How much time should customers spend in your restaurant?

Would this thrill or scare you?
Would this thrill or scare you?

Restaurant entrepreneurs who come into One Fat Frog have a lot to decide about their restaurant, such as the menu, size, ambiance, theme, prices, and much more. One factor that is often overlooked is the amount of time you want customers to spend in your restaurant.

Depending on their business model, different restaurants hope for different lengths of stay from their customers. Some places want you to sit at the bar for hours ordering drink after drink. Sports bars take advantage of games by bringing you additional orders of wings and beer throughout the three-hour game. (Or did you think they asked if you wanted another just to be nice?) On the other side of the spectrum, fast food chains want you to come in, get your food, and eat it as fast as possible before leaving to make room for the next customer. Or better yet, you go through the drive-thru and never even stop inside.

This question has become a heated debate recently. Cafes such as Starbucks have an atmosphere that encourages customers to stay for a while. Customers sit at comfortable tables or couches and use the free wi-fi for hours while they go back for more and more coffee. The problem is sometimes customers will buy a single coffee and then use up that space for hours. If it’s busy and there isn’t enough seating, that can lose money for the café. As a result, there have been recent complaints and even lawsuits after café managers have asked customers who have overstayed their welcome to leave.

And then there are the “fast food” restaurants. In recent years, several fast food chains – especially McDonald’s – have transitioned to try to be a trendy hangout spot. Offering wi-fi, television, and their own coffee menu, the fast food chains have become a poor man’s Starbucks for many. The problem is that goes against their fast food business model and many customers are staying for a long time while spending little money or none at all. Many McDonald’s chains have responded by posting policies that customers should not stay for more than 30 minutes, which has caused backlash from those who want to spend hours inside.

And then of course there are all-you-can-eat-buffets. I’ve heard more than one person be scolded with “buffet does not mean all day!”

So what about your restaurant? Your menu, ambiance, and amenities will play a huge factor in how long customers stay. Having things like wi-fi and TVs will make people stay longer. That’s a good thing if you take advantage of customers staying for longer periods of time, but it can be bad if you’re losing money by not having enough table space. A good idea is to decide how long you want customers to stay in your restaurant and then build the restaurant’s menu, amenities and ambiance to reinforce that.