Empty table

Restaurant No-Shows

I’m hearing more and more about restaurants asking for credit card details when patrons book a table, with the implication that they will be charged a fee per head if they don’t show up.

Most people, including myself, are quite averse to this practice. But it is totally understandable, considering the number of people who seem quite happy to book at restaurants and not pitch. It’s not only inconsiderate, it’s disastrous for the restaurant financially. I’ve had many chats with restaurateurs and no-shows is a major problem for them. People often book at several restaurants for an evening, deciding at the last minute which one to eat at. They may or may not cancel the other tables, but by that stage it’s too late anyway.

There are methods that some restaurants employ to try and reduce the number of no-shows. Calling the patron on the morning of the booking to confirm they are still coming is one such method, and from what I hear it does reduce the number of no-shows, but mainly because at that time they admit they will not be coming. Another method is to not take bookings at all. This is how Chef’s Warehouse works. I’m not a big fan of restaurants not taking bookings because I like to know if I want to go, that I will have a table. I don’t want to take the risk that there are no tables and then I have to wander around trying to find an alternative restaurant at the last minute. I believe that keeping a percentage of the seating for walk-ins is a good compromise.

Some restaurants will only take credit card details if it’s a booking for a large number of people, perhaps 6 or more.

credit cards

Those restaurants that are always full can afford to make people provide credit card details when booking. For less popular restaurants, the added friction will cause patrons to rather go elsewhere, which they cannot afford either. The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francaise will only be taking online bookings from October. Credit card details will be required and any no-shows (even reduced table sizes) will be charged the set menu price.

There are a number of issues I have with the practice of asking for credit card details. The primary one is that I am never going to give my credit card details to some random person over the phone. They could use those details to clone my card or even just start shopping online. And what happens to my details later on, are they deleted after I eat there? The restaurant would have to have a) some very strict policies around data protection and retention and b) employee screening, and I’m confident none have those in place.

Tasting Room gets around that problem by making you book online so the credit card details are not handled by a person but rather stored somewhere. But where? Is that data accessible to people at the restaurant or even in the IT support team? Or are they encrypted? I have no idea, and if I wanted to steal credit card details, that would be the first place I would hack.

 The other problem I have is that people are notoriously unreliable, especially in Cape Town. So if I make the booking for a table of 6 using my credit card details and two people don’t arrive, I will be charged for them. Then I have to get the money from them, which may or may not be easy. I just don’t want to take on that responsibility. How much does the restaurant charge for no-shows? The average price of a main meal? I imagine it varies from place to place.

And how far in advance must I cancel before I am liable for a payment? And what if you charge me plus you fill the table with a walk-in, will you refund me? How would I know if the table was filled?

Unless all restaurants implement the same policy, people will just prefer to go to the ones where they don’t have to give their credit card details. So it will be very difficult for this to be implemented by restaurants that are not top tier.

Open kitchen at Mondiall

I think there are other things that can be done. The first is, only punish the guilty. In other words, if I make a booking and don’t pitch then next time I try make a booking you can ask for my credit card details because I have demonstrated that I am unreliable. But why punish all those good patrons who would never book and not arrive? It’s not that much admin to enter the details of no shows into a spreadsheet for future reference. In fact, restaurants not using some sort of online booking and information system will find themselves struggling to compete in the future.

Also, why not share info between restaurants? Imagine if we could have a central list where all restaurants upload names and telephone numbers from bookings that don’t pitch. Then if someone is on that list, it doesn’t matter where they try and book they will be asked for credit card details because all restaurants will have access to the list. This will get rid of the problem very quickly, but it will need solidarity amongst restaurants. In fact I think this is a brilliant idea, anybody want to work on it with me?

And finally, what if I have a legitimate reason for not pitching? I fall ill, or I have a car accident en route. Will I then have to send a doctor’s note to get a refund? This would make eating at a restaurant more effort than it’s worth.

Share your opinion in the comments below.





13 responses to “Restaurant No-Shows”

  1. Keeping a shared database of names will be practically impossible to manage and bookers would just use false names and numbers or, even worse, a friend’s name or number. What may work is to start with a lowish fee, ie R20 per head for booking. This would eradicate most chancers. Then use a central voucher system for the bookings. Vouchers could be sold at any affiliated restaurant, be used towards bills and also given to loyal customers. You could manage it all.

    1. Ed, see Doug’s link and my response. I think the ‘deposit’ idea you suggest is good. But I disagree about the database, verifying the users could be a central service offered to restaurants.

  2. Hi Dax
    I agree it is a great idea. Let’s do it together.
    email me

  3. Database is a great idea and if everyone works together and keeps it simple then it could work.

  4. As a restaurant manager, I completely understand the need for this but also know that even the most popular venues would alienate and even lose customers if they tried to implement such a system. However, it’s no different to being charged for a hotel room you don’t pitch for, and nobody fails to understand that. A comment on your final paragraph, why should restauranteurs suffer financial loss as a result of your illness or mishap? Just because there is a ‘genuine reason’, the result doesn’t change for the restaurant. To revert to my earlier analogy, if you don’t show at your hotel, there are no refunds, whatever the reason. It’s up to the client to insure against this. Just an observation.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rhi. I think that you’re correct in saying why should the restaurant suffer for your mishap. And I think there are too many variables to answer that question. I think in some cases the restaurant has the ability to mitigate that cost by perhaps giving the table to a walk in, etc. However, even if we agree that tables should be paid for in advance, the cost of putting the technology in place to do that effectively is just too much for most restaurants.

      So a restaurant like Tasting Room can afford to do it as they have the demand and they work with big numbers. But I remember a popular restaurant in the city centre asked me for credit card details when I tried to book for a table of 6 and I simply went to another restaurant as there is no way I am giving some random person my credit card details.

  5. I think the idea of selling tickets is an interesting alternative and one that seems to have been fairly successfully implemented elsewhere. Read more here: http://website.alinearestaurant.com/site/2014/06/tickets-for-restaurants/

    1. Thanks for that link, Doug, that was a very interesting (and very recent!) article. I think for local restaurants the idea of selling a ‘deposit’ for a table which is taken off the bill is a good option. Seeing as most restaurants have variable pricing here rather than the set menu of fine dining establishments. This ties into what Ed proposed as well.

      A big hurdle though is the technology to implement this. Most restaurants don’t make so much money that they can invest in this sort of system. If it’s a shared system that they just pay a monthly subscription for, that might be feasible. Just hardware and connectivity costs to consider, but if it saves them a substantial amount in no-shows it might not be difficult to justify.

  6. Brandon

    Reading this post made me wonder whether hair salons have the same issue. If not, are we more reluctant to book and not pitch where there is a personal relationship with the service provider? It is simply bad manners not to cancel a booking that is no longer required – those who do it would have a nappy rash if it was their business and people did it to them. For expensive restaurants where it is a special occasion, it does not bother me at all to pay a deposit (seem to recall this being the case at the Greenhouse recently). A shared database between restaurants will simply have surely have the same data protection issues

    1. I think the personal relationship is a valid point. I’m sure in restaurants where the owners make a point of getting to know their patrons (think Miller’s Thumb and such like), this probably happens less.

      But I say again, while in principle I might not have a problem with paying a deposit or per head charge, however I am not handing my credit card details over to some random person on the other side of the phone. If my card gets skimmed, and the bank can prove I handed over those details, the bank will not refund the stolen money.

      Your example, as with all the others presented in the comments and by myself in my article, is for a fine dining restaurant. That is a different story and they are a very small minority of restaurants.

  7. Credit card companies will tell you that any form a restaurant patron completes with credit card details for pre-payment is meaningless, as the customer can refute it with the bank, whatever the reason for the no-show. The bank will ask the merchant for a signed credit card slip for the manual transaction as well as an imprint of the credit card, neither of which the restaurant will have, and will therefore reverse the transaction. So back to square one.

  8. We currently only take reservations at the Beerhouse on Long during non-busy hours and revert to first-come-first-serve to avoid empty tables and waiting patrons, I do see the need for a clever online system, that I’d immediately sign up for, specially as demand for reservations at our Beerhouse Fourways branch is even higher:

    User friendly online reservation tool, that includes a clever algorithm to figure out, whether this is high demand times (=> go to credit card reservation gateway) or off-peak (phone and email sufficient) and transparently explain the terms
    100% of a full-price meal per head e.g. R100, if you don’t show, 50% if you cancel up to 8 hours ahead, 0% up to 24 hours) and special pricing for prime tables (allowing us to sell the full-keg outdoor table for busy weekend periods, when we might continue not taking any other reservations.

    Who offers this or is able to build it?