The demand for solo dining is increasing. According to Forbes, over the last five years, solo diners’ share of U.S. restaurant visits rose to 35 percent. This growing market has started discussions on how restaurants can better accommodate solo diners.
Interestingly, many such discussions emphasize that servers should refrain from showing “pity” to diners who come to restaurants alone. The condescension is sadly unsurprising, considering America’s culture of extroversion. But if restaurants really want to make solo diners feel welcome, they need to realize some people like to dine alone — they don’t want to socialize when eating. Moreover, so far, the discussions about American solo diners are still centered on how to make them more comfortable in a setting largely dedicated to larger party sizes, rather than how restaurants might actively create a more comfortable solo-dining space.
In this respect, American restaurants can learn from Japan, where solo dining is taken to a whole new level. Not only do restaurants respect solo diners, there are restaurants dedicated specifically to them. At the famous Ichiran Ramen, for instance, bench seats for solo diners are isolated from each other by dividers on both sides, and each seat has a bamboo screen in front of it. Servers lift the screen just enough to expose their hands when delivering orders. A more extreme example is the restaurant chain Gusto which built rows of private “capsules” for solo diners, each with its own power outlet and staff call button.
The take-away from these restaurants is to create private, more isolated spaces for solo diners, most of whom seek a quiet, peaceful dining experience. Of course, this is not asking restaurants to cram their space with cubicles; by converting a portion of their space into a haven for solo diners, restaurants demonstrate their commitment to customers who choose to dine alone.
Importantly, though, Japan’s solo-dining experience isn’t just about creating a private space, but also the reduction of human interaction. In that regard, there are still areas of improvement for Japan’s solo-dining restaurants, since many still rely on server/customer interaction to take and deliver orders. Yet with the advancement of technology, in particular self-ordering kiosks, even the ordering process can become completely “solo,” and one day human interaction might disappear entirely from solo-dining restaurants when robots handle the delivery of food.
At this point, some may ask why solo diners go to restaurants in the first place if they don’t want human interaction. Why don’t these people just stay at home and order delivery?
This question mistakes eating as the only component of restaurant experience. In reality, eating out is also about the environment, from interior design to background music. Besides, sometimes solo diners dine out because they want a change of environment.
In the end, restaurants need to respect solo diners’ living and eating habits. They should try to understand these customers in order to truly make them feel welcomed and valued.