Melissa Blease reports on the issue of people who book tables in restaurants and then don’t turn up

The date was set three weeks ago. Dinner this evening, at a friend’s house. Your place at the table awaits you, and your host has been preparing for the event for days – not least of all on the day itself, when the last of the ingredients have been bought, the preparation got fully under way and the scene carefully set.

Unless you’re the victim of a dire emergency or a sudden illness, you wouldn’t just not turn up, would you? Of course you wouldn’t! And yet, countless people believe that, when the situation isn’t quite so personal, it’s okay to do just that, giving little thought to the consequences of their actions and the devastating effect that their thoughtless behaviour has on many small, independent businesses.

Is the issue of what those in the restaurant business call ‘no-shows’ really a problem and how can the industry tackle it? We spoke to some west country restaurateurs.

Steve Gale at Flour and Ash

“Our restaurant has 41 seats at capacity and, like all small restaurants, our profit margins are thin. We make approx 40% of our weekly take at the weekend, when people mainly book online or over the phone,” says Steve who is the owner/chef at Bristol pizza restaurant Flour and Ash. “Last Saturday night we were fully booked, but come 8pm we were half empty because a large table cancelled their booking ten minutes before they were due to arrive, and two other tables simply didn’t show up. We were suddenly 14 covers (34% of our capacity) down – I doubt we scraped anywhere near any kind of profit that night.”

Despite this experience Steve is still reluctant to take a deposit when bookings are made. “We call round on the day to try and reconfirm tables that have been booked, but sometimes we get no response. We then have to make a decision whether to cancel that booking and risk ruining somebody’s night if they do show up, or just wait and see. But we don’t ask for a deposit as many people simply don’t want to pay a deposit on behalf of a crowd. Would you put your credit card down for five other people and then have to fork out, say, £120 that you’d have to claim back from them if they cancelled on you? Probably not.”

“It’s absolutely no different from what we’d expect to be asked for when we buy theatre tickets, or make a hotel reservation…”

LAURENCE BEERE AT THE OLIVE TREE

Laurence Beere, owner of the Queensberry Hotel and highly-acclaimed Olive Tree Restaurant is in favour of the deposit system. “Why would anybody who is serious about wanting a reservation feel uncomfortable being asked for a deposit? It’s absolutely no different from what we’d expect to be asked for when we buy theatre tickets, or make a hotel reservation, or pay in advance for an online purchase,” he says.

“In a city that’s increasingly becoming overcrowded by large operators and chains who have a fundamentally different approach to running a food business, restaurant owners are all too aware of the damage that is done to small independent businesses when people don’t turn up for bookings, and it’s up to us to take action.”

And Laurence’s way of taking action has worked in his favour. “We only offer bookings for one sitting, and can only accommodate around 50 – 55 covers. We used to think we were fully booked on, say, a Friday or Saturday evening so we’d turn walk-ins or late bookings away, only to end up serving 30 covers while multiple booked tables were left empty. But 18 months ago, we eradicated the problem that we estimate had lost us £60,000 of business in just one year altogether, simply by taking credit card details to guarantee a reservation and adopting a £50 per person cancellation fee for those who don’t cancel within 48 hours of their booking.

The only people who aren’t comfortable with such a policy (and there really aren’t that many) are the people who are hedging their bets: making several reservations for several restaurants on the same night and then seeing how they feel when the date comes around.”

Restaurant booking roulette – is that really A Thing? Apparently it is. “I genuinely believe that there’s a growing group of diners who book several restaurants for one particular evening then decide on their final destination when the time comes,” says Steve Gale, while several restaurateurs who I spoke to while researching this feature agree, with one (who understandably chose to remain anonymous) even suggesting that a fellow restaurant owner has made fake bookings in order “to sabotage the success of the business next door.”

While that kind of underhand behaviour can never be proved, bet-hedging does seem to have become a bit of a trend – and it’s a global trend, too.

Last month, online Australian booking site Dimmi made global headlines when it put nearly 40,000 diners on a blacklist for being no-shows, having discovered that many users were making multiple bookings for the same date under different pseudonyms.

And the scheme seems to be working: Dimmi has seen a 25% drop in their clients’ no-shows since adopting the policy and as a result, other online restaurant reservation services such as OpenTable, Bookatable and ResDiary are expected to follow suit; as our social lives become increasingly app- and online-led, this most recent development will no doubt encourage a sigh of partial relief in the restaurant world.

JOE CUSSENS at BATH PUB COMPANY

“Our no-shows are more likely to come from online bookings made on websites that send reservations our way as opposed to bookings made in person,” says Bath Pub Company managing director Joe Cussens, who recently started an initiative across all four BPC businesses (The Marlborough Tavern, The Locksbrook Inn, Chequers and The Hare and Hounds) ensuring that staff call as many reservations as they can to confirm bookings on any given day.

“But wherever the no-show comes from, its an ongoing source of commercial pain and sadly, a fact of life in this business. Around 5% of our reservations per week fail to show up, and it’s hugely frustrating when we’ve turned customers away in the belief that we don’t have any spare tables.

“We can never recover that time slot, and we’ve lost income that we assumed was coming our way. It’s hugely inconsiderate and frankly, very bad manners – after all, how hard is it to make a quick call to cancel a reservation?”

KELVIN KELLER: A DINER

And from a diner’s perspective, man-about-town and avid supporter of the local food scene Kelvin Keller (who tweets as @cigarmanbath) finds the whole situation abominable too. “In my humble opinion, booking no-shows are reserved for the lowest depths of hell,” he says. “It’s hard enough these days for any business to thrive, and a no-show is a downright insult to the restaurant, let alone a costly blow. I believe that if a booking is more than 15 minutes late, the table should be let go to another patron.”

The trouble is, though, there won’t necessarily be another party of diners looking for space for that very sitting – in which case, we’re back to square one. Unless one turns to social media for assistance.

There are several restaurants in Bath (Menu Gordon Jones being a particularly case in point here) who use their Twitter feed effectively in the case of a cancellation. Even though MGJ won’t hold a reservation unless a booking has been confirmed a minimum of 48 hours in advance of the date and, if a party of six people (for which a deposit is always taken) arrives one diner down on the night they’re still charged for the missing member. The tiny restaurant still gets occasional no-shows and that’s when Gordon’s Twitter feed springs into life, letting Bath know that there’s suddenly a table available.

So, there’s a top tip light at the end of the rather grim tunnel we’re exploring. If hungry foodies use their Twitter accounts wisely they could find themselves doing a restaurant a big favour in taking up some of the hottest seats in town, while restaurants themselves have the opportunity to let the world around them what’s going on. But of course, not everybody has a Twitter account; not every restaurateur, manager or staff member has the time available to maintain a Twitter account at peak times and not every restaurant finds they have a no-show problem on their hands anyway.

ANDREW PETERS at GREEN PARK BRASSERIE

“It’s not a common occurrence for us at all,” says Andrew Peters, owner of the Green Park Brasserie. “Our relationship with our customers is based on trust – we hope that they would let us know in advance if they can no longer make a reservation.”

If every restaurant customer maintained that level of respect for the hardworking business folk who make dining out in the south west such a pleasurable activity, such businesses wouldn’t be facing such a crisis.

But as we’ve found, there are those who think it’s okay to reserve a table at a lovely, popular independent restaurant and then just not turn up on the night. So, they’re top of our Dining Out Crime Shame chart, joining the double-dippers, sloppy chewers, food-blowers, public belchers and fork-wavers who can make our eating out lives a misery – but as ghastly as the no-shows’ fellow culprits may be, at least they aren’t forcing businesses to pay for their nasty habits.

Booking no-shows? We say “No way.”