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Dino owner Dean Gold has heard every excuse—real or not—about why you couldn’t show up for your dinner reservation.
“‘Oh, you know, we had a medical emergency,’” says Gold, repeating one common refrain. “And we’ve heard insanely tragic ones. We heard someone had a miscarriage.”
Some swear they cancelled last week, when, in fact, they confirmed the reservation with the host or hostess earlier that day or the day before. Others can’t even be bothered: “We got that table at Palena, and we didn’t have time to call you.”
And then there’s the frustrating, yet-ubiquitous “I forgot”—often shouted over the din of another restaurant’s dining room in the background of a phone call.
But usually, it’s silence. On any given night, Gold says anywhere between two to eight parties don’t show up. “Eight years ago, the no-show problem was nothing like it is today,” he says. “The last four years, it’s exploded.”
Ask just about any restaurateur, and they’ll tell you the same thing. Between the ease of booking a table online, the rapid spread of new eating options, and general commitment-phobia, a dining reservation is no longer sacred. One of the worst days for no-shows is coming up next week: Valentine’s Day, rivaled only by other big dining-out holidays like New Years Eve or possibly Mother’s Day or Christmas Eve. Some restaurants have tried to curb the problem by requiring credit cards and instituting no-show fees, or even contracts, especially on those splurge holidays. But still most diners don’t completely realize that no-shows can squeeze a business’s profits, especially in fine dining or upscale establishments that have thin margins and aren’t likely to get a lot of walk-ins.
Restaurant Eve in Alexandria sees about two no-show parties on any given night, but last Saturday, a party of six never arrived, “which is massive for a 90-seat restaurant,” says co-owner Todd Thrasher. “On an average Friday or Saturday night, that’s 6 percent of your business you lost in the dining room.” And it’s not just whole parties not showing up that’s a problem. So are incomplete parties. That same night, Restaurant Eve had another party of six that showed up with only four people. “A six-top is a different table than a four top. And so now I’ve lost revenue on two seats that night.” Those no-shows can make the difference as to whether the restaurant turns a profit that night or not.
Restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier says the average check at Marcel’s comes to at least $175 per person. If four people don’t show up, that’s $700—“and you turned away business,” says Wiedmaier. “Especially on Valentine’s Day and New Years Eve, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to make reservations at five restaurants, and I’m going to surprise my girlfriend and say, where would you like to go for dinner? I’ve got this, this, this, and this.’ And then they don’t bother to call all the other restaurants where they made reservations.”
No-shows on Valentine’s Day particularly hurt, even if it’s still a very profitable day, because restaurants often offer expensive prix-fixe menus and people go out looking to splurge. On Feb. 14 last year, Dino’s average check was $70 per person. The next night, when a special tasting menu was still available along with the regular menu, the average check was $45. “You’ve got people in the mood to spend money, and when you lose those prime-time reservations and you lose those prime-time table turns, it hurts more,” Gold says. “For us, those holidays make up a huge chunk of what we do.”
Gold says most people don’t think about how no-show affect how much servers make, or how many servers are needed on a given night. On a slower Monday or Tuesday, for example, a party of 10 could be the difference between calling in three servers or four. And if those guests never arrive? “Then I’ve got all these waiters staring at me like, ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ We’ve got nothing to do.’” (Not to mention no tips to earn.)
Equinox co-owner Ellen Kassoff Gray says the number of reservations on the books at her downtown restaurant directly affects the kitchen’s workload and the amount of food prepared. Especially for restaurants using fresh ingredients each day, no-shows can mean more food unnecessarily thrown away at the end of the night. “There’s so many little intricate acts to get ready for a menu, and there’s 25 people performing in part of this big picture,” Kassoff Gray says. “Someone who no-shows might not think that they affect the restaurant in any way but they really, really are.”
Many restaurants will overbook defensively. Gold says on Friday or Saturday nights, he’ll usually overbook by three or four tables. At cocktail bar PX in Alexandria, where no-shows are “absolutely terrible,” Thrasher says he overbooks around 15 people Thursday through Saturday.
But overbooking will inevitably bite restaurateurs in the ass every now and then. “You get a horrible night where everybody shows up,” Gold says. “And then the person with the 8 o’clock reservation goes on Yelp and says, ‘I had an 8 o’clock reservation, and I didn’t get seated until 8:30. What’s up with that?’”
OpenTable tries to prevent no-shows by terminating users’ accounts if they don’t show up for reservations four times within a 12-month period. OpenTable and CityEats also won’t allow users to make two reservations at the same time, though there’s nothing to keep you from booking one on each site. Meanwhile, many restaurants do their best to confirm reservations by phone, calling two or three times in some cases if they don’t get through at first. Many have also resorted to taking credit card numbers for big parties or big holidays and charging guests who don’t show. But that can ultimately turn off potential diners. Frustrated with the nights when a quarter of his 46-seat restaurant would be no-shows, Table restaurant owner Frederik de Pue says he tried asking for credit cards for one random night last summer. Reservations dropped 50 percent. He quickly reversed the policy and now only asks for credit cards on holidays.
But even putting down a credit card isn’t always a deterrent. Dino requires diners to give a card number for Valentine’s Day and charges a $50 fee for no-shows. But last Feb. 14, Gold says he still had 10 people no-show. In addition, he lost 22 diners to last-minute cancellations the day of or the day before.
Plus, those cancellation fees aren’t always enforceable. “The only way you win a disputed charge is if you have a signed piece of paper that shows the credit card was in the restaurant,” Gold says. Restaurant managers run the risk of coming off as jerks and losing future business if they don’t waive the fee when someone has a good excuse, whether it’s real or not. “Somebody could very easily say, ‘You know, our plane didn’t make it in. My grandmother died, the last thing I was thinking about was calling up the restaurant and canceling,’” Wiedmaier says. He sees it as part of a larger double standard for the restaurant industry. “You don’t show up to your doctor’s appointment, they charge you. You make an appointment with your attorney and just decide not to show up? Trust me, you’re getting a bill,” he says.
Many years ago, Wiedmaier says a few restaurant industry folks had talked about pushing for a no-show law to fine people for not canceling their reservations. “It was kind of a grassroots thing, talk among some top chefs in the city,” he says. Not surprisingly, the idea never went anywhere.
Restaurant Eve managed to dramatically curb its Valentine’s and New Year’s Eve no-shows by introducing a contract about six years ago, which guests must email back to the restaurant to get a table. “It’s not even an issue any more. It used to be a massive issue,” Thrasher says. “Once the contract goes out, people take it a lot more serious.”
So why is the problem getting worse overall? Well, for starters, online reservation systems have made snagging reservations a nearly mindless task. Diners think as little about canceling a reservation as booking one. And with so many dining option now, it’s easy to make a change and blow off your previous plans.
Kassoff Gray says millennials in particular won’t commit when it comes to booking a table. “They don’t even like to make reservations. We’ve got more last-minute things now than ever before,” she says. “People are always looking for what else can I get? Where else should I go? Where does everybody want to go?”
Meanwhile, Gold says restaurants aren’t as special as they once were. People don’t see going out to eat as something that requires them to accommodate the restaurant’s schedule. “There’s so much instant gratification available,” he says. “Nobody watches television shows when they’re broadcast. Nobody listens to an album the way the artist put it together. They put it on their iPad and then they choose the order of the songs…The plight of no-shows is just part of this whole thing of people just wanting things on their own terms.”
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