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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Closing time: what do a restaurant's hours really signal?

Restaurant hours have long been a pet peeve of mine, particularly in regards to closing time. What exactly does it mean to say that an establishment is open until 11 p.m.? Is the last seating at 11 p.m.? Does the kitchen officially break down at that hour?

What about a half hour before closing?

I do my best to arrive at any restaurant about an hour before stated closing time at the latest. This isn't because I think that I shouldn't be served after that time, but more because I remember how frustrating it was, when I waited tables, to think your night of work was almost over only to have one straggling couple show up five minutes before we locked the door. I try to arrive early out of consideration. I will say that when I worked in restaurants, the ones I still think of as paragons of service at least, if someone did show up late the goal was to make them feel completely at home and give no signal that they were unwelcome.

The other night, I experienced almost exactly the opposite of that. For various reasons, the person I was dining with was held up until 10 p.m. There were a few places I needed to visit for work purposes, and all but one of them closed at 10 - one was open until 11. I hesitated to go there, but was eventually convinced. When we walked in the door, it was 10:25. There were two other tables still eating. I asked if the restaurant was still serving. "Yes, but we're about to close. If you can order in the next 20 minutes, it's OK."

I assured the host we would order quickly.

Our waiter came to the table, obviously unhappy that we were there. "We're about to close," he said. "Do you want something to drink?"

"Yeah, but we're looking at the menu first so we can get our order in," I said.

"Yeah, you need to order soon," he said. "The kitchen's about to close."

To make a short story really short, we ordered four small things and a drink each, were brought those things and then instructed that if we wanted anything else we needed to order it immediately (even though it was still 15 minutes until the advertised closing time). We ate paid and left before 11 p.m. The entire experience was 27 minutes long, and cost $60. While we were sitting there, the tables around us were sprayed down with degreaser and disinfectant, the the chairs were put up on the tables, and the floor was swept. Our waiter kept up his grumpy demeanor throughout.

If I'm so afraid of walking into a restaurant late (yet still during business hours), and that fear is perpetuated by the staff of many restaurants, how many customers are businesses losing with this perception that hours of operation are not actually to be taken literally? I can tell you I almost stayed home that night for fear of being a burden, and I certainly won't be visiting that restaurant again anywhere close to closing time - it makes me not want to go back there at all.

What is the actual point of closing hours? To signal to your customers when they should expect to be served, or to signal to your employees when they should expect to go home?

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