Jillian Bolger offers her thoughts on badly behaved 'no shows'
If you entertain at home you know how much it costs to pull off a dinner party. Aside from all the effort and prep you’ll probably splurge on top ingredients and overstock the wine rack. Imagine then how you’d feel if several of your guests simply didn’t show up, and didn’t bother to call ahead to let you know.
Restaurateurs and chefs are used to this kind of rude behaviour with no-shows a reality in their business. Anyone can trawl through Twitter to find the figures, posted after especially bad nights. Etto had 21 no-shows on one night in a 24-seater restaurant. Chef Gareth Smith of Michael’s Italian previously reported 14 no-shows one night – one table of six, two tables of four and “not a single courtesy call”. And Michelin-starred Aniar reported seven no-shows one night in a 28-seater restaurant (chef-proprietor JP McMahon admits that eight to ten a week is more normal.)
When eating out was once reserved for special occasions things were a lot simpler. People booked tables and showed up. Nowadays, the trend for casual dining and choice of restaurants has spoilt us, spelling the end of courtesy as we once knew it. If you’ve ever rung a restaurant to cancel a booking you’ll find that your call is generally met with appreciation, rather than annoyance. Sure, they’d prefer if you showed up (especially if they’ve turned away business) but any restaurant would much rather know in advance that you’re not coming than be left to figure it out.
The same goes for groups who shed numbers but don’t call to let them know. If you book an eight-seater and one couple can’t make it don’t wait till you arrive at dinner to share the information. It mightn’t make much difference on a Tuesday night in January but it will at busier periods. By calling ahead the restaurant can reconfigure their tables and free up a two-top to sell on.
This call for common courtesy is hardly ground breaking, but the figures highlight how inconsiderate many of us are. While few people openly admit to being no-shows the problem is endemic. Admittedly there’s plenty of legitimate reasons people have to cancel bookings, but restaurants like Bon Appetite in Malahide have found that no-shows have been significantly reduced by taking credit card details at certain times. Many argue that a blanket credit card charge would stamp out the public’s inconsiderate behaviour (and prevent the practice of people booking multiple restaurants, then cancelling the extras as dinnertime approaches) but not everyone’s in agreement. Unlike airline, cinema and theatre tickets we don’t have a culture of paying upfront for our dinner. For this system to work demand would need to exceed supply, and this is something that only happens in Irish restaurants at Christmas time.
Ticketed dining is gaining traction in the US, pioneered in 2011 by Chicago restaurant Next. In a bid to combat no-shows they sell non-refundable tickets for each reservation. Customers pre-pay for their meal, and there’s no option to cancel. In 2012 the legendary Alinea followed suit, explaining that they had “three people answering phones six days a week answering hundreds more phone calls than we have reservations available.” The demand for tables was clearly a driving force but the non-refundable tickets (transferable through their website) proved a success in the battle against no-shows.
The Clove Club in London introduced the UK’s first ticketing system in 2015 with Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck reopening in September charging everyone £255 upfront for their ‘multi-course tasting menu’. If one of your party can’t make it on the day, then it’s tough luck. There’s no refunds for an empty seat that has been allocated to your table.
With demand outstripping supply the model works there but it’s unlikely we’ll see such booking systems in Ireland any time soon. A less drastic action is for us all to simply behave in a more considerate fashion. Next time you decide not to honour a reservation try to remember that no-shows can be the difference between profit and loss for a restaurant.