MORE CONSUMERS ARE DINING ALONE. CAN RESTAURANTS ADAPT TO THEIR SOLO NEEDS QUICKLY ENOUGH TO KEEP THEM COMING BACK?
Solo travelers, single-person households, and solitary diners are making their mark on several industries ranging from consumer goods to tourism to restaurants. As consumers become busier and more stressed, even those who don’t label themselves as single are enjoying solo activities—especially eating—both at home and in restaurants.
According to the NPD Group, more than half of all meals are eaten alone—a number that’s on the rise. In countries like Japan, the trend of going solo even has its own name, ohitorisama, or “on your own.”
Shari Bayer has dined solo at more than a thousand restaurants around the world, sharing more than 200 of these experiences during her “All in the Industry” podcast on Heritage Radio Network. “More people are traveling alone, leading to more solo meals,” Bayer says. “I remember when I first started dining out by myself over 12 years ago. I would notice other diners in the restaurant looking at me, wondering why I was alone and seemingly passing judgment. I see less and less of that these days.”
Eliza Poehlman, general manager of Ai Fiori restaurant inside The Langham hotel in New York City, says that the staff is honored when a solo diner chooses the restaurant.
“They are here for the true Ai Fiori experience,” she says. “Solo diners are often more ready to engage with the staff, our wine, and our cuisine than large groups that, while still requiring excellent food and service, are somewhat distracted by their companions.”
With the growth in solo travelers and diners over the past decade, restaurants are taking a closer look at design, operations, and menus to ensure these guests feel just as welcome as a table of four.
Best seat in the house
While some single diners may still favor a stool at the bar, others are seeking a wider range of seating options. In response, operators are building their restaurants to include window-facing seats, communal tables, and more.
David Tracz, partner and principal of D.C. architecture firm //3877, says that in many instances, the bar is the best option for a solo diner, but the actual layout is changing. “On the more extreme end of things, we’re starting to see more open-concept bars, where the back bar is a larger service station, and the bar is really a group of tables loosely grouped around that service station,” he says. “This opens up a new realm for people to congregate.”
Located inside one of the busiest malls in Houston, Peli Peli’s Galleria store anticipated a high volume of solo diners. Accordingly, the restaurant, which specializes in South African fare, tweaked its operation to accommodate a crush of individual shoppers.
“We offer longer hours for happy hour and brunch and built a two-tier bar where diners can eat and keep their drinks on a secondary ledge, not the bar top itself,” says co-owner Thomas Nguyen. “The two-tier bar makes the seating more private and comfortable.”
For restaurants that don’t have bars, Tracz recommends communal tables and high tables, both of which generally make people feel more at ease when sitting alone. By configuring the tables so they’re grouped together, guests can “feel alone, but together,” he says. After all, some solo diners are comfortable sitting among strangers while others would prefer more solitude.
Making a connection
Connecting with one person is typically easier for restaurant staff than connecting with many, and in the era of online reviews, the solo diner could be an operator’s best friend.
“When someone comes to the restaurant as a solo diner, it’s a great way to establish a relationship,” Nguyen says. “You can have a conversation with them, whereas you may not be able to if they come in with a group.”
In Chicago, Shaw’s Crab House served more than 11,000 solo diners in 2019, per executive partner and vice president Bill Nevruz. He maintains that greeting single diners just like everyone else is a subtle, but important, step in winning their loyalty. Case in point: Servers never ask solitary guests at a two-top if they are expecting more people.
Bayer says she often runs into problems when trying to make a reservation for one through online reservation platforms. “In these cases, I’ve made reservations for two people and then called the restaurant to change to one person,” she says. “But it puts an unnecessary damper on the experience from the start.”
Florida-based micro-chain Shula’s Steak House has a number of nontraditional units with outposts at conference centers, golf clubs, and even Walt Disney World. At The Westshore Grand Hotel location in Tampa, hotel general manager David Rowland says staff are trained to connect with each guest, understand why they chose to dine at Shula, and then customize their experience.
“We see a lot of solo business travelers, and some are using their experience as a chance to wind down and keep the conversation limited. Our bar staff respects this and works to ensure the service is attentive but not intrusive. Others are more open to conversation,” Rowland says.
He adds that if guests walk in with a book or laptop, they usually aren’t looking for a conversation. To accommodate these diners, Shula has added plugs to every bar seat and also offers portable power cubes that staff can lend guests who are not seated at the bar.
Whether engaging guests or giving them space, it’s important to properly pace a meal so diners—solo or otherwise—don’t feel hurried.
“I hate when I feel watched and rushed,” Bayer says. “Even though I know as a soloist that my meal will move more quickly, I do not like when a server sees me take my last bite and then rushes over to my table and takes my plate away while I’m still chewing.”
Menus for one
Just as vegetarians may find it difficult to navigate a meat-filled menu, solo diners can have a hard time choosing an item on a menu featuring large-format options meant for sharing.
“We just completed a menu transition that takes us away from appetizers and entrées and moves us to light fare and large fare,” Peli Peli’s Nguyen says. “I think it adds to the dining experience for a solo diner. Plus, I think the days of ordering a big entrée are going away.”
Rowland says Shula staff members ask the customer what they’re interested in trying that day, but they also have two to three go-to items they can recommend when someone is dining alone. Some appetizers on the menu are built to share, but the restaurant offers half portions when possible; servers can also suggest smaller cuts of steak or package a portion to-go.
Ai Fiori sends out an extra amuse-bouche to solo diners at dinner and features an express lunch at the bar, which was created with solo diners in mind. The format allows guests to experience Ai Fiori in a shorter time frame, in case they’d prefer not to linger, Poehlman says. The restaurant also keeps newspapers handy during breakfast and lunch should guests wish to read the news.
“I’ve been working in restaurants for 20 years, and it’s impressive to see that restaurants are now seeing that a solo diner isn’t a bad thing,” Rowland says. “When I used to dine solo, I was treated almost like a third [wheel] because I was taking up a valuable two-top. Now it’s changed so much. Restaurants appreciate that this is a customer who will spend money, and if engaged right, will spend more money.”