Cafe Reviews

Call Out the Reserves

Guest Columnists
Nobody likes to get stood up, and restaurant owners are no different. But when our customers don't honor their reservations, more than just our feelings get hurt.

Of course, there's a significant financial loss--one restaurant claims it lost $1 million because of no-shows in a single year. More devastating for us, though, is the havoc that unkept reservations create for our other diners and our staff.

"But I was only 10 minutes late!" Or, "You've got empty tables--why can't you seat us?" We hear that a lot, and when we try to answer, people tell us because they eat in restaurants all the time they know the dining business. In fact, they don't. It's not as simple as it looks.

To understand what happens when a reservation doesn't pan out, you need to know a little about how restaurants operate. The basics are pretty similar among all fine-dining restaurants. Besides the food we serve, our most precious commodity is time. We are open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. But since very few people in the Valley want to eat before 6:30 or after 8:30, our prime serving time is really closer to two hours. To have a successful evening, we try to use every table for two different seatings per evening. Here's where it gets complicated. We have 15 tables in a valley with 2.2 million people, and they all want to eat at 7 p.m. Yet, we still have empty tables at 7 because of no-shows.

Say, one night we have two turns of reservations for every table (we can seat about 60 at one time). A few walk-ins come in, but we turn them away as we await our reserved diners. Naturally, they gnash their teeth as they leave, noticing the empty tables. Customers start arriving, but three or four tables remain empty. Even if two from a party of four are here, we can't start service. We begin to regret having sent away the walk-ins. And don't forget--we've already turned away dozens of phone requests for a table for the same time. Eventually, we begin to fear that the customers have blown off their reservations and become "no-shows," in the parlance of our trade. When more walk-ins show up, we must decide: Do we accommodate them, not knowing whether the people with reservations will show? Or do we stare at the empty tables?

Actually, there's no right answer. We can't win. By now, a half-hour has elapsed (25 percent of our prime time) and, whoever gets seated--a late reservation or a walk-in--will most likely still be there when the next round of diners arrives on time for their reservations. Then those good people will have to wait, and that's unfair. But if we don't seat anyone in order to avoid a conflict with the next party, we'd be staring at an empty table for two and a half hours and running at a loss. That's unfair, too. And at $200 for a party of four, we can't exactly kick the first party out of their seats to make room, nor would we want to.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the staff has been underutilized while four tables sat empty. Now if we seat the walk-ins, the pacing in the kitchen gets thrown off because the evening's cooking has been planned carefully around the reservations schedule. We can only prepare so many entrees at a given moment. We stagger the reservation times to correspond to the kitchen's needs. If we suddenly seat four tables a half-hour later than the reservation time, the kitchen is playing catch-up. If the reservations had been kept, those meals would already have been under way. Then we worry that the rush will begin to affect the other diners who arrived on time, putting our reputation on the line. You just hope somehow the stars line up, and it works out.

We wish the scenario above were a rare one, but it's not. Our job would be easier without reservations. Although they do give us some flexibility in planning, reservations are mainly a service for the public, not the restaurant. They are a valuable convenience that allows diners to plan a problem-free evening out. But some people don't take them seriously. Where a reservation is a smart hedge against a long wait, to some, it's just another item on a things-to-do list that you may or may not get done.

How prevalent is the no-show problem? In a survey that American Express did of its restaurant clients, 83 percent said that their no-show rate was 10 percent or higher; almost a fifth registered at least 30 percent. The survey also confirmed what we've noticed in our own restaurant: Saturday night is the worst time for no-shows, followed closely by Friday. Also, vacation/convention areas like ours experience a higher-than-average rate of no-shows. Local customers tend to be the most diligent about showing up.

We try to deliver a gracious dining experience and are somewhat stymied to find a solution to broken dates. We don't want to punish our customers, nor do we want the no-shows to diminish our ability to provide great meals. Restaurants around the country are developing strategies to combat the no-shows. The least subtle idea is retaliation by overbooking. Like the airlines and the hotel industry, some restaurants just don't say no, even though there is no possibility they will have a table at the time the customer is requesting. They figure: "Where else are they gonna go now?" So the diner waits and waits. That's bad. After customers unexpectedly have been made to wait inordinately long, how much will they enjoy the experience?

Some places take no reservations. They openly rely on walk-ins. You sign in, they hand you a beeper or a stuffed animal, and send you off to the bar. And there's nothing wrong with that--if you want to drink and if the wait is short, great. If it's not, you're drinking on an empty stomach.

Some restaurants have begun calling customers to confirm their reservations. We've tried it and have spent far too much time talking to our diners' phone machines. Why reconfirm a supposedly firm reservation? By using pauses, repeating the reservation time firmly but graciously, and taking the home phone number, we try to raise the commitment level--but we still get no-shows.

Some hardliners say: Hit them in the wallet. Take a credit card number and charge the no-show. But that complicates the reservations process enormously. Imagine jotting down myriad 16-digit credit-card numbers on a bustling Saturday night while the phone's ringing and diners are streaming in. It's just dinner, after all, not a bank loan.

We're considering a version of a call-ahead system. It's a variation on no reservations. The customer calls, asks how long the wait time is, and gets put on the wait list before hopping in the car and heading over. We'll soon see how that works.

Irritating as it is, the no-show phenomenon is instructive, too. It tells us something about our frantic era. Dining has become less formal, more casual and spur-of-the-moment. Sometimes, personal schedules are not easy to tame, and some of us actually are better off NOT making reservations. We wonder: Except for extremely high-end, fine-dining restaurants, are reservations becoming a thing of the past?

Again, it's just dinner. We don't make a living turning away people. We're interested in being fair. We run our restaurant ourselves, which means we have to look our customers straight in the eye and tell them there's a wait when they have reservations. We know people have been made to wait in our restaurant, and we wish we could avoid it. We've seated late-late reservations, too, and then have gone on to embrace them and treat them fully well. But we really wish they'd been on time.

So, help us out. If you make a reservation, keep it. Thanks.

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Tom Kaufman