Why You Should Never Cancel Your Dinner Reservation Last Minute

In a restaurant the size of mine, our margins are so tight that if I get a table of four that doesn’t turn up, the best I can hope for is to break even.

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Aug 24 2017, 10:00pm

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2017.

Today, we hear from a British restaurant owner about the financial strain of customer no-shows.

Over the last six nights in my restaurant, 39 people haven't turned up for their table. If you're talking about place that has 80-odd covers, they probably won't notice but we only seat 24 people, so it's massive for us. That's business for two nights that we miss out on.

In a restaurant the size of mine, our margins are so tight that even if I get a table of four that doesn't turn up, the best I can hope for is to break even. I've got the staff already in and the food ordered, thinking that the place is going to be full.

And then all of a sudden, the table that I was banking on for making money has gone.

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It's a kick in the teeth to know that we're just somebody's option. People don't understand the knock-on effect they're having on the restaurant. They don't think they're doing anything wrong.

To be honest, the sort of restaurant we are doesn't appeal to idiots. We're small, quaint and quirky. People aren't being malicious, they just don't get it and I'm exasperated.

My best mate owns a nearby pub and he's phoned me several times now to tell me that my table of six booked in for 7.30 PM aren't coming. How does he know? He can hear them at the end of the bar discussing what they fancy eating tonight and all the places they've booked. I don't expect to be everyone's cup of tea, but to know you're just one of somebody's options—a faceless building that could crumble—kills me. It's the fact that people don't get that they are the difference between us breaking even, making some money, or losing it.

I got together with a few friends recently who also own restaurants in the area. At the end of the night, we went through all of our no-shows and one of the things we found was that it wasn't the same names coming up, it was the same phone numbers. Each of us would have a table booked at 7.30 PM. Three different places, three different names, one phone number.

One time, I had a table of two come in, absolutely adamant that they'd booked and arguing with the staff. But we didn't have them on the books and were fully booked so couldn't seat them. I got brought out of the kitchen because they were trying to push past the staff, pointing to an empty table. I explained that the table was booked. I apologised but said that there was nothing I could do.

The ultimate irony was that that table didn't turn up. I then phoned the person who had made the booking and it was the same couple who were just in. Turns out the woman had booked it under her mother's maiden name or something. I asked why she'd done that but rather than give me an answer, she palmed me off to her husband, who said that it was no longer an issue because they'd used another one of their bookings that they'd made for the same evening.

It's a kick in the teeth to know that we're just somebody's option. People don't understand the knock-on effect they're having on the restaurant.

So they walked out of our place, strolled down the road to a place 200 yards away, and went there instead.

People are shameless. I've had people mid-excuse about the babysitter's dog being ill, cover the phone with their hand and ordering food because they're sat somewhere else, and then continue to give me the spiel about the dog. I don't think people are evil, I don't think anyone does it to be nasty but they don't realise that it's such an issue.

It's probably got worse over the last two years as more places have opened. Possibly it's that people have more choice but I don't know. I couldn't tell you why but people are becoming more blasé about it.

I want to continue taking bookings because there are still issues that arise from no-bookings policies. Even taking deposits can be a hassle. We take them for big nights like New Year's Eve but about five years ago, we had a table of ten and only two turned up. I was stewing in the back but it got better. They had the five course menu and then Champagne, brandy—everything you can imagine. They really went to town.

And then at the end of the night, a member of staff took the bill over and they said, "No, we've already paid £200."

We said: "No, you haven't. £20 per head deposit is £40 off your bill but the rest of the deposit is covering the food that's going to waste."

We ended up having a blazing row in the restaurant and they even wanted to call the police. I said go ahead.

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We call to confirm bookings. We now call mid-afternoon because if we do it in the morning, they still won't turn up. If they just change their minds on the day or if it's nice weather and they want to have a barbecue instead, they just don't turn up. So now we leave it as late as we possibly dare but it still doesn't work.

I don't think it will change. I think if something like restaurants taking deposits became the norm, it would be easier for us to implement. I still think deposits start you off on the wrong foot, though. It says you're suspicious before a customer is even through the door. It makes it look like we don't care, which can't be further from the truth.