“Small Town, Big Beach” may be the Gulf Shores motto, but, like most beach towns, it’s only small in the ‘off’ season. ‘In’ season, the number of people in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach quadruples. And even though most visitors rent condos with kitchens, come dinner time the area’s restaurants will be packed and overflowing.
Twenty to fifty percent of all restaurant complaints are about slow service. This makes perfect sense. Just think about how much waiting you do during a typical evening out. First, you wait to be seated, then you wait to order, then you wait to be served. Finally, you wait for the check and to get your credit card back. Order cocktails, appetizers, or desserts, and you introduce even more opportunities to get annoyed.
Most people blame the restaurant for all this waiting, but some of it just comes down to math. The 200 area restaurants would probably be enough if it weren’t for the fact that everyone wants to eat at the same time. Check the Google sidebar in your web browser, and you’ll see the bar chart peak between 6 and 9 p.m. Hover over each bar to see typical wait-times. Of course, the problem goes beyond mere numbers.
No question that excessive delays result from restaurant missteps. But, keep in mind that about a third of their employees are seasonal. Many are students who have no intention of making a career of hospitality, and almost none will be worrying if they’ll be getting a promotion in six months when they will be long gone. Whether it’s high turnover, absenteeism, or just too little time to train during the summer rush, beach-town restaurantuers have their work cut out for them.
On the flip side, customers contribute to longer than necessary wait-time. Without even realizing it, they can be their own worst enemy – or yours. Take, for instance, people who book multiple reservations because they aren’t sure where their friends want to go. But, after deciding, they never cancel the unused reservations. You would never do this, of course, but plenty of people do. Then, there’s the table of eight that linger an extra half hour because just one of them wants dessert. It’s enough to make a hostess go bonkers.
What it comes down to is — you can’t control the restaurant and, to a large extent, they can’t control you. But there are things you can do to speed things up.
Beware of restaurants with long menus. Restaurants with long menus run slower for three reasons. It takes longer for customers to read the menu. And, with so many choices, it takes longer for each of them to make a decision. Once ordered, it’s going to take longer in the kitchen too. The more ingredients, the more prep, the more pans. You get it. If your restaurant has an overlong menu and you’re hungry, look for menu items highlighted by boxes or pictures. These are the dishes they want you to order and will be able to prepare more quickly.
Make reservations when possible. According to at least one expert, it will take at least 20 minutes from the time you are seated until you have an appetizer or salad in front of you. So, figure out when you want to actually eat, then book your reservation for about a half-hour earlier.
- Expect wait-time even if you make a reservation. Just like booking a flight, the later in the day you leave, the more backed up things can get.
- Many vacation town restaurants don’t take reservations. Those that do will probably want you to do it via an app such as OpenTable, TripAdvisor, Yelp, or Google. If you don’t get a confirmation, call the restaurant to be sure they have you listed.
- Be nice. Call to cancel your reservations if you change your plans.
Get there on time. Plan on traffic. Concerts at the Wharf and events at the FloraBama will cause major delays, so check for events before choosing a restaurant – or leave plenty of time to get there.
Be ready to order. Ever stood behind someone at McDonald’s for 10 minutes, but when it’s their turn to order, they still don’t know what they want? Agghh! You can shave off a good 15 minutes of waiting if you check the online menu before being seated and only need to hear the specials to decide.
Put your phone down and order already. According to one article, smartphone-era diners take longer to eat than their predecessors. Up to 50 minutes longer. Why? To start with, people keep answering texts and checking emails instead of deciding what to order. Once the food arrives, instead of digging in, they take pictures of their food, start posting reviews or posing for selfies to post to social media. Some, who get too carried away, sometimes end up sending their food back to the kitchen to be re-heated.
Allergic? Do your research before choosing a restaurant. If someone in your group has severe food allergies check the AllergyEats search engine before deciding where to go.
Don’t substitute. Busy restaurants don’t like it when customers substitute sides or ingredients. For one thing, it upsets the flow of the kitchen. For another, chefs take pride in their recipes and food pairings. Some places will be ‘happy’ to let you make changes, but don’t be surprised if this tacks on another 10 to 20 minutes to be served.
Ask for the check. Even a perfect evening can end on a sour note when the server never returns to give you the check. But apparently, servers tend to lose focus when they’re no longer feeling the pressure to put hot food in front of you. Be proactive. Ask for the check as soon as you know you won’t be ordering anything else.
Of course, it’s your money, your vacation, and your time.