It’s not as simple as shifting tables around!

So, you have an unexpected guest arrive for your sit-down dinner party. Well, it’s not too inconvenient, just some rearranging of the seating, slightly smaller gaps between the plates and glasses and pop in an extra chair. Job done!

Most ‘ordinary’ people would do that at home and they would also be forgiven for thinking that this is what happens in a restaurant when a table has an extra person or two join the group. We’ve all seen it. The manager hovering about, giving instructions, and one or two waiters trying to look nonchalant as they pass chairs over other diners, or ease tables together and rearrange the place settings. Then suddenly your elbow room seems to have shrunk (which makes it cosier) and no-one seems to mind too much. Unless of course you’re the manager and suddenly all your carefully worked out seating plans have gone awry. Not to mention the panic there may be in the kitchen at the news that more-than-planned mouths have arrived!

The stocktakers at Rutters will patiently explain that things like quantities, costings, margins and stuff like that have been carefully worked out based on certain assumptions and when the goalposts get moved (the extra diners being likened to those goalposts) it throws the calculations out a bit.

Rearranged table

And while this planning and costing procedure may generally be known about, what is probably not so well known is that ‘table planning’ is more of a science. I didn’t know and was intrigued to find that there is a Doctoral Thesis on “Managing Restaurant Tables using Constraint Programming” available to read and download from the internet. I had no idea that arranging tables to achieve optimum profitability was so involved. The 275 page paper goes into great detail on all types of aspects of table management – even to the extent that various mathematical algorithms are suggested in order to achieve optimum “critical mass” so to speak (does anyone remember the blogpost about being a chef and knowing algebra?). Mathematics seems to have taken an even greater role in the table-management arena.

Some folk have easier solutions to overcrowding, though. They chuck the big blokes out! That sounds very harsh, but for Jack Burton (not sure whether he has a doctorate or not) this is the only solution. His pub, The Nutshell, in Bury St Edmunds is officially the smallest in Britain and when his regular customer, Adam Thurkettle arrives he takes up the space of four normal sized people. So when the place starts getting crowded, Adam gets the boot. Jack and Adam have an understanding – Adam comes and makes his presence felt when things are not quite so hectic, and Jack always welcomes him and makes him feel at home. That way the place is always full. In 6ft 7inch Adam’s words, “I love the Nutshell and the regulars are a great bunch – but not many can get in after I arrive … my size can be a handicap when I prop up the bar.”

Not much maths needed to sort out the seating arrangements in Bury St Edmonds then.