Winning with Private Diners Is Easier Than You Think

Unlock new profits by treating your private diners right

Filling a restaurant with guaranteed diners who have money to burn is every operator’s dream. 

Private dining, when executed correctly, generates an additional revenue stream and helps cultivate repeat customers. The best news? It may not even require a separate dining room. 

Independent restaurants have found success by knowing what matters most to private diners and getting creative with existing space so that it allows a degree of privacy. Making it all work requires satisfying the needs of clients and matching their needs with your space. Here are five ways to succeed.

1. Advocate a family-style setup
At 1601 Bar & Kitchen, a contemporary Sri Lankan restaurant in San Francisco, service in its 16-seat private back room is streamlined with family-style offerings. Co-owner Yuliya Thompson says cold dishes can be delivered shortly after guests arrive, while a set menu reduces the stress of guests placing orders. The format also provides the opportunity to change seats and socialize during the meal. One server often can staff the entire private room, thus lowering labor costs. Positioning the family-style approach as a more convivial format, which provides more ways for guests to experience the menu, is a good selling point.

Curtains divide the space and provide privacy, allowing State Street Provisions to host more than one event at a time.

2. Set a minimum
Food-and-beverage minimums offer greater flexibility and perceived value versus a per-head charge or room fee. Business clients, in particular, may not have many guests at a function, but they’re willing to spend more per person because it’s a corporate event.

“It allows organizers to spend their money on guests rather than just giving money to the house; that’s a big selling point for us,” says Ashleigh Peters, director of events and marketing at Gaslight Lynnfield in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. An administrative fee and gratuity are also added, she says.

3. Create a flex zone
At State Street Provisions in Boston, long, flowing curtains on tracks divide the main dining room into smaller cordoned-off areas for groups up to 65 people, thus ensuring the dining room is fully utilized. Jenny Soldatos, State Street Provisions’ private events manager, says she’s booked dual events, using three-quarters of the space for one event and a smaller get-together for the remaining quarter. When the room isn’t used for an event, the curtains pull back and sit against the wall as a noise reducing decor piece.

Also don’t forget about furniture: Gaslight Lynnfield ordered special lightweight high-tops and round, removable tabletops to transform four-top square tables into eight-top round tables for events. Because they’re lightweight, they can be easily reconfigured and stored away when not in use.

The seafood tower at State Street Provisions fits into a family-style format that many private diners prefer.

 Be transparent
Booking events is all about relationships, says Kristi Givens, events and marketing director for PEARL Seafood & Oyster Bar in Bellevue, Washington. Be honest and direct, she says. 

“It’s as simple as saying, ‘What are your expectations for your night?’” Givens says. That question often provides insight into important requirements, such as tweaking budgets, addressing noise concerns or offering premium wines. 

Communication should work both ways. It’s better to realize that a party might not be a fit for your space at the onset rather than disappoint clients who won’t return. Exceed their expectations and win their trust, a tenet that’s especially true of business diners. “We’ve seen corporate clients who had a great experience here, and then all of a  sudden they’re doing a dinner party for 40 at their home, thinking, ‘I wonder if Pearl caters,’” Givens says. “Private parties open the door for other opportunities down the road.”

5. Say, “Yes!”
Givens didn’t think high school students were her target demographic for private dining, but after hosting a pre-prom dinner for four teens at a semiprivate table, complete with custom-printed menus, her opinion changed. The next day, she received a huge thank-you from the parents and developed a potential long-term dining relationship. 

It’s part of her dedication to working with private dining clients, even if they don’t fit the typical mold. Parties that want the semiprivate dining room but are anxious about meeting the $500 food-and beverage minimum are added to a standby waiting list, which Givens turns to if she is unable to find another client willing to meet the minimum. 

“More often than not, the room would have remained empty, so this way they get what they want, and we don’t miss out on the revenue opportunity,” she says. “Often they end up spending more than the minimum anyway. It’s also smart in a marketing sense because now more people know we have that cool room.”

Then, Follow this Checklist for Stoking The Perfect Private Party

❒ Provide info. Offer menus, photos and fees on your website under a private dining section.

❒ Respond quickly. Often, a host has contacted numerous restaurants. You don’t want to miss out.

❒ Discuss expectations. This includes the menu, staffing, alcohol grades, payment and other needs, such as high chairs and audiovisual equipment.

❒ Send a contract. Spell everything out in writing and keep a credit card on file.

❒ Staff adequately. Mark the private dining party in the reservation system and communicate it to all staff.

❒ Touch base. Reach out a few days before the event for updates.

❒ See it through. Check in with the host throughout the party to ensure all needs are met. Follow up with a thank-you and an invitation to dinner, which you should customize to their preferences.