Independent restaurants are losing thousands of pounds a week because of a growing trend in the town of ‘no-shows’ where people book tables and then fail to turn up.
The Times can this week reveal that one in five tables sometimes stay empty costing individual owners hundreds of pounds. Jean’s Kitchen on St John’s Road said it could lose up to £600 in one night.
The revelation comes at a time when the hospitality trade is under increasing pressure. Even national brands such as Carluccio’s, Frankie & Benny’s and Prezzo are suffering badly and fighting for survival.
Hard-pressed restaurateurs in Tunbridge Wells are calling on customers to end the no-show practice and support independent eateries by honouring reservations, or at least cancelling in advance.
They have also warned of another growing trend where people reserve tables at different places and then decide on the night which booking to honour.
The Times initially talked with five well known restaurateurs at Soprano Wine Bar, in the High Street, which is co-managed by the brothers Ivan and Mauro Di Santo, who also own the nearby Coco Retro on Vale Road.
The others were Franco Biscardi, co-manager of Il Vesuvio, Jason Fanti, director of Don Giovanni, Mark Harper, owner of Rendezvous and Martin Haymes, owner of The Warren.
“Without no-shows we would be able to offer better quality, employ more local people and there would be less frustration and stress,” said Ivan Di Santo.
“It has been more of an issue for the last three to four years.”
Mr Fanti [Don Giovanni] said Tunbridge Wells is beginning to follow a ‘London trend’ with customers looking to offer their friends a choice of two or three restaurants.
“The practise hurts morale, profit and the economic position of the business. You go into business to make money and feed your family – otherwise what is the point?
“People go to a restaurant because there is a vibe to it, ambiance is a massive factor and that is lost when there are less customers because of no-shows.”
The group agreed that 10 to 20 per cent of bookings can end up as being no-shows. It is generally accepted that the average spend for a meal with wine is between £20 and £39 per head.
Mr Haymes [The Warren] said that on one recent occasion 20 out of 68 reservations were no-shows although some of these did phone ahead and cancel.
“One sad thing, as well, is that you are depriving another customer of that booking and their chance to enjoy the restaurant,” he said.
Mr Biscardi [Il Vesuvio] said independent restaurants’ use of fresh ingredients made it more of a problem than chain restaurants who rely on long life products.
Mauro Di Santo added: “We can’t survive like this, it is eating into the profits. We would like to raise awareness.”
Mr Fanti also said: “Everyone says they love independent restaurants, but if these things continue we could have to start cutting costs, getting rid of staff or having smaller portions.
“Then someone who has come to you for two years says ‘oh, hang on, you gave me three pieces of veal but now it is two and I am not going to come any more’.”
Different restaurants deal with the issue in different ways.
Valentin Nitu, General Manager of Tunbridge Wells Bar and Grill, said: “We have established a reservation system that shows an alert if somebody who was previously a no-show tries to make a booking.
“We will call them a couple of hours before and ask them if everything is still okay.”
Sam Goode of Tonbridge Old Fire Station, which hosts pop-up dining events, said: “We take full payment up-front.”
But deposits are not a universally popular suggestion with Mr Harper stating: “If a customer has a choice of two restaurants, with one that charges a deposit, they will go for the one that doesn’t.”
Giuseppe de Bernardi, Manager of The Pantiles restaurant Gastronomia, was also against the idea, stating it could betray an important ‘trust’ with a customer.
Restauranteur Matthew Sankey said no-shows were part of a symptom of a ‘throwaway mentality’ which he said was plaguing the industry.
‘How we confronted the no shows’
Rendezvous Owner Mark Harper was so angry when a group booked a table at his restaurant and then went to another, without cancelling, that he went and found the group and told them what he thought.
In an event that typified the frustration restauranteurs have with no-shows, the manager proved a point by interrupting the group’s meal in their new, nearby location.
He recalled: “We had a table of 17 that didn’t show up because they didn’t want to pre-order.
“I could have taken a deposit but we didn’t. It was a Saturday night and on the Saturday morning the woman organising emailed to say they were coming and gave me half the order. On the night they didn’t turn up, all 17 of them.
“Where do 17 people go? I was so disgruntled. I checked a few places and I found them in another restaurant.
“My wife says ‘let’s go and speak to them’. They had eaten their meal. We went and found them. I was wearing a black shirt and trousers and asked if they had all enjoyed their meal. They said they had.
“I said ‘oh good, because you weren’t supposed to be here tonight, were you? You were supposed to be at another restaurant’.
“The mood changed. They said ‘you can’t do this,’ but I said ‘no, you can’t do what you have done’. It is just so wrong.
“It was awkward but we said our piece.”
The incident was a one-off, but demonstrates the lengths managers have gone to in their battle with foodies not turning up.
‘We ended up calling the police’
The Owner of Jean’s Kitchen and Wine Bar said that a booking became so out-of-hand that he needed to call the police.
A group of around 20 people failed to turn-up to their reserved table at the venue in St John’s Road, Tunbridge Wells.
Owner Garry Jefferey flagged this with Kent Police, but said the inquiry had eventually ‘come to nothing’.
He said: “There is a problem and I would say around 10 per cent of bookings are no-shows. It is quite damaging if we are turning people away.
“In one evening we could lose up to £600
if a large booking does not turn-up.
“With this one we had to get the police involved.
“It happened when a group of around 20 people, who had made a booking, did not come.”
Kent Police said they would be unlikely to investigate civil matters unless there was suspicion of a crime or an aggravating factor.
If you’ve fallen victim to no-shows, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org