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Executive Travel : Learning to Serve the Solo Diner Better

March 16, 1994|CAROL SMITH | CAROL SMITH is a free-lance writer based in Pasadena

Dining out alone has been the bane of business travelers. With the traditional social stigma attached to eating alone in this country, solo diners have had to put up with surly waiters, poor tables and the stares of other customers.

But that appears to be changing as restaurateurs trying to build business turn to this overlooked segment of would-be customers.

A large percentage of solo diners are business travelers, said Marya Alexander, a restaurant consultant based in South Pasadena. Alexander, who wrote the book "Solo Diners: The Untapped Mega-Market of the 1990s," has been championing the solo-diner market for several years.

"If you walk into most restaurants, you'll see they are set up for couples or groups," she said. "It's no surprise so many business travelers have preferred to hide out in their hotel rooms."

But restaurateurs are changing their ways. Around the country they are experimenting with new ways to attract and keep solo diners, including business travelers.

Strategies range from new restaurant layouts that use clusters of smaller tables to teaching employees how to make people eating alone feel more comfortable.

The restaurant host or hostess, for example, shouldn't ask, "Are you alone?" or "Is it just you?" Alexander said. Rather, he or she should ask if the customer wants a table for one and then make friendly conversation on the way to the table.

The Westwood Marquis and Gardens is one Los Angeles hotel that has decided to go after the solo visitor. Three weeks ago, it launched a "Traveler's Exchange" room package that includes breakfast and dinner at a communal table in the main dining room.

"So far, the feedback has been very positive," said Mohammed Khan, food and beverage manager for the hotel. The table seats as many as six people, but it most often has two or three diners. Khan said it offers a good opportunity for business travelers to network or simply have someone to talk to.

Before coming up with the package, the hotel wasn't doing anything to attract solo business travelers to its restaurant, Khan said, but because many of the hotel's guests are high-level managers who travel alone, the hotel realized it was overlooking a potential market.

Going after the solo traveler is becoming a trend in the industry, Khan said. "The way this business is right now, people are looking for every opportunity to capitalize on added floor traffic."

Community tables are nothing new, but apparently they are catching on now as never before.

The San Pasqual Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., has had a community table from the time it opened 15 years ago, but the table's popularity has increased as people have become used to the idea, manager David Coulson said. The table seats as many as 15 and can be used by anyone, including couples and small groups.

Local business people as well as solo travelers sit at the table, Coulson said. "It's an interesting way to have an opportunity to talk to other people."

Coulson should know; he's done his share of eating alone. "I've traveled by myself on business before," he said. "It does get old."

For Danny Meyer, owner of the 8-year-old Union Square Cafe in New York, the solo diner is, so to speak, his establishment's bread and butter. Meyer, who spent years on the road eating alone, wanted his restaurant to be a place where solo diners could feel comfortable.

Solo eaters used to have two choices, he said: They could eat bad food at a coffee shop bar and not feel conspicuous, or eat fine food at a good restaurant and feel like outcasts.

In fact, Meyer said, he used to make reservations for two at some places because a reservation for one would not be accepted. After claiming the table, he'd say his companion would not be showing up.

He vowed to make things easier for other solo diners in his own restaurant. "From the day we opened, 30% of our square footage has been set aside for single diners," Meyer said. The 18-seat bar, for example, is designed more for dining than drinking, he said, and its best waiters are promoted to that station. For their part, solo business travelers can benefit from applying a little strategy. Here, according to Alexander, are some suggestions for making eating out alone a more rewarding experience:

* Call ahead and make a reservation. Tell the maitre d' what type of table you'd like. If you need to spread out to do some work, for example, make sure the restaurant can accommodate you. Make sure too that you will have enough light to work where you are seated. When making the reservation, emphasize that the reason you chose this restaurant is that you want the pleasure of its food while you're working and that you're looking for a place to entertain clients.

* When you're at a restaurant with other people, notice how the restaurant treats single diners. Are they treated courteously? Or are they stuck at poor tables, with less-than-enthusiastic servers?

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