Are restaurants squeezing customers?

  • Article by: SYLVIA RECTOR , Detroit Free Press
  • Updated: March 10, 2010 - 2:51 PM

How close is too close when it comes to restaurant tables? Most would agree: when you can reach the salt-and-pepper shakers at the next table without getting out of your chair.

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Are tables lined up like piano keys?

Getting a table for two once meant you could look forward to a romantic meal.

That was before restaurants began installing yards-long banquettes and that endless row of two-person tables, lined up like piano keys.

I've always disliked those side-by-side seats, especially when they're so tightly spaced you end up sitting closer to the stranger beside you than your own dining partner.

You're not alone

If I can reach over and touch your table, I figure, you're too close for my comfort. But does that make me antisocial?

Not according to a 2009 study called "Don't Sit So Close to Me: Restaurant Table Characteristics and Guest Satisfaction" by Stephani Robson and Sheryl Kimes of Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research.

They studied table size and spacing to find out what effect they had on a guest's satisfaction, spending and length of stay at the table. Their point was to help restaurant owners choose optimal seating.

For the rest of us, though, the paper not only sheds some light on our habits as diners, but may tell us why we like dining at some places better than others.

Among habits the researchers noted:

Most of us prefer to sit at right angles when we're in conversation with friends. Notice that two-person tables -- deuces, in restaurant jargon -- usually force us to sit face to face, which can feel confrontational.

We don't usually sit side-by-side when dining for business because it can be viewed as too intimate.

Our need for ample personal space and being able to control it is considerable -- even in a public place -- and when we lack that space and control, our stress level rises. That may explain the popularity of booths, with their obvious physical barriers to other people.

Personal-space needs vary among cultures. In Western society, when someone who isn't an intimate friend gets closer than 18 inches, we feel stressed and overstimulated, the authors say, and we will either try to increase the distance or leave the area as soon as possible.

The study's findings about seating were clear: Guests don't like being crowded.

Survey at the table

Using a restaurant in New York's Soho district for their research, the authors studied spending and used questionnaires to find out how two-person parties -- some at deuces and others at four-tops -- rated their experiences.

Guests at the larger tables felt they had more space, felt less crowded by other diners, stayed longer and spent more than guests at two-tops. But the differences in satisfaction weren't statistically significant.

What did make a significant difference in guest satisfaction was how far apart tables were placed. Simply put, the closer together the tables, the less happy the guests.

Diners at tables that were 20 inches or less apart "generally expressed lower satisfaction in almost every category" including food, friendliness of service and the wisdom of having chosen that restaurant. They ended up spending more per minute because they left sooner than people at four-tops, but they were significantly less likely to return, the study said.

It's a reminder that the food isn't the only thing that makes us want to visit again -- or not. Sometimes it's as simple as the distance to the next guy's table.

How do you feel about tight quarters for restaurant tables? And which local restaurants have this issue?

Let us know at our blog at startribune.com/tabletalk.

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