What can be done about empty tables?

Empty table at Kerridge at the Corinthia, London

No-shows and their implications for the future of restaurants.

Restaurants have barely reopened – within the UK anyway – and already they are causing newspaper headlines and even a long interview on BBC Radio 4’s World at One news programme last Monday.

The issue is not one that either restaurateurs or chefs, and certainly not their misbehaving customers, should feel proud about, but it is one that has been a long-running, and consistent, feature of restaurant life. It’s also a phenomenon that is always particularly acute on a Saturday night, which was the day that many British restaurants reopened.

The issue is, of course, that of no-shows: customers who book tables and fail to cancel or to show up, causing the restaurant to lose covers and, most importantly, irreplaceable revenue. The latter is one aspect of the restaurant business that tends to be overlooked. Once a service is over, you may have the unsold food and wine in the fridge and the wine cellar but your sales figures will never improve.

This issue of no-shows is nothing new. I remember it happening to me at L'Escargot – and I sold L’Escargot over 30 years ago – and cursing whenever I was told about it. But I do remember one other common factor between then and now, this miserable habit was always most common on a Saturday evening.

It seems that this is the night of the week when, with Sunday the following day, customers are most likely to misbehave. I would imagine that a considerable number of the 27 customers that Tom Kerridge lost at his restaurant in the Corinthia Hotel (pictured above) were tables of four or more. This is what I learnt the hard way. A group of friends will meet for a few drinks early evening, having individually made bookings in several restaurants. Then by a process that I have no insight into, then and only then do they decide which of their bookings they will deign to honour. All the others they will forget about.

It is a well-known fact in the restaurant business that Saturday is worst for no-shows – as well known as the fact that Mondays will invariably be the quietest night of the week. However, in a well-run establishment, and where communication between the receptionist and whoever is managing the restaurant that night, this can make little difference.

Once a party has failed to appear – and most well-run restaurants will allow 15 to 20 minutes to elapse without a phone call to whoever made the booking – then the manager or receptionist can make the table available to ‘walk-ins’, ie anyone without a reservation. But this can happen only if there are enough people walking around outside looking for somewhere and something to eat.

In a busy city there normally are such potential customers but these are regrettably not normal times. Last Saturday there were very few people walking the city streets and there were no walk-ins to make up for the no-shows. Hence the news stories.

Much as I sympathise with the chefs and restaurateurs, I feel that their complaints – and certainly those who called their customers’ behaviour ‘disgraceful’ – have to be taken with a pinch of salt, for two reasons.

The first is that if the UK government had listened to anyone in the hospitality industry, they would have avoided the sorry spectacle of a ‘super Saturday’, of making this the one day when so many restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen. How much better it would have been, from everybody’s perspective, to make it a working day when demand would have been slightly less and this would have allowed a gradual build up to a Saturday night, which is for everybody the busiest night of the week. This would have been a far more pragmatic option and one that was far more manageable for both restaurateurs and their customers.

Secondly, this thoughtless behaviour is endemic, I am afraid to say, and I am not sure what can be done about it. It seems to be slightly worse in the UK than in most other countries and I am not sure why that is. It certainly cannot be because of a lack of exposure of the British restaurant in the media. Every channel’s schedule seems replete with cooking shows, many of them hosted by restaurant chefs who have had the opportunity to promote their places of work and their economic raison d’être.

This, of course, depends on both sides behaving well. Customers should show up on time, and formally cancel whenever they have no intention of honouring a booking (so easy now that everyone has a mobile phone and no difficulty in finding a restaurant’s phone number on it). Restaurateurs should welcome customers warmly and have their table ready for them. And, in an ideal world, there would be enough people out on the streets, particularly on a Saturday night, to make up for the no-shows.

There are options available to restaurateurs. Taking a credit card in advance is the most common and effective option against losing money because of no-shows. And this works. Even I have relented and given my credit card details if I have had no alternative. But this practice, while quite common for tables of six or more, becomes more onerous for tables of two and four and certainly takes away from any spontaneity.

This issue will pass, as it has done since it really became an issue some time in the 1980s when going out to eat in restaurants became so popular. I cannot believe that there is a single person reading this website, or member of JancisRobinson.com, who would not agree with me in saying that anybody who does not show up having made a restaurant booking, and without informing the restaurant, is behaving extremely badly. But as one chef pointed out, with Brexit less than six months away, there are today far more important issues to discuss than the perennial old chestnut of the few badly behaved individuals.