The glasses were polished to a high shine. The cutlery was gleaming. It was a cold Thursday evening in November but 1826 Adare was fully booked. A group from the United States on a golf tour was due through the doors of the thatched cottage at any minute. Staff at the award-winning restaurant moved about checking that all was in position for service to begin. With 27 places set for them, the Americans would be taking up almost half of the little Limerick restaurant.
“They didn’t show. We waited and waited, but they didn’t show up,” says chef proprietor Wade Murphy, who runs the eatery that serves locally-sourced food with his wife Elaine. She rang the agent in New York, who gave her the phone number of the bus driver. “He said they were in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, and they knew they had a booking for dinner, but they wanted to stay where they were.”
That was the last straw for the Murphys, who had opened their restaurant in 2013. “We had all the details so we tracked them down and asked them to pay a charge of €30 per person, which they did,” he says.
After that, the restaurant introduced a policy of charging for last-minute cancellations or no-shows. Now, it always takes credit card details with a booking and is clear about its policy.
“We started to notice about three years ago that we were suddenly getting a lot more no-shows, but that night was the nail in the coffin,” says Murphy. “It had to stop.”
Being in a small village, there are not so many opportunities for last-minute walk-ins. The Murphys now use technology in the form of booking platform Resdiary, which charges the restaurant a flat fee, and Stripe, which handles credit or debit card payments for a percentage.
Whether the client books online or over the phone, the card information is fed into the system. “We are strict with the policy. Some people call up and say they don’t want to give their details. Or they don’t have their details to hand, but we have to say, ‘No credit card, no table’. It has made a difference.”
It also helps to protect against those who try to supply a false credit card number. “Even if they book over the phone, we feed the details into Resdiary or Stripe, which will then tell us if this is a genuine credit card number,” Murphy says. “It’s not always a mistake.”
If the customers do not show up on the night or if they cancel less than 24 hours before they are expected to arrive, then there is a charge of €30 per person. It has made all the difference and the restaurant rarely has to levy the fee.
‘We use our discretion’
“We use our discretion. If a regular customer calls to cancel at the last minute, we know it is genuine,” Murphy says. “At the end of the day, however, this is a small country restaurant.”
Adrian Cummins, the chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, says most of its 2,500 members have introduced a booking policy covering no-shows and cancellations. “Consumers have started to get better at turning up, but there is still something in the Irish psyche that says, ah sure it’ll be grand,” he says. “But it won’t. People think restaurants are booming and will fill the tables anyway. That’s not the case.”
While the number of restaurants has grown, it is a struggle to find staff. Employers’ PRSI, Vat and wages have increased too recently.
Having a Bib Gourmand does not insulate a restaurant from the trend to ignore bookings, as chef Philip Yeung of Craft in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, has found. Just two months after the restaurant received its award, he had his worst night ever. “I will never forget that Friday in November 2017,” he says. “Between no-shows and cancelled bookings, 20 people did not show up. That was half the restaurant.”
Craft now takes a deposit of €15 per person by credit card for groups of eight or more. Cancellations must be done at least 48 hours in advance. “You can’t blame customers if something happens, but they need to let us know,” he says. “If everyone took a stand and had a similar policy, it would help.”
Keelan Higgs, the chef proprietor of Variety Jones, a popular new eatery on Thomas Street in Dublin 8, had every intention of having a policy in place before opening last January, but didn’t get around to it. That was a mistake.
“Within a month of opening, we had 20 no-shows. One booking, which was a no-show, rebooked and then did not turn up the second time either,” he says.
Since then, he has introduced Resdiary and charges €25 for no-shows or late cancellations.
“This has significantly reduced no-shows and cancellations because they were so high, but they still happen. The most recent was on the Saturday night of the All-Ireland final replay. The restaurant had been fully booked, but on the night 40 per cent of customers cancelled or did not show up. Was it because of the match? I don’t know. Saturday night is our bread and butter, so that was very hard.”
Bookings made months in advance and then cancelled are a particular problem. “All that time the booking is there means we cannot accept anyone else – we are refusing potential customers. If that booking is then cancelled the day before, which does happen, then we would be very lucky to re-sell the table,” he says. “If a table of six cancels, that can mean we are down the guts of €500, assuming they would have dined on the chef’s table menu. If you book tickets for a concert and decide not to go, you still have to pay. So why not a restaurant?”
It’s not just about the costs, however. “I get here at 8am so that we can make fresh bread and pasta for our customers, which they love,” Higgs says. “If we have a lot of cancellations, then we are left with too much food. We can give some to the lads to take home, but some of it just goes to waste. It is shocking and we don’t want to do that.”
Many restaurants take to Twitter to let potential customers known about late availability. These are often retweeted by @last_table. Other restaurants, such as 777 Mexican restaurant on South Great George’s Street in Dublin city centre, simply take bookings only for groups. That can work well for a restaurant on one of the busiest streets in the capital, but not for everyone. Most restaurants need bookings so they can plan to have appropriate levels of food and staff ready.
“Restaurants are petrified people won’t turn up,” says Cummins. “Irish people are getting better at realizing what they should do, but there is still a long way to go.”
What restaurants are doing
1. Charging a booking deposit through booking technology such as Resdiary or Opentable
2. Getting a credit or debit card number
3. Sending a reminder email two days ahead
4. Calling on the day to remind customers
5. Levying a cancellation fee