For some, uttering the words “table for one” is unthinkable.
At Starbucks, an individual table or counter stool allows guests to mix in with the crowd, but for finer dining? It doesn’t even occur to some to head out to a restaurant sans companion for fear of looking lonely.
But there are those who enjoy the idea of quality time spent eating by themselves. Maybe friends’ schedules never seem to allow for a group meetup, and rather than wait to try out a new spot, or risk a dish being taken off the menu, they take their smartphone or a good book with them and head out on their own.
In fact, in 2015, OpenTable found that table reservations for solo diners grew by 62 percent in the U.S., suggesting that the stigma surrounding dining out alone may be lifting.
Kaleb Harrell, co-owner of the multi-location Hawkers Asian Street Fare, says he has noticed an uptick as of late in solo diners for both lunch and dinner. Convenience is likely a main driver of this trend, he says, noting that Hawkers restaurants have communal tables and communal rail seating, allowing diners to either have their own space or make new friends.
“There is a segment that just prefers to dine on their own — maybe not every meal, but once in a while,” he says. “We often see these guests surfing their mobile device, connecting them to a social world, just in a different way.”
Katie O’Donnell loves eating out on her own.
She also happens to be a restaurant owner, operating Bywater along with her husband, Brian, in Warren, Rhode Island, where they been serving “a coastal New England interpretation of Old World flavors and techniques” for the past three years. As a solo diner herself, she says she has been more in tune to the solo diners who come into her restaurant.
What insights has she found to make these guests comfortable? O’Donnell and Harrell offer their best tips:
Being a party of one helps you better cater to parties of one. Try it. Both O’Donnell and her staff like eating out on their own, so there is a sense of solidarity when they serve single diners at Bywater, she says.
Bring treats over to their table. It may not be feasible for O’Donnell to send a small sample of Bywater’s Alsacien bread pudding to a table of eight on a Saturday night, or for one of Hawkers’ employees to comp a table’s worth of handmade golden wontons. But with solo diners, there is more opportunity to make them feel special and valued.
“This solo diner is not only a guest, but an influencer, and likely not destined to dine alone forever.” – Josh Sapienza
Know that there is profit in tables of one. Harrell believes each segment of guest offers ups and downs in terms of profitability, and is aware that solo check averages may not be as high as larger parties. But on the other hand, he says, “Solo diners’ turn times are much lower than a party of six celebrating a birthday.”
Make friends. Chatting with solo guests, especially those from out of town, can offer some marketing advances and insight. Ask where they are from and how they heard about your restaurant, and what kind of food they like to eat. “It’s a great chance to do market research without appearing nosy,” O’Donnell says. “You’re just chit-chatting and being friendly, after all.” And a good experience means the potential for positive praise to their friends or social media followers.
Of course, there can be financial downsides to having one person occupy an entire table. As Los Angeles-based restaurant consultant and former restaurant owner and manager Ryan Ransom points out, “Unless they are in the bar, a solo diner will kill our table sales average. It’s basically the same amount of steps/work for a half or a fourth of the check size. Plus, we typically have few deuces, meaning all too often a solo diner is seated at a four-top, so now that single diner is occupying space for four people.”
But despite the challenges, restaurants need to find the upside of solo diners, says former restaurant operator Josh Sapienza of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He believes that owners and managers have a duty to train staff to “want” all guests, or run the risk of treating them differently from other diners, even in the form of subtle, non-verbal negative cues.