business.

“This really has been a godsend for us,” said Honey Johnson, the hostess-manager of the 500-seat Angus Barn, a sprawling three-dining room steak house in Raleigh, N.C. “There have been a few people who have resisted it and said it is so impersonal and all, but most of them say they love it and seem to appreciate the fact we care so much about keeping them as customers that we are investing in this kind of technology.”

Her restaurant has been using about 60 pagers in the past three months and has ordered another 60 units.

“I think it’s a very clever system, and it elicits a lot of comments from customers, most of them positive,” said Dave Tischer, manager of Nick’s Tomato Pie, a 178-seat Italian restaurant in Jupiter, Fla. Tischer said the restaurant has been using about 36 pagers since the restaurant opened in March.

He said customer reaction to the device has been upbeat, with some complimenting the operators for lending an element of sophistication and discretion to a process that is often anything but refined.

Tischer added that the silent paging has been particularly helpful at his mall-based location, where customers who are waiting on tables frequently stroll through the corridors outside the restaurant and are often out of ear range and eyesight. The pager, with a quarter-of-a-mile range, overcomes those limitations.

Other restaurants that are trying the paging system include Cantina del Rio; the Bob Evans’ Farm restaurant startup; and The Cove, an upscale seafood restaurant in Deerfield, Fla.

In most cases the silent paging system works on a non-Federal Communications Commission-regulated radio frequency and, with one major exception, is similar to the paging systems doctors have been using for years.

The big exception is that unlike the beeping pagers common in hospitals, the silent paging system vibrates for several seconds to let the customer know his or her table is ready.

When diners check in at the hostess station, they are given the matchbook-sized device and instructed to put it anywhere on their clothing, usually a breast pocket, or to strap it to a waist belt. The hostess keys the customer’s pager into a corresponding number on a console at her station. When a table comes available, the hostess presses the button of the pager number, sending out a radio wave that stimulates the vibration of the pager and tingles the would-be diner.

“People are really raving about it,” said Brad Dawback, general manager of the 200-seat Border Cafe in Saugus, Mass., where a wait for a table at dinner can be as long as two hours. “We used to yell the name of the customer, and some people just didn’t like that.

“With these pagers customers don’t have to worry about not being heard or having to badger the hostess several times to see if their names were called. It’s one of the greatest service ideas we’ve seen in a while, and our customers are telling us as much.”

But Mike Larkin, the owner of the Border Cafe, said he has not figured out how to stop people from walking out with the devices. He said people are taking

them home even though they have absolutely no value once they are out of the range of the restaurant.

Other operators who encountered Larkin’s problem said they have come up with ways to solve it.

At Nick’s Tomato Pie customers exchange their driver’s licenses for the pager when they are greeted and then exchange the units for their licenses when they are leaving. The Cove follows a similar policy.

At the Angus Bam the hostess takes the pager once the customer’s table is ready.

“But we had one customer who mailed it back to us when he realized he had forgotten to give it to us,” explained Johnson, the hostess-manager.

Operators agreed that installation of the system cost about $5,000.

“It’s expensive, to be sure,” said Larkin of The Border Cafe. “But it is leading to quicker table turns and better guest satisfaction, so I’m all in favor of it.”

COPYRIGHT 1992 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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