Office worker or business traveler, most people would rather avoid dining alone than endure the stigma associated with a table for one.
But in an increasingly competitive marketplace, savvy establishments are carving out cost effective niches for individual diners, leveraging a unique mix of new spaces and personalized service.
“Restaurants are opening up at a faster pace than consumers are going out to eat,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a foodservice research firm. “It’s important to do the things that will attract solo diners because if you don’t, they will go elsewhere.”
Rise of the Counter Culture
The discomfort around solo dining is likely tied to the school cafeteria where eating alone was seen as a mark of shame and isolation. But as fewer families eat as a unit and more adults are forced to eat while they work, the definition of what makes a “normal” meal is evolving. According to The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm, 47 percent of adult meals are now eaten alone, a dramatic alteration in dining habits that has created an opportunity for restaurants to increase their bottom line.
Restaurateurs are rethinking bar counters and creating communal tables, both of which can turn small individual check averages into larger tabs.
“It’s all about flexibility,” says professor Ezra Eichelberger of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “Some diners just want a seat, so they sit on one end and eat alone. Others want to be part of a group. Every chair is real estate.”
At the newest Pacific Pie outpost in Portland, Ore., owner Sarah Curtis-Fawley plucks inspiration from old-fashioned diners for her homey café. Wide bar tops accommodate single diners enjoying full meals, while magazines and individual-sized pies helped boost solo dining traffic for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Some people don’t cater to single diners because they worry the check will be too small,” Curtis-Fawley says. “But you never know when that single diner is going to become a regular. It becomes part of their routine and then they start bringing friends.”
Instead of thinking about solo diners as a single demographic, Phil de Gruy, owner of three Phil’s Grill eateries in the greater New Orleans area, invested in demographic studies to pinpoint which single diners are likely to visit his restaurants.
Find Your Niche
Near his downtown location, he found a large swath of single diners between the ages of 28 and 45. To cater to this diverse group, he installed multiple power outlets near tables and purse holders at the bar, extended happy hour specials from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and converted a series of two-tops into communal tables during peak hours.
“When someone walks in solo, we never say, ‘Are you dining alone?’” De Gruy says. “I’m banking on my solo diners and bar patrons to drive a significant portion of my sales here, so we need them to feel welcome.”
“I’m banking on my solo diners and bar patrons to drive a significant portion of my sales here, so we need them to feel welcome.”
-Phil De Gruy, owner of Phil's Grill
At Sofrita in Fountain Hills, Ariz., owner Carolyn Redendo homed in on dog lovers. She created an outdoor dog patio, spreading the word through Facebook and local pet stores. Soon, more young solo diners were dropping in for lunch to graze on her healthy lineup of tapas and salads. She estimates that 20 percent of her diners are now solo customers.
Dinner and a Show
Some solo diners prefer privacy, but dining out has become a social affair for many who enjoy having a quality meal while interacting with fellow foodies and chefs.
“People dining alone (want to) have a place to enjoy their meal or drink and be a central part of the activity in the restaurant, right in front (of the action),” Hart says. G.J. Hart, chief executive officer of California Pizza Kitchen, thinks the secret lies in mixing entertainment with comfort. His newest restaurants wrap a counter around the pizza oven, allowing patrons to talk with chefs as they roll, pack and spin their pizzas.
In Southern California, Top of the Market Executive Chef Ivan Flowers has seen success with wrapping more than 20 seats around his exhibition kitchen and training his chefs to give small cooking demos.
“We train our chefs to do a little extra, to talk to people and make them feel comfortable,” Flowers says.
Speed, comfort and value are central to luring solo diners, says Zoe van Empel, food and beverage manager of Amuse in Chicago. Simple classics like club sandwiches, soups and salads served in 15 minutes or less are a favorite among the power lunch crowd. To keep them coming back, she instituted food and drink pairings for $20 and created a separate room where guests can eat on couches in front of TVs.
For Jacob Cross, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Puccini Group, it’s all about slowing things down. Small plates, unique cocktails and a comfortable mix of lounge and bar seating allow solo diners to cocoon. That sense of relaxation turns small checks into big ones.
“Solo diners don’t want to feel any pressure,” he says. “Give them time, make them comfortable and at ease and they will respond.”
Peter Gianopulos is a freelance writer, restaurant critic and adjunct professor who finds respite in dining alone.
Sweating The Small Stuff
Attracting solo diners doesn’t require a major overhaul—just some thought:
Do Some Channel Surfing: Ditch the routine playing ESPN or CNN 24/7 by switching flat screens to the Food Network or slipping in a DVD.
Think Fast: Make certain menu items available for takeout. When word gets out that customers can grab a great meal and go, single diners will come calling.
Watch the Clock: Create incentives to lure working professionals during slower hours. Solo diners looking for spots at off-peak times often become regulars.
Go Green: Burgers still reign, but a creative salad or unique vegetable plate is a big draw for solo health-conscious diners.
Spring for Wi-Fi: Many single diners just want to eat alone, preferably with their smartphone or tablet as a partner. Invest in Wi-Fi and provide solo diners with a password as soon as they sit down.
Give the Stuff Away: Free kitchen bites, like a sip of soup, roasted vegetables and bar bites, can whet diners’ appetites and lead to bigger checks.