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No excuse for restaurant ‘no-shows’

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Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller

Have you ever booked a table at a restaurant and failed to show? Do you ever book multiple restaurant tables and leave it until the night in question to decide which one to go to?

This behaviour is more common than we think and according to local restaurateurs and chefs, it is a problem which is getting worse, not just in this region, but across the UK.

Last week in this very newspaper, Justin Sharp, chef-proprietor of Bury St Edmunds restaurant Pea Porridge spoke out, highlighting some of the problems ‘no-shows’ have caused him and his staff. Since then, others have started to comment too.

“Yes we had problems over the Mother’s Day weekend with no-shows but it wasn’t from our regulars as they genuinely care about our business – it was from people who hadn’t been before,” said the Anchor at Burwell in response to this paper’s editor, Barry Peters when he tweeted a link to Justin’s story.

The hospitality industry is a supportive one and it wasn’t long before Marina O’Loughlin, restaurant critic from The Times joined in, tweeting to Pea Porridge: “A fine restaurant. When, in future, you’re compelled to pay upfront for dinner, it’s the no-show arses, not the restaurants, who’ll be to blame.” Chef-patron and executive chef Jackson Boxer, whose recent article in The Guardian clearly delineated the emotional and fiscal impact no-shows exert upon the industry commented ‘another tale of frustration and confusion as parties request, reserve, confirm, and then reject. Please consider the consequences and book tables responsibly’.

I met Justin Sharp last week and our conversation made me wonder if people really understand how restaurants work, despite the plethora of TV shows and books purporting to go behind the scenes. Maybe customers think restaurateurs are wealthy and can take the hit? The reality is that a restaurant’s profit margin can be as low as 7-8 per cent of turnover and should a table of four fail to show at a 50-seat restaurant this makes it likely the restaurant will make no money on that night. But suppliers still have to be paid and, in the case of neighbourhood restaurants like Pea Porridge, the suppliers are excellent smaller businesses too. Fail to show up at a restaurant and you not only hurt the staff, the negative effects trickle down to suppliers too because if turnover falls, then somewhere along the line, difficult fiscal decisions will need to be made.

As a result of the BFP story, I also spoke to head chef Chris Lee at the Crown, in Bildeston, who also admitted that no-shows are a problem because not only are his staff rotas organised around business booked but The Crown relies on a lot of walk-ins (Bildeston is in a tourist area).

“The last thing we want to do is turn people away as we THINK we are fully booked then no-shows become a double problem....because...we’re overstaffed and [have] less income than predicted,” he said, adding that the problem has worsened over the last two years.

It has been posited that the rise of online booking systems such as Open Table might be to blame but Justin does not use them, preferring to engage with customers via phone or email. He’s also had problems with regulars failing to cancel so it can’t be blamed on impersonality or his own lack of interaction with his customers.

Chris told me about bookings where not everyone turns up, ‘people on the same table have booked under different names but it’s the same party’, or they simply forget they have booked.

Justin spoke of the damaging effects on staff morale when late cancellations of a table for four and two coincide with a table of eight who simply do not show up.

Restaurateurs have a responsibility to ensure their front of house and kitchen staff can actually earn a decent living in an environment that allows them to hone their skills and work at the top of their game. It’s a restless business and under-utilised staff can become demoralised and move on.

Justin is fortunate; he has a close-knit team but a quick search online turns up many other chefs who talk of the constant pressure to recruit and keep good staff in the face of multiple pressures, of which no-shows are a significant one.

“It’s financially a kick, and depressing,” adds Chris Lee when I ask him about the effects upon staff morale.

Ultimately, much of this is to do with respect and politeness. In the age of the internet, there is no excuse for no-shows. It is ironic that at a time when communication has never been easier, many of us have become so bad at it.