The other day James Duckett, chef-patron of the Samuel Fox Inn at Bradwell tweeted a picture of two empty tables at his North Derbyshire pub with the caption: “Two tables booked for Saturday night. #Noshow, no answering of phones, and we turned down other diners because of them! #Exasperating.”
It was, if anything, understatement. No shows mean loss of profit and can turn a busy evening into one which barely makes money. The Fox cannot rely on that much passing trade come 8pm on a dark Saturday night in the middle of the countryside. It’s estimated that no shows cost British restaurants up to £16 billion a year, although that does seem rather high.
That tweet struck a chord with me because in more than 25 years writing about food and restaurants for the Sheffield Star I often wrote stories castigating this bad practice. It seemed to come and go in waves. Often two couples would decide to go out but couldn’t agree on the restaurant. Both would book different places and make their minds up on the day.
Others were simply ignorant, very possibly not realising the financial damage they cause. Stung by a series of no shows, brothers Wayne and Jamie Bosworth, who then ran Rafters restaurant, waited until after closing time before ringing the number of one customer who failed to materialise. . “We said should we send the staff home yet?” remembers Jamie. “They were very apologetic.”
A couple of years ago, when reviewing, I rang the former Barretts Bistro at Hutcliffe Wood to book and was asked for my debit card details: number, name and security code. As well as that, they deducted a tenner per person from my card and would set that against the bill. I was most put out because I was planning a BYO dinner with garlic mushrooms and cheese soufflé, not a swanky suite at a five star hotel.
They had introduced the policy because in the space of a short time the tiny bistro had lost two tables of six and one of eight while other tables of four and six turned up as twos, said boss James Barrett.
Restaurants have to be careful. This sort of thing can put people off. So far, no one round here has followed the policy of Michelin three star Hong Kong restaurant Sushi Shikon by fining customers for cancelling, depending on how short a time they give (up to £350 per person). And more if fewer people turn up than booked!
Nor have British restaurants followed Copenhagen’s Noma where staff posted YouTube videos mocking absent customers. And one Australian restaurant took to naming and shaming people who failed to show.
Most restaurants are not high powered enough to demand customers book through an online agency or ask for as many details as Barretts Bistro demanded. Things should be taken on trust. Taking a mobile number is no guarantee, as James found. You simply programme the restaurant’s number into your phone and when the name flashes up, don’t answer. Perhaps he ought to ring on another line!
It is also, sadly, one way in which rivals can sabotage a business.
Taking a number can work both ways. Once, setting out to review a Sunday lunch, I was ten minutes into my journey when my mobile rang. It was the pub. The kitchen wiring had blown up. They wanted to tell me the best they could offer was sandwiches!