Many Americans are losing their inhibitions, at least when it comes to choosing to sit down and dine next to strangers. Communal tables are fast becoming familiar features in concepts that range from the hip and trendy indies that introduced them more than a decade ago, to fast-casual upstarts and the biggest of QSRs.
Stanya LeMay, design manager at Interior Systems Inc. (ISI), a Milwaukee-based design/build firm, says communal tables are now included in 95 percent of its restaurant projects. What's more, they're going into units in markets of every size all over the country.
"The trend has been developing over the past five years, but has become extremely powerful the past two years," LeMay says. Technology gets much of the credit, she adds. "It used to be that we all felt we needed our three feet of personal space. Now we can create our own personal space with our smartphones, our laptops or whatever gadget we have in front of us. We can choose to engage with others at the table, or we can engage with our technology."
Two years ago, the idea of incorporating communal tables was a much harder sell to clients, LeMay says. "They'd insist that there was no way their guests would be comfortable sharing a table with strangers. They've now seen that that's not the case. We've found that the seats at those tables are the ones that fill up the quickest and with a broader mix of people than you might expect." In a QSR setting, she recommends that communal tables seat from 8 to 12 guests and be at least 30 inches wide to ensure that everyone has enough space for both food and gadgets. Typically, they're situated across from the service counter, maybe 10 to 12 feet away, and offer a good view of a television. Regular and bar-height tables work well, though lower tables are best in smaller spaces, she says. Where space allows, taller and larger tables can become iconic design elements. In every segment, locating the tables near a power source for charging tech gadgets is important.