With restaurants opening on July 4 after almost four months of enforced closure, chefs and restaurateurs have, on the whole, been excited to finally return to work.
Yet even in the short time they've been open, an eternal issue has come to the fore, one that is even more threatening given the industry's precarious situation – the no-show.
On Sunday, Tom Kerridge called out 27 “disgraceful, shortsighted and down right unhelpful” people who failed to turn up for their bookings at Kerridge’s Bar and Grill in central London on Saturday night – without letting the restaurant know.
His strongly worded outcry was backed by many in the industry, including Michael Caines, Clare Smyth, Neil Rankin and Sat Bains, and he is not alone in his experience.
The mini restaurant group behind north London’s Westerns Laundry, Primeur and Jolene also called out the phenomenon on Instagram.
It wrote that in just one of its restaurants (all of which are small even before distancing measures were introduced), there were 12 no-shows (as opposed to cancellations, where the guest informs the restaurant they cannot make it). It estimated this made up around a quarter of its revenue for the evening lost, and subsequently increased its “no-show charge policy” from £10 to £50 per head.
This comes after one Manchester-based restaurant group, Gusto, lost £6,000 in estimated takings on reopening day last week as 270 customers didn’t turn up. And further examples abound. South London’s Sticky Mango saw 24 no-shows on opening night.
On Twitter, Matthew Brend, a director of Brend Hotels, wrote, after 17 no-shows, that “restaurants are battling weak demand, reduced covers, heightened cleaning procedures… yet we’re STILL having to deal with last-minute cancellations and no shows. Please consider the damage you’re doing when you leave it this late.”
Restaurants are battling weak demand, reduced covers, heightened cleaning prodedures & are quite frankly on the bones of their arses, yet we’re STILL having to deal with last minute cancellations & no shows 😤 Please consider the damage you’re doing when you leave it this late... pic.twitter.com/UucJppEE84— Matthew Brend (@matthewBREND) July 12, 2020
For James Cochran, whose London restaurant 12:51 has been reduced to only five tables upon reopening last week (and had its own no-shows on Friday), it’s a longstanding issue. “That’s just normal in the industry,” he says with a sigh. “At the end of the day, the customer doesn’t understand how detrimental that is to the restaurant.” Losing a customer might see £50-60 gone, he explains. If they don’t show up, or cancel last-minute, “you’re screwed.”
Cochran has had instances of tables of 10, booked for his tasting menu, not showing up, representing a loss of around £1500, which could be a third of the night’s takings. Not calling in advance means the restaurant cannot then book anyone who might be on the waiting list, or might lose out on walk-in trade.
The issue of no-shows has long plagued the industry, and many restaurant owners suspect that some diners book several restaurants before deciding on the day which to attend. Yet Kate Nicholls, the CEO of UKHospitality, says it is much more acute now than before. “It’s normally manageable, there’s a degree of walk-in trade that compensates.”
With capacity reduced by up to half, restaurants moving towards mostly bookings to manage distancing, “no shows have a much more material impact. Behaviour that was always unacceptable is now potentially ruinous.” UKHosptality has seen many reports coming through of no-shows, and, while restaurants are to some degree accustomed, pubs and bars which rely much more on walk-in trade in normal times are finding it “crippling”.
The most commonly sought solution is for venues to take bookings with credit card details, either as a deposit or, in some instances, an upfront payment – essentially, a prepaid cover charge. Hospitality is one of few forms of entertainment where guests don’t usually pay beforehand, unlike, say, the theatre, football, cinema and so on. In many ways, that’s what makes it special.
But Tom Brown of Cornerstone in London thinks dining out is “a privilege and entertainment” much like those other forms. “If you make the commitment to that event, you go, or you forfeit the cost. We hope this spells new change wider across the board for restaurants.” Brown has upped his “no-show fee” from £40 to £50 ahead of reopening next week.
While some high-end restaurants have a deposit scheme (which usually allows customers to cancel for free up to a cut-off point), others have turned towards charging for the tasting menu up front. Tommy Banks has introduced this policy at the Black Swan in Yorkshire. He admits it’s controversial, and many don’t agree with the policy, but says it has eradicated no-shows, given financial security, and allowed chefs to work four days a week instead of five. “It’s made the whole business viable,” he says.
“Lots of places don’t feel able to take that jump, I get that,” Banks continues. “But therefore customers need to stick to their side of the bargain and show up. If people book and treat it as disposable, that’s what it’ll become. In this climate it really affects people’s livelihoods.”
Banks does have experience of no-shows at his other restaurant, Roots, in York. He says it can be particularly pronounced when there are large events, such as the races, when people are more prone to not honouring their booking. He thinks in the current circumstances, all restaurants should be looking at charging for bookings, as does Cochran.
Yet the experience of Wildflower, in London, shows that prepaying is not something most customers are ready for. The restaurant originally had payments for bookings, but it was slow and has since removed them, causing a spike in bookings. “Psychologically, people were more inclined to book without having to pay in advance,” says Adrian Martin. With distancing reducing covers from 30 to 10, they’ve introduced deposits and call the customer for confirmation the day before their booking.
Prepaying goes against the established idea of hospitality, removing the spontaneity of dining out. Nicholls acknowledges charging ahead of time “isn’t what hospitality is all about” but sees the current situation as making it necessary.
Victor Garvey of Sola in Soho doesn’t think charging for bookings is the best way to go about it. “We’ve had a few no-shows [since reopening], but nothing crazy.” He says there’s been a six per cent no-show rate, which is far better than pre lockdown. “No-shows have always been a thing, right? You build it into your seating schedule and business plan. If someone doesn’t show up for a booking, one assumes there’s a good reason for it. And if there is a good reason for it, no amount of shaming/virtue signalling is going to make them show up.”
Emergencies are always possible, something all the chefs acknowledge. And as Garvey says, if someone, for argument’s sake, is taking their daughter to A&E, they shouldn’t be expected to prioritise the restaurant. Yet the sheer numbers many see each night suggests not every no-show is the result of an accident; many must be people who have either forgotten, or have gone elsewhere.
“People don’t do it out of malice, but they don’t understand the consequence of their actions,” says Banks. Some point the finger at booking apps, which in some ways remove the loyalty between customer and restaurant – every restaurant is a mere click away, almost like a game. Or perhaps the ubiquity of eating out is making it less special.
“The more we can talk about it, the better,” says Banks. Cochran, who fears it’ll “never change”, agrees, adding that, especially now, no-shows can lead to lost jobs. “What Tom Kerridge did was important for the industry, and similar voices like the Jason Athertons and the Sat Bains of our industry need to join in to make this a movement.”
Would you be happy to pay for your restaurant meal at the time of making a reservation? Let us know in the comments below