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Episode 968: The Trouble With Table 101

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Episode 968: The Trouble With Table 101

Episode 968: The Trouble With Table 101

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

SALLY HELM, HOST:

Dan Pashman.

DAN PASHMAN, HOST:

Hey, Sally.

HELM: You will recall the scene - it is last summer, very hot day.

PASHMAN: I should have worn shorts.

HELM: And you and I show up at a little restaurant in New York City - specifically in Long Island City, Queens.

PASHMAN: It's a casual Indian place called Adda, which translates roughly to hangout spot. And that's the vibe founder Roni Mazumdar was going for.

HELM: You're Roni?

RONI MAZUMDAR: Yeah.

HELM: I'm Sally.

MAZUMDAR: How are you? Very nice to meet you.

HELM: Roni knows the restaurant business. He currently owns three places in New York, but he's also run two that have closed, including one in this very location.

PASHMAN: And he told us that the whole concept of Adda is a risk.

MAZUMDAR: We took a lot of chances in a restaurant like this. Serving goat brains isn't really a normal protocol here in New York because you're scared out of your mind, like, maybe it's way too ethnic.

HELM: When Adda got noticed with some great reviews and a fancy James Beard Award nomination, suddenly the business changed. And unexpectedly, Roni had a problem. The problem is not the food. It's actually the physical space and how the physical space relates to the money.

PASHMAN: OK. So to explain this, first you got to understand that Roni designed his restaurant one way.

MAZUMDAR: We were genuinely never expecting people to be on a five-block radius.

HELM: There is a college across the street, lots of young professionals working in the area.

PASHMAN: But now Adda is a destination.

MAZUMDAR: People from different parts of the world are coming. This is no longer a quick-bite restaurant. People are spending more time than we expected.

PASHMAN: But that also creates a certain economic pressure.

MAZUMDAR: It does. That's why the chairs don't have cushions.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).

MAZUMDAR: I'm dead serious.

HELM: If the chairs are too comfortable, people might stay too long. And Roni is set on keeping prices low, which means if he's going to turn a good profit, he needs people to eat quickly, then leave and make space for more customers...

PASHMAN: But not feel too rushed. I mean, he wants them to have a good enough time that they come back, of course.

HELM: Balance.

PASHMAN: Yeah. That's the key for any restaurateur. You've got to get the most out of every table, every seat, every minute that you're open. And to do that, a restaurant has to balance three things - price, timing and space. All of them come with tradeoffs.

HELM: Yeah. You can do low prices and quick turnover, or you can make it really comfy so that people are OK paying more, but then they stay longer.

PASHMAN: And of course you want to fit as many people in your restaurant as possible, but you can't go too far with that because then no one's going to want to come back. I mean, people don't like to eat literally in a human pile.

HELM: So tradeoffs - and how a place balances these tradeoffs sets the tone and the profits for a restaurant.

PASHMAN: And this industry operates on tiny margins, so if that balance is off, even a James Beard Award-nominated restaurant is vulnerable.

HELM: Roni is doing a lot of things right. But his problem - it is right smack in the front of the restaurant for everyone to see.

PASHMAN: Adda's worst table.

HELM: What table is this?

PASHMAN: One-oh-one (ph).

HELM: You say that with, like, an ominous...

MAZUMDAR: This is the only table that's a high-top.

HELM: ...Because it's higher up. It's raised off the ground.

MAZUMDAR: Yes. And we wanted that because we wanted sort of a little, nice vantage point so people can really see outside.

PASHMAN: Roni, with his years of experience, he felt that table 101 was going to be the best table in the house. I mean, it's the window seat, right? And usually, people love the window seat. But at Adda, this window table has the restaurant's lowest check average. Roni doesn't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PASHMAN: That's why we've brought Roni a secret weapon - Stephani Robson. She's an expert on restaurant psychology and design. And she has agreed to come to Adda and conduct an experiment. Can she used her research to turn table 101 into the best seat in the house?

HELM: And also, show me and Dan, and everyone else, the little tricks that restaurants use to get us to spend more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HELM: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sally Helm.

PASHMAN: And I'm Dan Pashman, host of "The Sporkful," a podcast about food and eating. Today on the show, we take a page from reality TV. We're doing a data-driven restaurant makeover.

HELM: It is a game of inches, and everything inside is fair game.

(SOUNDBITE OF FURNITURE DRAGGING)

HELM: (Laughter) We're totally dismantling your entire restaurant.

We meet Stephanie Robson in the street outside Adda.

PASHMAN: Have you been here before?

STEPHANI ROBSON: I have not. It took me a while to find it.

PASHMAN: We picked Stephanie because she's the perfect person to figure out the problem with table 101. She's consulted with dozens of restaurants. Her specialty - the way design affects how much we spend. She teaches this stuff at Cornell.

HELM: Stephanie did one study that showed that playing fast songs got people out of a restaurant seven or eight minutes quicker.

PASHMAN: Other research suggests that if you play faster music, people might also spend more per minute. Stephani says that could be why grocery stores play so much '80s music.

HELM: And these days, she is very focused on tables.

ROBSON: How close tables can be and what effect that has on the guest - which is kind of mortifying, you know? When you talk to other people who do research and some people will be coming up with a new theory of physics, And I'm studying the distance of restaurant tables. But...

PASHMAN: Well, for the record, Stephani, I think your research is very important.

ROBSON: Well, thank you, Dan.

HELM: It is important, especially to someone running a restaurant.

ROBSON: Restaurants don't really sell food. They sell space. That's what they're in the business of doing.

PASHMAN: You're running a real estate business.

ROBSON: It is a real estate business. That's exactly right.

HELM: And the diners are, like, renting tables?

ROBSON: Yeah. Yeah. Think about it. When you go to a restaurant that has a really high check average, really high prices, they can give you a bigger table. They can give you a bigger table because they can afford to - because you're paying more in rent.

PASHMAN: And for that money - for that extra money, you are quite literally getting more space for more time.

ROBSON: Yes. That's exactly right. And so if you're at a restaurant where they don't have that kind of a check average - think about fast-food restaurants you've been to. You don't get a comfy booth at McDonald's. That's on purpose because they don't want you to stay.

PASHMAN: Stephani is ready to take on table 101.

HELM: So when we walk in here in a sec, what are you going to be looking for?

ROBSON: First thing I'm going to look for is what style of seating they have. But I get a first impression just looking at the mix of tables and where they are.

HELM: Is that always what it's like for you when you walk into a restaurant? Do you just - your eye goes straight to the tables?

ROBSON: I am single for a reason, Sally.

(LAUGHTER)

HELM: Stephani used to bring a tape measure in her purse everywhere she went. She says she has never whipped it out on a first date, but she did once get kicked out of the food court at the Pentagon City Mall outside D.C. because she was drawing little diagrams of the tables, and the guards thought that was suspicious.

PASHMAN: It sounds totally normal to me.

HELM: Should we do it? Should we go inside?

ROBSON: Let's do it.

HELM: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

PASHMAN: All right, Stephani, describe to us what you're seeing.

ROBSON: I am seeing a really interesting mix of tables. This is an unusually shaped restaurant.

HELM: Adda is long and narrow. From the door, we can see the whole thing. There's the problem - table 101 - in the front window. Then it's a row of two-person tables against a long wall with a banquette. That's, like, bench seating that runs almost the whole length of the restaurant. And on the other side of the room, there's a little nook - an alcove.

PASHMAN: In Stephani's mind, every part of the restaurant is a subtle clue for diners about how we should behave and what we should expect.

HELM: Like, if you have heavy cutlery, research suggests you are willing to spend more. You're, like, oh, my God, this fork is so heavy in my hand. This salmon must be worth $30.

PASHMAN: Right, whereas if it comes on a paper plate with a plastic fork, you're like, clearly, this salmon has been farmed.

ROBSON: I did - low quality salmon here. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: Right. So first, Stephani looks around. She zooms in on the furniture.

ROBSON: The chairs that I see are all metal. You're not going to sit in these for a long time. We sometimes talk about restaurant chairs based on how long you're comfortable. You can order a two-hour chair or a three-hour chair.

HELM: Order them, like, from your restaurant supplier. So say you're a steakhouse and you're going to charge a lot for your steaks and sell expensive bottles of wine, you can order the nice, cushy, three-hour chairs with the armrests. Your plan is to have people stay longer so you can sell them an extra cocktail, some desserts.

PASHMAN: But these metal chairs at Adda...

HELM: What is this, like a 30-minute chair?

ROBSON: This is probably a 42-minute-and-30-second chair.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).

HELM: Wow.

PASHMAN: I think Stephani was kidding about the 30 seconds, but it wouldn't shock me if she was right.

HELM: As we're talking about this, up walks the guy who can tell us all about these chairs, Roni.

PASHMAN: So - Stephani, Roni. Roni, Stephani.

ROBSON: Hi, Roni.

MAZUMDAR: Hey there.

HELM: Roni and Stephani get right into it.

ROBSON: And actually, I want to ask you a couple questions about your restaurant, if you don't mind.

MAZUMDAR: Sure.

HELM: She starts off by asking, what's up with that cool little alcove in the wall there?

MAZUMDAR: That was a mop closet which we turned into a little nook. But that turned out to be the best seat in the house.

ROBSON: I was going to ask you why it's there, but you just answered that for me. It was a mop closet.

PASHMAN: The mop closet table is the top table in the restaurant in terms of overall check average.

HELM: Stephani hears this and is like, ah, yes, I thought so. One of her big research findings is that customers like tables that are anchored - that means they're up against a wall or in a corner. We don't like feeling exposed. We like to be able to defend our space.

PASHMAN: We're still basically cave people.

HELM: And actually, there are a lot of anchored tables at Adda - good for the cave man part of our brains. A lot of them are up against that long wall with the banquette. But then, of course, there is the table in the window.

PASHMAN: So let's bring it back to this table, table 101.

MAZUMDAR: Oh, boy.

HELM: We walk over to table 101. Remember, Stephani's goal is to make it psychologically and financially optimal. And Roni has given her free reign.

PASHMAN: Stephani looks at it, and immediately, she's like, oh, yeah. We can make this better.

ROBSON: I'm tempted to pull out a piece of paper right now and maybe, I think, if Dan has a tape measure, we can draw this thing up. Absolutely.

PASHMAN: Let's do it.

MAZUMDAR: Let's do it.

(CROSSTALK)

PASHMAN: All right. Break out the blueprints.

HELM: Stephani says, OK, look. First of all, the high-top thing isn't working for you - not now that the restaurant isn't that quick-bite place anymore. People at this table feel like they're not part of the restaurant. They might be tempted to just order drinks and appetizers and then head out. So we need to bring this table down to the level of the others.

PASHMAN: And then she adds something else. She says, remember that mop closet table that's doing so well? People love to feel like they're in their own space, snug and cozy. But this table over here, it's right by the door.

ROBSON: What I would do is then add a little stub wall, sort of perpendicular to the wall right by the doorway.

MAZUMDAR: How high do you think the wall should be?

ROBSON: Forty-two inches.

MAZUMDAR: Why?

ROBSON: You don't want a wall that's so high that people can't see over it. They kind of feel a little uncomfortable when they can't see the whole restaurant. but you also want it high enough that it feels like you're comfortable and anchored.

PASHMAN: All right, first off, Sally, did you hear how quickly Stephani said 42 inches?

HELM: She knows.

PASHMAN: She's so hardcore. I love it. Anyway, she says that if Roni adds this little wall, he can turn this into a much better table.

ROBSON: OK, so we have a notebook here. So why don't you describe for me, Roni, what you'd like to do?

MAZUMDAR: Maximum number of seats humanly possible.

PASHMAN: It becomes clear pretty quickly that Stephani and Roni have different agendas.

HELM: Roni wants more seats for more customers - basically, feed as many people as possible as quickly as possible without sacrificing too much on comfort.

MAZUMDAR: How much space do you really think we need between tables?

ROBSON: So if you're thinking about table spacing psychologically, you want - I'm going to say 16 inches between tables.

MAZUMDAR: Sixteen inches, that's the whole restaurant.

ROBSON: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: Stephani's research shows that 16 inches is optimal. It's the Goldilocks distance. We don't like to feel too isolated; we also don't like to feel too crammed together. But not all restaurants can afford to have that much space not generating revenue. And especially in an expensive city like New York, customers have gotten used to as little as 6 inches.

ROBSON: And that looks like pretty much what you have.

MAZUMDAR: (Laughter) OK.

ROBSON: In fact, I would argue, in some of those tables, it's closer to 4.

MAZUMDAR: It's - probably are. Yeah, they probably are.

PASHMAN: Stephani wants Roni to start thinking differently. Remember - it's a real estate business. Her big metric is spend per minute. That's what essentially tells you how much you're getting in rent from your diners.

HELM: So she wants to make table 101 into higher-end real estate - more comfortable, a better psychological experience. And she thinks this will pay off in higher check averages, more spending per person. But it's stressful to Roni for good reason.

PASHMAN: Can you give me some idea, Roni, how much is one seat in this restaurant worth?

HELM: Roni does some quick math - this much on dinner, this many turns of the table per week.

MAZUMDAR: About $6,000 a month - $72,000 a year, yeah.

PASHMAN: So adding one seat is a big deal.

MAZUMDAR: I guess, yeah.

HELM: But Stephani's like, let me show you.

PASHMAN: She gets to work with her tape measure.

ROBSON: I'm going to crawl around under the table.

MAZUMDAR: Sure, OK.

ROBSON: If that's OK.

PASHMAN: Yeah.

MAZUMDAR: We'll see you in a few (laughter).

PASHMAN: I'll slide out of your way, Stephani.

ROBSON: I love my job. I love my job.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: In case you couldn't hear, as Stephani crawled under the table, she was muttering, I love my job, I love my job.

HELM: Finally, she has all the measurements she needs.

PASHMAN: They budget 6 inches between tables - not 16. But Roni can see what's coming.

HELM: He might have to lose a precious seat. And he starts kind of panicking, suggesting all this stuff to get that seat back. He's like, wait - what if we did slightly smaller tables? What if the tables were round? Maybe if we had smaller chairs?

PASHMAN: We are literally going inch by inch here to try to save one seat in this restaurant.

MAZUMDAR: Absolutely.

HELM: Stephani listens to these ideas, but she also holds firm.

PASHMAN: Finally, they have it all drawn out to her specifications. The big moment comes - they count up the seats.

ROBSON: So you've bought yourself one, two, three, four, five, six, seven seats. Right now in this space, what's the maximum number of people you would sit here?

MAZUMDAR: Eight.

ROBSON: OK, so you've actually lost a seat.

MAZUMDAR: Yeah.

ROBSON: But the question is, will you increase your revenue?

MAZUMDAR: Sure.

ROBSON: Because these tables are more desirable.

MAZUMDAR: Sure.

ROBSON: Suddenly, this becomes a great table.

MAZUMDAR: A great spot, sure.

ROBSON: Even though you've lost a seat...

MAZUMDAR: That's fine, yeah.

ROBSON: ...I'd be willing to bet that you probably will see your revenues go up.

MAZUMDAR: Hmm.

PASHMAN: You almost hear Roni trying to convince himself. He's like, yes, yes, that will happen.

HELM: I'm sure of it.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: So this is what they end up with - a redesigned area for table 101 with this new stub wall for privacy and anchoring, which Stephani's research has shown people really like. The big high-top table for eight becomes three small tables at a normal height that seat a total of seven. So will Stephani's redesign make Roni more money, even though he's lost one precious seat?

HELM: Roni, are you in for this experiment?

MAZUMDAR: I think so.

HELM: Roni is going to try Stephani's vision for table 101. It's restaurateur intuition versus cold, hard data.

PASHMAN: After the break, Roni does some construction, and we get the results.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PASHMAN: Hey, Sally.

HELM: Dan, hello.

PASHMAN: It's so nice to see you again.

HELM: It's so nice to see you. Here we are.

PASHMAN: Here we are on the sidewalk in Queens, outside Adda Indian Canteen.

HELM: And it's been a couple months since we were last here. It's winter now.

PASHMAN: Right (laughter). The seasons have not stopped.

HELM: Nope.

PASHMAN: And we hear that Roni has made the changes that professor Stephani recommended.

HELM: So we're here to see him. We walk in. And right away...

(CROSSTALK)

PASHMAN: It's really different.

HELM: I just gasped because the stub wall that we heard so much about is here. Here it is. I wonder if it is 42 inches tall, as Stephani wanted it to be.

PASHMAN: And, you know, it's interesting - the stub wall really does separate this table because we're actually - Sally, we're only, like, three feet away from this table, and we're staring at them very awkwardly.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: ...And clearly talking about their table, and they don't seem to have noticed.

HELM: Yeah. No, I don't feel weird about it. I feel like we can talk here all day.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: The high-top table 101 is gone. In its place are three tables at normal height. The window is now revealed to the whole restaurant instead of being blocked by the high table.

HELM: After a bit, Roni shows up.

Roni.

MAZUMDAR: Hey.

HELM: Hello.

MAZUMDAR: Hey, good to see all of you.

HELM: He confirms that the stub wall is indeed exactly 42 inches tall.

PASHMAN: Thank goodness.

HELM: And he says that wall has made a way bigger difference than he ever imagined.

MAZUMDAR: So it was a huge learning experience for me, as an operator, as to just this kind of a subtle difference, how big of an impact it can have on the emotional state of your guests.

HELM: A few weeks later, we get the data.

MAZUMDAR: Hi, Stephani, how are you?

ROBSON: Great, Roni, how are you?

PASHMAN: We got Roni into the studio with us and called up Stephani.

HELM: Roni had had his team send Stephani the data in advance - four weeks of customer spending at table 101 before the renovation, and four weeks in that area after the renovation. She'd crunched the numbers. She was the only one who had seen the final figures.

PASHMAN: So, Sally, are we ready to hear the results?

MAZUMDAR: Oh, boy, drum roll.

HELM: Oh, my gosh.

(LAUGHTER)

HELM: I'm so ready.

ROBSON: Where would you like to start?

HELM: Stephani had calculated the check average, how much time people were spending at the tables, and also the combination - the spend per minute. Now, remember, even two or three bucks of extra spending per check can mean tens of thousands of dollars per year. And Roni has to cover the cost of losing that seat.

PASHMAN: Stephani looked at lunch and dinner separately. At lunch, after the renovation, the check average went up. Now, the time spent at tables also went up, but only by a bit. So the key metric, spending per minute, didn't change enough to be statistically significant.

HELM: As in, this small change could have just been random chance. But for dinner...

ROBSON: The original check average was $36.80. It went up to $45.90.

MAZUMDAR: Whoa.

PASHMAN: Wow.

ROBSON: Yeah, so an increase of $9.10, and that is statistically significant. It's major.

PASHMAN: Wow - $9 per person.

ROBSON: Per person, just by changing the table.

MAZUMDAR: That's huge.

HELM: At dinner, people were actually spending less time at the tables. This was kind of surprising to us, but Roni had an explanation. He now has three small tables in that area, instead of the one big high-top for eight, so smaller groups - they eat quicker than bigger ones.

PASHMAN: Plus, he found an unexpected benefit - flexibility. He can put these three small tables into any combination - split them up, put them all together. Before it was one big table, so it'd either have a big party or sit empty. Now, the seats are full more often.

HELM: So higher check averages, less time at the tables - this is looking good for the all-important spend-per-minute metric, the one Stephani cares the most about.

PASHMAN: What's the spend per minute then, Stephani, in the new arrangement for dinner?

ROBSON: The spend per minute went from 49.3 cents to 68.3 cents, so...

PASHMAN: Whoa.

MAZUMDAR: Whoa.

HELM: Whoa.

ROBSON: ...For an increase of 19 cents (laughter).

PASHMAN: Cha-ching (ph). Roni's buying lunch today.

ROBSON: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

MAZUMDAR: Depending on the table we sit at.

PASHMAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PASHMAN: Wow.

ROBSON: Yeah.

PASHMAN: That's a huge increase.

ROBSON: Yeah, very significant. I shouldn't say very - significant is significant - but all three of these metrics for dinner, both the average check, the duration and when you put them together, the spend per minute, all of those were significant results.

HELM: She means statistically, but it's also significant in the other sense, like, meaningful. If you assume those results hold over the course of the year, do some back-of-the-envelope calculations, Adda's likely to make more than enough to cover the cost of losing that seat. It would be on pace to make an extra $18,000 per year. Roni says that's basically the entire utility bill. They did that just by making the tables more flexible and more comfortable.

PASHMAN: Roni told us that's actually his big takeaway from this experiment.

MAZUMDAR: We sometimes get caught up on counting every inch, but maybe the answer isn't just about that extra table, but the quality of the experience that can make a significant impact.

HELM: He said he's drawing up plans for a new restaurant now, and this time no high-top tables.

MAZUMDAR: We're literally in the process right now for the upcoming restaurant. We're deciding on all the seating. I'm like, banquettes - no high-tops, no communal seating.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBSON: Send me the drawings. Send me the drawings. I want to have a look.

HELM: So that was Roni's takeaway. But, Dan, you and I were more focused on what this means for us the next time we eat.

PASHMAN: Yeah, like, now, I understand why I like to sit up against a wall, so I'm going to try to do that even more often. And that way, no one can attack me.

HELM: Really? Because I am sort of like, I don't know if I want to be subtly incepted by design factors to be spending more money on food.

PASHMAN: Yeah (laughter). I think it's too late for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PASHMAN: If you want to see some photos from this process, check out PLANET MONEY's Instagram - @planetmoney - and "The Sporkful's" Instagram - @thesporkful.

HELM: Hey, Dan, speaking of - what is a recent episode of "The Sporkful" podcast that people should check out?

PASHMAN: Well, we just did one all about eating on the campaign trail.

HELM: Huh.

PASHMAN: Yeah. You know, candidates often use food to try to win over voters, so we look at what this year's candidates are eating. And we hear the story of the tamale that may have cost Gerald Ford the presidency.

HELM: Dun, dun, dun.

PASHMAN: Dun, dun, dun. You can get "The Sporkful" wherever you got this podcast. Hey, Sally, tell me what's the latest with the PLANET MONEY newsletter?

HELM: PLANET MONEY newsletter? It's great. This week it is about how the Erie Canal got built, even though Thomas Jefferson did not want to pay for it. So you can subscribe at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter.

PASHMAN: And hey, if you have an idea for a PLANET MONEY show or want to send us some tips about your own business puzzles or anything else, reach out to us at planetmoney@npr.org.

HELM: Today's episode was produced by Darian Woods and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Engineering by Isaac Rodriguez. Alex Goldmark edited the show while Bryant Urstadt was at the beach. Good on him.

PASHMAN: Yeah. Hey, Bryant - he deserves it. Special thanks to "Sporkful" producer Emma Morgenstern and "Sporkful" producer emeritus Ann Sandy (ph). I'm Dan Pashman.

HELM: And I'm Sally Helm. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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