Who doesn't love a long lunch? Restaurant owners. Here's why.

Sparkling or still? Or tap? The waiter asks before rattling off the night's specials, explaining this is a shared plates restaurant - how unusual - finally drawing breath and leaving you to sit back and peruse the menu.

Or so you think.

As you consider the first small (shared) plate a shadow grows on the table cloth. By way of an awkward little box step the waiter has reappeared as quickly as they'd departed.


They're ready to take your order.

Pen poised, eyes fixated on your indecisive index now tripping up and down the menu, this dinner date's beginning to feel more rushed than your morning dash onto the Greenlane round-about.

Sound familiar?

While many a big city foodie would agree Auckland's current dining scene has never been better, if you think back to your last meal out, did you get the feeling you and your plates were being cleared from the table far too soon?

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One Auckland diner told the Herald she's been put off some restaurants lately because she feels rushed by staff to be fed, watered and shown the door.

"I recently dined at Azabu in Ponsonby which is a firm favourite amongst my friends and I.

"The food and service is knock-out, but their table turnaround absolutely kills me," she said, referring to two sittings: "... you can only book around 6pm or 6:30pm or after 8pm or 8:30pm.


"This means tables are rushed through really quickly, sharing plates arrive on top of each other and there's no room to breathe before dessert.

"You're then ushered to the back bar at the end of the meal. A bit of a buzz kill really – given it is such a great experience otherwise."

The same diner had a similar experience at popular Ponsonby Road spot Blue Breeze Inn.

"The food is great, but the service is so rushed it is not at all enjoyable. You're in and out within an hour. WTF?!"

Welcome to the growing trend of "table turning".

As Canvas food critic Kim Knight observes: "imposing time limits is so common now that restaurants make a feature out of not having it: 'this is your table for the entire evening, for as long as you want it ...'"

The Herald spoke to a number of restaurateurs to find out what's behind the practice.

Azabu's Alex Siko explained they employ a two sitting schedule on Fridays and Saturdays "to be able to maximise the otherwise little space we have, and accommodate as many as we can.

"Also, we do advise our customers to let us know if they do want to stay longer and we allow extra time to their booking whenever we can."

Similarly, Blue Breeze Inn says their two hour seating policy is discussed when bookings are made and noted in email confirmations. Walk-in customers are given the same time frame. They also noted while the restaurant's style is to serve food as it's prepared, diners can ask for dishes to be brought out at a slower pace.

Which seems generous when you learn how tough the restaurant game actually is:

Restaurant Hub founder and former chef Mark Gregory says a recent survey produced by Restaurant Association and the Hospitality Association of New Zealand showed the average net profit for New Zealand restaurants was around 4 per cent net.

"That gives you some idea of the real need for restaurateurs to be able to maximise table productivity when they can, which for 99 per cent of them is possibly only two nights a week.

"Restaurateurs, just like hair dressers and dentists have a good idea of how long their service takes. In most cases turning tables or hairdressing chairs doesn't feel rushed but somehow flows naturally," Gregory explains.

But, he concurs, it's not always the case: "I recall a time in China town in London where two of us entered a restaurant and the waiter said, 'You sit here and you sit here' pointing to two seats at different communal tables.

"As it happened we found it so surprising and somehow humorous we followed their orders and only caught up again after our meals."

The Restaurant Association CEO, Marisa Bidois, explains "restaurants need to capitalise on their busy periods by ensuring each table has more than one sitting in an evening."

Despite the stress that can come with this practice, Knight also agrees it's understandable some eateries impose time limits.

"Restaurants operate on tight margins, and it makes economic sense for mid-range places to turn tables over. Generally, I'd say two hours is long enough to get through three courses, but if you don't want to be moved on before you're ready, just be prepared to eat later - 8pm and onwards usually guarantees you a seat for the rest of the night."

Restaurateur Michael Dearth of The Grove and Baduzzi says people have a "romantic illusion" about the restaurant industry: "If you have a restaurant, you're making heaps and heaps of money."

In fact, he says the margins in New Zealand are particularly tight, due in part to its spot on the map.

To get liquor or source produce that's more expensive overseas makes being competitive "really tough."

Recalling a table of 10 that arrived for lunch and whittled down to four who stayed on until 7pm, he says while the group spent a lot on wine and champagne, the table was also reserved for 10 people that night.

"I needed that table. You're talking to someone who has been drinking, they're having a great time. I just had to say, 'Look, I need this table back.

"It's like my mother says: 'It's not what you say, it's how you say it."