(Published with permission from TheRestaurantGame — a one-stop interactive website based in the U.K., catering to the needs of the restaurant industry.)
For contact information for restaurants mentioned in the following story, please click: here
Here's an excerpt from "Sole Purpose," an article on marketing to solo diners published in the June 2010 issue of Cheers Magazine:
“We have some [women] guests that will stay in hotel that dine every night alone,” Wagner [L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant at The Four Seasons Hotel New York] says. “There’s something about the interaction that makes it less intimidating …Make it known that the staff will call a cab for or walk solo females to their cars,” [Marya Charles] Alexander says."
To read the article in its entirety, visit: Cheers Magazine
Communal tables are fast becoming a ubiquitous feature in the nation's hippest restaurants. Will a return to the culinary "community spirit" just bring in extra trade or will it open up a whole new market — the single diner?
There was a time, when a reservation and a partner or group of friends was a pre-requisite for the customer wishing to dine out. And of course, if the customer didn't manage to make the booking or bag themselves some company, then the restaurateur would be losing out too.
The communal table, seen springing up of late in various restaurants around the country, provides a happy solution as advantageous to the restaurateur as it is to the customer.
The communal table should not as a rule take reservations, and therefore leaves the way open for as many passing customers as can be catered to. Communal dining not only refutes the notion of "biggest wallet, best table," in theory it means the single diner doesn't have to eat alone.
Susan Smith of Kitchen@Ten Covent Garden says, "It's a way of giving back to the community what the community has given to the restaurateur for so long."
And, like a strange magnetic force, the shared table concept appears to be pulling the customers in. Take Brian Mahon of the Kensington Wagamama's word for it: "People don't mind queuing, we usually have a queue going out of the door."
The origins of the concept can be traced back to "Hong Kong and South East Asia, street food in Thailand," says Maruk Miah of Busaba Eathai in Soho, and has been made accessible by Asian eateries like Wagamama. Busaba has a number of huge communal tables within the main dining space which have proved instantly and dramatically popular with a "very Soho crowd, very media, arts and design-led, with young people and people on a low budget all feeling welcome."
One of Busaba's directors happens to be Alan Yau, founder of Wagamama, and when Miah contemplates the growing love of the shared table he puts it down to his foresight, "It's still very new here and, without being biased, I think we're at the forefront because of our history with Wagamama. We're popular because we don't discriminate, we don't take reservations. This democratic approach is reflected in the structure of the whole company in fact."
With many restaurateurs tipping their hat to Yau's chain, it appears Miah's comments are well founded.
Others say that the idea of communal dining is a desire to recreate the big family meal. Kitchen@Covent Garden, has two long communal tables running down its centre: "It should be like walking into your own kitchen," says Susan Smith, "The open rotisserie that we have reflects that I think, and also the market we're aiming for, which is basically everybody, that includes families and single diners."
So who's doing the communal thing here in the UK? As mentioned, Wagamama in London and Manchester; the Tampopo chain, and Bank in Manchester. In London: Dish Dash; Giraffe; The Pan-Asian Canteen; Kitchen@Ten Covent Garden; Busaba Eathai; Asia de Cuba at St Martin's Lane Hotel; Nobu, who operate their no-booking-necessary-table on a Saturday night only and The Park in the Mandarin Oriental who use theirs for breakfasts.
Tim from Dish Dash thinks more restaurateurs are warming to it: "If you view yourself as a community restaurant then what you're doing is giving the community you serve the chance to meet and get into conversation with one another — a place for ideas to congregate".
All very exciting, but what about the unassuming, silent figure of the single diner — perhaps the most significantly untapped market here in the U.K.? While restaurateurs such as Miah, Gardener and Smith say they do get single diners, as yet they don't constitute a large percentage of their customer base.
Here we can look to the States for inspiration instead, where the lure of the single diner is big business. In New York alone a plethora of "solo diners" head to hugely successful establishments including Mercer Kitchen, Angelica Kitchen, Avra, Le Pain Quotidien, Hudson Café, Republic and Beacon Restaurant.
American website SoloDining.com and its associated newsletter Solo Dining.com which has been running for five years is testament to the size of the market. Editor Marya Charles Alexander is a restaurant industry consultant and author of tomes such as 150 Tips on How to Attract and Keep Solo Diners. "The communal table trend first became obvious in the U.S. five years ago after the media lamented "a lack of a sense of community,"she comments.
Alexander believes now, that restaurants have finally "awakened to the vast numbers of people who comprise the 'Singles' market." "It includes those who are 'situationally single,' " she says. "People who travel on business and those who are left at home while their spouses are away." Adding, "Ever increasing, the biggest growing market in the U.S. is that of the single female."
So, with their communal table already in place, is this a market the British restaurateur should look into more closely? Alexander is emphatic: "Are your restaurateurs hungry for more business? Restaurateurs who comprehend the fact that sooner or later everyone faces the challenge of eating alone? Does your population comprise singles, divorced and widowed? I truly believe this phenomenon will do well in Britain."
Obviously a phenomenon waiting to happen, here are some tips on how to court it:
(1) Have the daily papers ready to offer the customer or encourage them to bring in their own reading matter. This will make a single diner less intimidated by their surroundings.
(2) Ask the single diner whether they'd welcome sharing a table with others; more often than not this will provoke conversation and networking opportunities. However, Marya is adamant: "Wording is crucial; to be well received, the invitation must be offered as a special option, not as an ultimatum."
(3) Another factor is positioning of the table; consider it as a central feature rather than a forgotten one at the back of the restaurant. The table will then be in the hub of the action and more appealing for it.
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Want additional information about restaurants offering communal table dining in the U.K AND in Australia? Please click: In The Company of Strangers . . .