Chef Tom Kerridge is right: ‘No-show’ diners put restaurants at risk of failure

Chef and restaurant owner Tom Kerridge who has slammed customers who fail to turn up after reserving

Chef and restaurant owner Tom Kerridge who has slammed customers who fail to turn up after reserving tables - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Food-loving Andy Newman says the issue of people booking a table at a restaurant and then not turning up has never been a bigger concern for the food industry

I have said before that I have a sure-fire way of becoming a millionaire through owning a restaurant. It’s very simple – start with two million, and within a year or so your bank balance will be hovering around the one million mark.

This was largely true when chefs were free to open all of their tables to paying punters; it’s even more true now that they are faced with the double whammy of the increased costs associated with coronavirus and the reduced capacity that social distancing has imposed. Running a restaurant is certainly not a route to riches.

I have worked with a lot of restaurant owners in my time, and the vast majority of them are passionately committed to providing the best possible experience for their customers. In general they remain resolutely polite, even when provoked beyond reason by unreasonable demands and even the all-too-common TripAdvisor blackmail (“if you don’t give me a discount I’ll post a negative review”).

But you may have noticed just recently that restaurateurs’ forbearance is being stretched to the limit. At a time when most are desperately trying to keep their business afloat and the livelihoods of their staff intact, it is perhaps not surprising that their patience has run out with customers who book tables and then don’t turn up – the dreaded “no shows”, as they are known in the trade.

The issue was first raised by ebullient TV chef Tom Kerridge, who went on record complaining that on one night at his London restaurant, he had 27 no-shows. He called such behaviour “disgraceful and short-sighted”, branding those who had simply not turned up as “the worst kind of guest” and “selfish”.

It is far too common for diners to book tables in three or four different restaurants for the same night, and then to decide which one to go to at the last minute. The vast majority don’t even bother to tell the eateries they have blown out, leaving chefs with empty tables and staff being paid to do nothing. And in the current climate, they don’t even have the ability to welcome walk-ins who might at other times take advantage of that empty table.

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It’s bad enough in a large chain restaurant where a table for four not turning up might not be such a dent in the evening’s takings. But if you are a small, independent restaurant whose capacity has been further reduced by social distancing, a table for four could be 10 per cent or more of your income for the night – and this is a business of tiny margins where 10 per cent is often the difference between breaking even and not being able to survive.

Why is it that we expect to be able to get away with this? Where else can we make a booking and expect the provider to staff up on the off-chance we might turn up? When we book a theatre ticket or a cinema ticket, we pay in advance, and if we decide not to go, we don’t get a refund.

So why should we not expect to do this when we make a booking to eat out?

Such a high number of no-shows could well be the difference between staying open and preserving jobs or restaurants disappearing for good, especially the small, independent eateries which deserve our support the most.

I can think of only one solution. We are going to have to accept that when we reserve a table in a restaurant, it’s like buying a theatre ticket. We are going to have to commit to paying in advance, and if we then can’t use the reservation, we’ll only get a refund if the seat can be resold.

This will require a change in the way we think about planning to eat out. But for the decent, honest diners, it’s not such an imposition.

And if it inconveniences or even puts off the selfish, unpleasant oafs who think it’s OK to make multiple speculative reservations they have no intention of honouring – well, they won’t be such a big loss, will they?