January 11, 2007
Florida Today
Life section
By Chris Kridler

Reservation help guarantee prompt service

   Restaurant reservations may seem quaint in grab-and-go society, but they still are the only way to make sure of that elegant evening out. People seem more concerned than ever about making reservations for special occasions, Alex Litras says.  He and his wife, Pam, are in their 17th year of operating Café Margaux in Cocoa Village, as well as recently opened Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse. “They want to make sire they don’t have any problems, don’t have any concerns, don’t have any issues,” he says.  About half the dinner guests at Café Margaux make reservations. Across the street are the Black Tulip, about 95 percent of dinner customers make reservations, owner Daniel Colzani says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky in my business,” Colzani says.  “We have great customers, and they are very prompt to attend when they make a reservation.”
Financial pressures push restaurants to fill as many seats as possible, and reservations limit their ability to do so.
Some chain eateries offer call-ahead waiting lists instead, such as Carrabba’s Italian Grill, but still have lines out the door. Suzanne Leslie of port St. John says long waits don’t bother her.  Her daughter works at another restaurant with long waits, Outback Steakhouse, which is owned by the same company as Carrabba’s.
Leslie says long lines send a message. “I think you must think that that restaurant must have pretty good food and service if people are waiting an hour to get in,” says Leslie, associate director of the Brevard Community College planetarium in Cocoa. Alex Litras says reservations let people take their time and enjoy themselves.
“At Café Margaux, we usually leave about 2 hours,” he says. “At Ulysses’, we usually leave about 2 ½ to three hours. So when you do that, then you’re kind of blocking off your night and not doing the volume that you would, let’s say, if you would just say no reservations taken, just walk-ins only.  The chains that do that are looking to get as many people in as possible.” Some restaurants, limited by space and buoyed by good business, have a mixed policy.  Pineda Crossing on U.S. 1 reserves tables for parties of five of more.
“We have a really small restaurant,” owner Bob Popp says.  “We only have 64 seats in the restaurant, and we need to keep them as full as possible in order to make any money…We are fortunate enough to be so busy that I can always fill the seats, and I don’t want to take a reservation for a party of  four when I’ve got four people waiting.” The Black tulip’s Colzani says he won’t go to a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, especially if he has to drive a while to get there. “Restaurants that do take a reservation, I think they give a little better quality of service,” he says. Still, his Cactus Flower, a Mexican restaurant on Merritt Island, takes reservations only for large parties.  The difference: a turnover time of about 45 minutes per table verses two hours for the Black Tulip.
“There’s always a wait,” Colzani says of the Cactus Flower, “but the line goes pretty fast because it’s more like a family –style restaurant.” Leslie doesn’t choose a restaurant based on reservations, but, she says, “I’m sure it makes most people feel a little bit more important that they can just walk in and sit down.”
When Alex and Pam Litras opened Ulysses’, ”we, for a split second, thought about the idea of not taking reservations because it would certainly be better financially,” Alex says.
“I just don’t have the heart to do that.  People are going there, and they’re paying a premium for their dinner, and it’s not the type of place where you just think, ‘Oh, let’s go grab a bite before the movie.’ It’s an occasion.  It’s more of an event, and we certainly want to guarantee that experience.”
Customers frequently change their reservation before it’s time to eat, he says.  Last-minute changes can create havoc in the small spaces at Café Margaux. “When someone has four, then suddenly they want to add someone who just came in from out of town, it’s difficult,” Alex Litras says. “Customers have asked us, “Why don’t you get round tables?” Pam Litras adds.  “Well, because it will swallow up a room.” To give customers more options, they are poised to open a banquet room that will seat 24 and offer either the Café Margaux or Ulysses’ menu.
Finer restaurants sometimes ask for a credit-card guarantee on reservations, especially on holidays.  Even if they don’t they remember the rude ones who don’t show up.
“We kind of keep a list of people who make reservations and don’t follow through,” Popp said, “because a reservation really is a verbal contract.”