There’s a new host taking party names and estimating wait times at Japantown’s busy Marufuku Ramen: Yelp.
The San Francisco-based reviews website has installed a fleet of new Nowait kiosks at restaurants around the country — tablets at the host stand on which diners can sign up for a restaurant’s wait list. Customers can find them at Shizen Vegan Sushi, Raw Sugar Factory, Home Plate, and other wait-generating restaurants in San Francisco — or, they can join the list remotely through the Yelp app.
Nowait kiosks are Yelp’s latest use of Nowait, a Pittsburgh-based startup the company acquired in 2017 for a reported $40 million. Users scrolling though the Yelp app have probably seen an option to “join the waitlist” at restaurants with Nowait, an offering mostly at casual, no-reservations restaurants like Marufuku. Over the last year, the number of diners seated through NoWait has doubled, Yelp says.
“When people know they can get in line remotely, and they know they’re driving from an hour anyway, it gives them some comfort,” says Devon Wright, Yelp’s GM of restaurant marketplaces.
Of course, many SF diners are more than comfortable — even happy — waiting in line for ramen or cruffins. But remote sign-ups could expand the number of potential diners overall: Through Yelp’s geographic data, Wright sees customers join the waitlist for restaurants from on the ferry or across the bridge from their eventual destination.
Nowait kiosks are just another way to use — and draw attention to — Yelp’s online waitlist. They’re especially useful for restaurants without hosts: Places with just a pen-and-paper or whiteboard sign-up list. At restaurants that already use hosts, like Shizen, Yelp says it doesn’t intend to replace them with kiosks.
“The kiosk allows that host to spend more time thinking about hospitality,” says Wright. Shizen’s hosts have received positive feedback after installing their Nowait kiosk, he reports.
For diners, the advantages of Nowait are obvious: Accurate wait time estimates, transparency, remote sign-ins. The proposition for restaurants? They’re roughly the same: Happier — and possibly more — customers.
Managers at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, a hit, no-reservations restaurant from acclaimed pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani, didn’t think they could run a much more efficient business. But after adding Nowait, hosts realized just how significantly they’d been overestimating wait times to customers (a common practice to manage expectations).
“Before, we were reliant on emotional analysis” says Diego Perez, a longtime Tony’s general manager who recently left the restaurant. With Nowait, “it was easier to communicate with the guests, and they were coming in sooner.”
With minutes saved here and there, managers found a whole extra seating they hadn’t anticipated — and revenue spiked. For Perez, who admits he’s been skeptical of Yelp, the new features (and the revenue) have helped him see the company differently.
There are potential downsides to the new system. “It’s a big change to think of your operation differently,” says Wright.
“One thing we’ve seen from the older school places is that they’re afraid their regulars might be offended.” Can diners with regular tables for habitual guests — think Willie Brown at Bob’s Steak and Chophouse — get with the program?