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Don't Make Promises You Can't Keep

In the September issue, editor Mike Sanson railed on restaurants that close their doors before posted closing hours. Restaurants that do so damage the trust they've created with customers, he said. Most agreed with him. Here are some excerpts from response letters.

We talk about this scenario all the time at our 58-year-old restaurant. We are always open when we say we're going to be open. I would feel terrible if, during a snowstorm, a customer drove all the way out to our place, risking life and limb, and found the door locked.

Now, we make a fun night out of bad weather, as we did during Hurricane Irene. In fact, we usually get busy on these bad weather days because our customers know that we will be there for them. I might not have a full staff, I might not be able to cook each and every thing on the menu, but people know to come in and we'll do our best to take care of them.

Tom Merighi, Jr.
Merighi's Savoy Inn
Vineland, NJ

Boy did you hit on one of our pet peeves. Time and time again, when we go to a restaurant — sometimes we even call ahead for the hours — we arrive to find the chairs on tables. As it turns out, if we're going out late, we usually head for the restaurants that respect the hours they post. You are exactly right; it's a promise, and promises should be kept.

Because of that, we've worked with our staff to greet people who arrive even one minute before closing with a smile. And if there are still tickets hanging and the kitchen isn't shut down, our servers know that it's okay to seat people after the closing hour. It's difficult to do — there are real costs with kitchen and cleanup staff — but it's better to incur a small cost than to disappoint a customer. In the long run, I think it works out.

James Sly
Carpinteria, CA

I agree that establishments that post hours should keep them. That's why I don't post hours at either of my restaurants (operated successfully for 25 years). Opening is firmly fixed, but closing is a daily management decision. If we're busy we will stay open as long as demand is present. When it is painfully slow, we will close when it makes economic sense. I tell my managers if your last customer came in the door at 8 p.m., it's okay to close at 9. Keep in mind that closing the front door does not end your labor cost or cleanup and closing procedures will continue for one to two hours after closing, depending on business levels. Sometimes a manager is placed in a no-win situation. However, when it's your own money on the line, wiser heads will prevail.

Evan Williams
Evan's American Gourmet Cafe
South Lake Tahoe

Never close before your stated hours and never pretend your customers do not remember. And please acknowledge them at the door. Most restaurants fail from stupid things that they forgot about or thought were unimportant. Everything is important and every customer is important.

Here's a story: Some customers recently came to The Strip Club 104 looking for the taco restaurant that was here six months ago. They came because of a coupon they purchased from Living Social. We do not have tacos, but we took their coupon and offered to match it even though I'm out $30. But we gained four new customers who stayed for hours and had a great evening. This they will remember.

Jason E. Clark
Executive Chef / Owner
BIN112 on Trade Street
The Strip Club 104: A Steak House
Greer, SC

Our kitchens are open until 10 p.m. Our rule for managers is that if someone comes in at 10 past we feed them. My mentor, an old bar owner, always said to me, “Keep the hours. Never have a patron guess as to whether you're open or not.” That's also why our places are open seven nights, as well. The slow nights are tough enough, but we can always clean menus, fold napkins, refill pepper mills or wipe down table bases.

Frank A. Santo, Jr.
Isabella, Dedham, MA
The Local, Newton, MA

My partner son and I own six restaurants in the Seattle area called Duke's. Duke's has been around since 1977 and we decided many years ago to stay open a little later so that people could attend events, but still get dinner afterwards. That meant taking some time to develop a later dinner business. But we proved that it pays off. Our competitors either close early or have an erratic, hard-to-predict, hard-to-plan schedule for a guest. Exactly what you experienced. When we say that we close for dinner at 10 p.m., we mean it. It works, but requires a decision to commit and the discipline to stay with that commitment.

Duke Moscrip

I have had many nights where the numbers aren't up to par and cost is more than what I am making. But at the end of the day I am betraying the service I am providing by closing doors before the posted time. There have been many evenings where my staff will ask, “Should we close early?” And my answer: “You never know if that one person might come in and be hungry.” Set the hours and they will come.

Erin Carnes
The Escondite
Los Angeles CA

Under no circumstance do we close a minute before our set hours, except the Saturday night of Hurricane Irene when I closed an hour early to taxi my staff home. It was a safety issue. Our guests know our hours and our friends at neighboring hotels do as well. There are too many fantastic restaurants in Manhattan to have anyone relay negative words, especially about inconsistent times of operations. Anyone who dines out wants quality, consistency and great, timely service.

Ardina Cerra
Friends of Farmers
New York City

I'm in a town of 90,000 where people tend to eat early. We rarely have anyone trying to come for dinner after 9 p.m. Mine is the only restaurant in town that has white tablecloth service (except the country clubs), and we have about the highest ticket price as well. We get most of our business through reservations, but do get walk-ins. I have always posted and had on my answering machine that we open at 6:30 p.m., but I don't set a closing time. If I post a closing time I need to stay open. Yet, with the economy the way it is, when no one shows up by 7:45 and no one has called, I call it a night and cut my losses.

Earl Mulley
River Terrace Restaurant
San Angelo, TX

Is there ever a valid reason to close early? Only if you've lost your power or a hot water heater. How do you handle a slow night? Operate with as minimal a staff as possible. But you, the owner or manager, better have the skills to back up each area.

I don't post a closing time — period. I do let guests who phone or ask know that the kitchen is open until 9 p.m. weekdays and 9:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. However, I let them know that if they'd like to come later, please ask and we'll take care of them.

George Cottom
George's Fine Steaks & Spirits
New Ulm, MN

We've been open 38 years in a tourist area and we close only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We do very strong year-round business thanks to locals. We are open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week. The kitchen is always open until 11 p.m. We have three locations and it's the same in all three.

Jeffrey Moore
Bobby Byrne's Restaurant & Pubs
Sandwich MA