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Should Restaurants Charge For No-Shows? Chefs Disagree.

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 26, 2016 5:58PM

The (tiny) interior of Giant. Photo via Facebook.

Restaurants operate on the thinnest of profit margins, and a small restaurant can take a significant hit if a customer doesn't show up for a dinner reservation and they can't fill the seat. But what can a restaurant do about this problem? They can switch to a ticket-based system, as is becoming more and more common these days, they can force customers to put down a credit card to hold the reservation, or they can just ... deal with it. What's the right approach?

Those were, presumably, the questions in Chef Jason Vincent's mind when he recently asked the Chicago culinary community for advice on this very topic. His new restaurant, Giant, is tiny—only forty seats—and has had problems with no-shows. So he took to Facebook.

Time to crowdsource an opinion. If you have a 40 seat restaurant (or any small business), and a guest decides against honoring their reservation, while agreeing to a fee if they do so (only as stated on the app) do you actually pull the ripcord and charge them?

Unlike the usual mess of trolls, irate customers and fawning fans who generally crowd chefs' social media feeds, some of Chicago's most prominent chefs and restauranteurs chimed in to answer this question, and their opinions are revealing and thought-provoking.

Some chefs, including Sean Pharr (the Bristol) and Chrissy Camba (formerly of Bar Pastoral and Laughing Bird) were pretty straightforward: Charge customers who don't show up.

Many others urged caution. Chef Carrie Nahabedian (Naha) put it bluntly:

You just opened, it's going to happen, that's the bad part of our have to take a hit and move on. Don't even bother charging the guest because they'll dispute it and you are right back where you started. Don't risk losing a customer for a fee. A little gesture goes a long way and in turn the guest will respect it. ....hopefully!

Chef Paul Fehribach (Big Jones) is also in the "don't charge" camp, mostly because he's got a restaurant that's generally full:

We've wrestled with this for a long time, but have found when demand is high, those seats tend to get filled anyway. We get same-shift cancellations and no-shows over 10% of books all the time but always do way more covers as seats get filled with walk-ins.

Chef Matthias Merges (Yusho), was blunt: "Part of doing business chef. No recourse, client is always right!"

There were creative solutions offered (charge them and offer the money back in the form of a gift certificate) and frustration from industry pros who feel like they can't charge customers but get screwed by no-shows.

The overwhelming fan favorite, at least on this particular thread? Tock, the ticketing system owned by Alinea's Nick Kokonas. Over and over, chefs and customers alike suggested that the solution was ticketing. That way, no matter what, a restaurant gets some guaranteed cash, even if they don't make the ticket price the whole cost of the meal. Though, as Fehribach pointed out, Tock has no built-in table management system like OpenTable and doesn't really work well if a restaurant does a lot of walk-in business.

Honestly, my feelings on this are mixed. I'm less likely to make a reservation at all if i know there's a penalty, regardless of my likelihood of showing up for said reservation. I don't want to take the risk that i'll have a work crisis or personal emergency. That being said, I make these sorts of "reservations" every time i buy a theater ticket, a concert ticket or a movie ticket. Are dinner reservations really any different?

We've reached out to Chef Vincent to explore this interesting issue in more depth. All in all, the takeaway from this discussion is an important message for consumers: If you're not going to show up for your reservation, cancel it.

[Editor's Note: A representative from Tock reached out to us to tell us that they do, in fact, have table management built into their system.]