How will the industry tackle the increasing number of no shows at peak times?

Throughout my 30 years in the industry I’ve witnessed many waves of change. One of the most increasingly frustrating trends is for customers not to turn up for their booking or to cancel at the last minute. Bookings used to involve a phone call and a fiercely guarded paper diary full of tippex. Now its as easy as clicking on your mobile phone. A lot of diners book multiple tables and forget to cancel the ones they’ve decided not to attend.

Many restaurants have their popular slots for a Friday and Saturday booked out weeks in advance. At Loft, we often have no tables left to offer guests for 8pm on a Saturday night, two months ahead. But the ‘no shows’ and last-minute cancellations mean we can end up with tables sitting empty and a loss of revenue that evening. We order fresh food according to booking numbers and staff accordingly. Once, we had a table of 10 cancel an hour before they were due to arrive and a table of four not show. It makes a big difference to our business.

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We appreciate that circumstances change and of course sometimes illness or genuine reasons force people to cancel. But those rarities are not the issue. It’s the several tables every peak period that just do not arrive. One Friday evening a table of six were running late. We called them and they said they were on their way. On a second call they said they were “just around the corner”. Yet they never arrived.

Popular dining slots such as Valentine’s evening or Mother’s Day are vulnerable to no shows. We had a table of twelve who didn’t show on Mother’s Day. No call, no response to our messages. One London restaurant reported 60 no shows this year on Mother’s Day. These no shows result in wasted food and excessive staff wages without the expected revenue. Regular no shows can be around 5% to 10%. Profit margins at restaurants are tiny. There are few restaurants making 10% profit after costs. Just a few tables not showing one evening can mean the whole operation fails to break even that sitting. I don’t think customers understand that.

The emotional connection between customer and restaurant has been lost in a sea of technology. Customers see the booking as a digital transaction not a contract with human beings who own and run the restaurant. Customers tell me they love having local independent restaurants in their area but many are not aware that practices such as this are leaving small operators vulnerable. We prep and staff according to covers booked and margins are stretched to the limits. A little more understanding is required.

As a destination restaurant, we don’t get many walk-ins. Turning to a no-booking policy wouldn’t work for us outside of London. Many of our guests have planned their evening months in advance and booked babysitters. They don’t want to risk not getting a table or having to wait for hours. But we have had walk ins on occasion and said we can’t seat them due to being fully booked. Only to have empty tables sat there all evening after no shows!

But what can be done? I’m loathe to introduce a paid in advance deposit system for regular sittings. Not only is it a time consuming logistical nightmare, but also signals a breakdown in trust of your customers. Having a good relationship with our guests is core to a successful dining experience. Some restaurateurs have even started to name and shame the details of no shows on social media. I would never go that far but part of me does understand their frustration.

I’m working on an idea to communicate with potential guests, what last minute availability we have. And what can customers do? I’d ask them to please remember to cancel their table when plans change. Please don’t ever just not turn up. A quick phone call takes seconds. And if you fancy dinner at that fully booked independent restaurant – give them a call on the night – they probably have a few tables looking lonely.

Nick Male is the chef / director of Loft restaurant in St Albans

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