Solo Supplement:What makes a solo-friendly space?
Aren’t all spaces solo-friendly? The answer’s “Yes”, for people who stride boldly anywhere and everywhere on their own: their perception is that a space cannot be solo-unfriendly. But not everyone feels the same way. And while I was thinking about this question, I had the good fortune to walk into the epitome of a solo-friendly space. So, I’ve based my criteria on it. If you pay attention to the poster image and read on, you’ll find out what and where that was….
I’m concerned here with indoor and outdoor establishments devoted to eating and drinking. As, I’ve identified in my book Solo Success, some people are afraid of being out and about socially on their own. They fear that they are being judged negatively for being on their own: a singleton in a crowd of couples. Such people need to be encouraged to step over the threshold into a dining/drinking space on their own. Let’s face it, we shouldn’t be surprised that the collective mind-set of solos with experiences in such an environment in the past, has engendered feelings of being discriminated against.
For me, the issue of ‘friendliness’ in a solo dining context is to do with two factors:
· the nature of the ‘space’ especially the seating; and
· the attitude of the people with responsibility for welcoming others into it.
Let’s look first at the nature of the space. Who has this space been designed to cater for? Who are the expected customers? Traditionally, in the case of design throughout the 20th century, restaurants catered for couples and families, with table arrangements for two or four people. Tables could be pushed together to seat and serve more people in a group. Anyone lunching/dining alone would need to be seated at a table for two.
In the past, this would be seen as potentially reducing ‘covers’ (individual meal servings) for the sitting, and therefore sales, creating a dilemma for the waiting staff who might have to turn away a lovely couple, who turned up too late to nab the table. It might have resulted in the solo diner being turned away.
But in the 21st century, the Hospitality industry needs to respond to the increase in the UK and worldwide of single households and the proportion of people choosing the single/solo lifestyle. Not forgetting the more competitive economic climate, in which single people/older solos should be more economically attractive.
The restaurant trade can do a number of things, which involve offering all diners more seating choices, to cater for everyone, regardless of status, and offer, for example, privacy so that no-one needs to overhear a private conversation.
1. Seating that is more flexible, for example long communal tables with bench seating, as for example in the Wagamama chain, together with separate tables to accommodate a family with babies/toddlers and solo diners.
2. Offer solo diners a social table for them specifically to choose as an alternative to dining alone, so that they can talk to other people in similar circumstances. I’ve championed these in earlier blogs.
3. Offer individual seating at a bar/separate seating area that is designed for solo diners who just want to eat and don’t want to linger. Bar or counter seating, traditionally preferred by solo men, has been intimidating for female diners in the past.
4. Offer a solo diner the choice to sit anywhere (including at a table for 2 or 4) and in a place that takes account of their specific requirements. For example, in my case, I usually want to have enough light to be able to read and/or write.
When I walk into a new dining space, there is no better indication of or advertisement that a dining space is solo-friendly, than seeing other people already sitting and eating happily on their own.
Now, what about the welcoming attitude of the serving staff? I’m sure that the Hospitality Industry trains all staff in the value of a welcoming attitude. But, you sometimes might doubt this when asking for, “A table for one, please.” A frown is OK if they have to eye-skim a busy room for a place to fit you in or customers about to leave. It’s not OK if the room is half full and there are tables free/unreserved. This is surely a left-over from the convention of seating solos/singles in the corner by the loos/in a draught/by the ever-revolving doors to the kitchen, which should now be outdated. For me, there are three correct responses to the table-for-one request, depending on the circumstances:
· “Where would you like to sit, madam/sir?”
· “Sit wherever you please.”
· “Let me see what I can do for you madam/sir.”
The welcoming attitude should also extend to the rest of the dining experience: solo diners shouldn’t need to do anything more than any other diners in order to attract the waiter’s attention, nor be especially hurried to vacate the table at the end of the meal. These are both reasons for anyone, alone or in a group in the future, to reject another opportunity to dine there. Restaurants need to cultivate returning and valued customers – including if not especially solos.
So, where did I recently find the epitome of a solo-friendly space? It was The Hungry Burger in London’s Soho. I arrived at about 1pm and the outside seating was already taken but the small oblong dining room with tables for two and four and a counter area facing the street, was only half full. (Choice of seating areas: tick.) Looking round at the other diners I saw a few couples, a dad with young kids, and about four solo diners seated at tables for two or at the counter. (Evidence of other solo diners: tick) I was immediately greeted by a young friendly waiter who asked me to choose to sit wherever I liked. (Tick!) The waiting staff were young, friendly, helpful and attentive (tick) and the food, including both a gluten free bun and beer, but especially rosemary salted skin-on fries, was delicious. In the 50 minutes I was there the place filled up and was buzzing. I never once felt out of place. Far from it – I was welcomed and comfortable in my surroundings.
That’s the solo-friendly dining experience I want and expect for me and every other solo, every time we dine out alone. Other establishments take note.