Feb. 25, 2007
We had another week-end with plenty of no-shows, ouch. I can't help but join the debate.
How to deal with cancellations has always been a sore spot for restaurants, and now it’s a hot topic all over. From the recent controversy on E-gullet surrounding a last minute cancellation at Joe Beef that elicited a rude response from one of the owners, to the ongoing discussion among NYC restaurateurs on Frank Bruni’s blog, it is apparent the issue of ‘no shows’ is a continual source of tension between restaurants and customers. http://tinyurl.com/2j45vb
In New York , it is common enough to be asked for a credit card number when reserving, especially for a party of six or more; but it was when Daniel Boulud’s receptionist demanded a signed credit card receipt to be faxed in that a certain customer become irate, and the discussion was brought to the table again.
The exchange on E-gullet Montreal concerning the episode at Joe Beef was mixed, some finding no excuse for the reprimand, sticking by the ‘the customer is always right’ rule, while others sympathized and tried to explain the restaurant’s hostility. Most agree that management at Joe Beef could definitely have been more polite over the phone, but I’m sure many were silently gleeful at the thought of someone voicing this common frustration. Anyone in the business can relate, knowing that that call was probably the ‘last straw’ in a string of previous hits.
The fact is that 10-20% of reservations regularly fail to show up, and restaurants, especially destination restaurants, pay the price on a regular basis. Some already charge enough to make up for this, but most don’t. It has become a part of doing business, but really it shouldn’t be, with the profit margin in fine-dining already as low as it is. In the rest of life, there is generally a penalty if you don’t take a commitment seriously. To reserve seats for a show, you have to buy tickets. At a spa, or even at the dentist, if you aren’t nailed with a surcharge, you will risk being dumped. And so, people treat these reservations more responsibly, but when it comes to restaurants, it’s no big deal.
Of course, in life especially nowadays, things come up, and often there is a good reason to cancel; but if you think there is a good chance you might not be able to honour your reservation, then you shouldn’t be making it, unless you’re willing to pay to secure it just in case. You can’t reserve several sought after tables around town so that you can decide at the last minute where you feel like going, without paying for that privilege.
Although restaurateurs here are too afraid to be too demanding, those that do ask for a down-payment only take a nominal fee, 25$ a head or 15-25% of a flat rate. It seems fair enough to me, especially given that you will have a reasonable delay to cancel if need be. And as Batali points out, the threat of a charge generally makes the person treat the reservation responsibly, so the exchange is most often avoided altogether.
I cook in a place that works on reservation only, and for large groups we require a deposit. However, like most Quebeckers, we are soft on the concept, and often ride on good faith if it’s someone we somewhat know, and we never ask it for 2’s or 4’s, even 6’s. Week after week, those 2’s and 4’s and 6’s add up, and we regularly absorb the loss. Food is prepped and staff is on hand based on the expected number of clients, and then some, to cover any surprises. So what do we do? Maybe we should overbook, as hotspots on St-Laurent do (and I find highly annoying), more insulting than being asked for a CC number. Or maybe we should just charge more to make up for the extra food and labour costs implied, or be overly strict with the cash down like Daniel, hoping that it will largely eliminate the problem. The thing is, any of these solutions costs the customer more, when there could be no cost if people just took more responsibility for their reservations. Restaurateurs don’t want to be tough; we wish we could forget about the business side of our vocation and just create. We’re generally out to please and would be understanding in the case of an occasional cancellation, but it’s more than that. We also have to save our hide, and frankly, it is insulting to be disrespected by an unpredictable number of costly no shows day after day.
This guy who bailed on Joe Beef wrote about it innocently on E-gullet, so obviously, he didn’t think he was being a bad guy. That goes to show that there is misunderstanding and miscommunication between the parties, and so it’s good that the dialogue is going, and ways of dealing being sorted out.
Ultimately, it is up to the restaurant operator to find the right solution for his/her particular business, and enforce it. Some restaurants in town get walk-ins, so they might want to take the risk, others will just work it into their price. It’s not up to the customer to know what the restaurant business entails, to worry about the finances. It is up to us to set our proper guidelines. When everything is clear, we can all be nice about it. And get back to the food.