‘One firm double-booked two restaurants. We had a 50-person no-show’

Campaign for restaurants to charge no-show diners is under investigation by competition watchdog

‘People are more inclined to not show up when they book through an app and when they’ve had no human contact,’ says restaurateur Elaine Murphy. Photograph: Tom Honan

‘People are more inclined to not show up when they book through an app and when they’ve had no human contact,’ says restaurateur Elaine Murphy. Photograph: Tom Honan

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It’s beginning to look a lot like no-show season in the restaurant world. Restaurateur Elaine Murphy put on an extra chef and server in her gastropub The Washerwoman in Glasnevin last night for a group booking for 20 people. Five of them arrived for dinner. 

November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

“We really did staff up and food up for these people and there was no notice. We ended up charging for half the absentees. That seemed fair.”

Murphy doesn’t charge a booking deposit but asks groups of 10 or more or a credit card. No-shows will be charged the full price per head, she says. “It rarely happens,” Murphy says. “If people keep in touch with us that doesn’t happen. We really try to get people to stay in touch regularly.” 

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is to formally investigate a campaign by the Restaurants Association of Ireland encouraging members to charge non-refundable deposits on no-shows. This is not the Commission clamping down on the practice for individual restaurants, but an investigation into any suspected co-ordinated action by the RAI, which would be a breach of competition law. So how do restaurants manage no-shows? 

Two years ago in the Winding Stair on Black Friday (that second last Friday before Christmas) Murphy lost a 50-person booking to a no-show. “The firm had double-booked two restaurants. We had confirmed but they claimed they didn’t know which restaurant was ringing them.” The group had held their party in the Winding Stair every year for a decade but that year staff numbers had grown and two people were organising the party. “I hate charging people who haven’t shown up,” Murphy says. “But parting with a credit card number is more for us to focus their minds.”  

Technology hasn’t solved the problem. Murphy believes it makes no-shows more frequent. “People are more inclined to not show up when they book through an app and when they’ve had no human contact. Taxi drivers say this too. The person doesn’t cancel on a human voice.” 

Gabriel Recchia, the manager in Locks on the Grand Canal in Dublin, says that restaurant takes a €20 deposit per person for bookings at this time of the year and a €10 per head deposit for groups over eight people the rest of the year. “We do a double check. We send emails and we call in advance.” If people don’t arrive within 15 minutes he will give the table away. “But it’s quite difficult to attract walk-ins.” Locks will refund a deposit up to 48 hours in advance if people need to cancel. 

“The worst time for no-shows is definitely the beginning of December,” Recchia says. “You have people who book two or three places to check which one will suit everyone.”

The unenviable task of acing the Christmas party booking so that everyone will love the food can involve a bit of panicky double or even treble booking.   Sometimes when he calls to confirm a booking the person has to ask “which restaurant are you? Sometimes they honestly forget.” 

Sage Restaurant in Midleton, Co Cork, takes a booking deposit for any group over eight people
Sage Restaurant in Midleton, Co Cork, takes a booking deposit for any group over eight people

At Sage Restaurant in Midleton in Cork, chef patron Kevin Aherne takes a booking deposit for any group over eight people. “Genuinely we find that confirming with people really does the trick. The best booking system is a person with a telephone and a pencil. That personal interaction usually guarantees people will turn up, that ‘hey, how are you, are you coming in tomorrow night?’” 

This time last year Aherne had a no-show of 30 people. “They said ‘we just decided to go somewhere else. We had two places booked.’” It was a Tuesday night Aherne won’t forget anytime soon. The booking deposit has meant “a dramatic decrease in the number of no-shows,” he says. 

In Galway, chef Jess Murphy only charges deposits for the upstairs private dining room to cover the costs of extra staff in the event of a cancellation. In winter time most of their restaurant customers are locals. “We know them all so we’re not going to start charging somebody that comes in twice a week a 10 per cent deposit. It’s based on trust really. It’s important for small businesses to have that trust.”

“The worst no-show we ever had was a table of 15 when we first opened so we kind of learned from that.” Galwegians have made their Kai Christmas lunch a calendar staple. “We’ve had the same guys coming to us for seven or eight years. They book us out, same dates every year.” They are “living the ideal” in terms of personal connections to their customers. “We’re a 40-something seater and most people have my personal phone number.”

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