How do you solve the no-shows problem? Chef-owners share tips at H&C EXPO

It’s a problem uniting chefs around the UK: Prospective diners reserve tables in their restaurants either online or over the phone, then simply don’t show up.

For chef-owners like Romy Gill, Damian Wawrzyniak and Ellis Barrie, whose restaurants are located outside cities – in a suburb, small village, or on a small island – the absence of just a handful of pre-booked diners has a huge impact on an evening’s trade.

“I run a small restaurant in Thornbury that is only open three days a week, so if seven people don’t turn up it’s a huge problem,” Gill told attendees of panel discussion A Chef’s Life: A lot on their plates at H&C EXPO at The Celtic Manor Resort in Wales yesterday (17 July).

Wawrzyniak’s 68-cover restaurant House of Feasts in Eye Green, a village outside of Peterborough is larger than Gill’s but even a handful of no-shows can have a detrimental impact on business, and like Gill, he has little passing trade to fill empty seats.

In February, the Polish chef had enough, he said, taking to social media to vent his frustration.

“I’d opened my first restaurant last June and no-shows started soon after,” he said. “We had a couple of tables of two not turn up, then some Christmas parties of 12 to 16 didn’t show up. We closed for two weeks in January, then February 17% of bookings were no-shows. We had no-shows on Friday and Saturday and by Sunday I’d had enough, so got onto social media… and said ‘how are you guys coping with it?’ Everyone opened up and said, ‘we have the same problem’.”

After speaking to the BBC and national newspaper journalists to highlight the problem, Wawrzyniak took action on no-shows. He looked into using reservations system Tock, but decided against it, instead working with an IT specialist to create a bespoke reservations system for his restaurant.

Whether guests book online or over the phone, they are asked to provide a contact number and email. They are reminded of their booking by email, text and call 48 hours in advance and if they don’t respond to confirm their reservation is not only cancelled but their name is blacklisted and they will be unable to make further bookings, says Wawrzyniak.

Parties of eight or more are charged a deposit, but for smaller numbers, Wawrzyniak felt that doing so was at odds with hospitality,

“Most of my guests are regulars. One lives just four houses away, I can’t charge them,” he says. “This new system we don’t charge but it is working. I reduced my no-shows from 30% to zero in May and June.”

Taking a deposit

Although Wawrzyniak decided against taking a deposit for all bookings, Barrie, who runs his restaurant with his brother Liam on Anglesey, saw it as the best option for his business.

The decision was made following a sunny bank holiday weekend last year when only 30 of the 60 guests booked to dine actually showed up.

“At that point we had to make a decision because you just can’t run a business like that,” he said.

The Barrie brothers decided to work with ResDiary to manage bookings and now, whether guests make a booking they are charged a £20 deposit, refundable if they turn up and kept if they don’t.

“Since we introduced that we’ve nailed it,” said Barrie. “Although we’ve done a lot of PR to keep things going.”

Chantelle Nicholson, chef-patron of Tredwells in London and group operations director for Marcus Wareing Restaurants, said the no-show rate at Tredwells can reach up to 10%, while at Marcus, where a deposit is taking the rate is zero.

Nicholson said third party reservation systems should take some responsibility.

“They are not taking any interest in whether people turn up for their bookings, but if someone using their system misses bookings three times they should be saying ‘guys, you should be aware that this is not acceptable’.”

Whatever the solution, with margins so tight, the chefs on the panel agreed that action in tackling no-shows is essential.

“As an independent restaurant, if I don’t tackle no-shows I’ll be out of business in six weeks,” said Wawrzyniak.