Bad table manners: the rise of the restaurant ‘no show’

时间:2018-09-27 单词数:11460

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No one seems in much doubt that the restaurant industry in the UK is in deep peril. A rational mind would cite increasing food costs, the difficulty of hiring, crippling rents and insane business rates. Some might complain of issues at a legislative level, such as the minimum wage, some of broader socio-economic trends — perhaps widespread recession or just regional customer price sensitivity. But if you listen to the chatter on social media among chefs and restaurateurs, the real problem, the existential threat to everything we hold dear in the hospitality industry, is the “no-show”.


No-shows used to be pretty rare but recently they have become common. Most restaurants report that it gets worse during the busiest times. One independent restaurateur reported having more than half his tables fail to show, without warning, on Valentine’s evening.


The commercial effect a no-show has on a restaurant can range from entirely negligible to catastrophic. Restaurants in cities in Italy, Spain or Greece can sometimes run without taking bookings at all. If the place looks buzzing, more people will keep turning up and staff will do anything short of whittling new stools out by the bins to seat everyone. Our system runs on tighter lines and if a restaurant isn’t in a place with the sort of footfall that keeps London profitable, it could end up with eight seats empty for two hours. Or, if they’re more fortunate, their table could be split into four “two tops” and filled with “walk-ins” within minutes of declaring the original booking a washout.


Still, there are no two ways about it: at the work face, on the floor or at the pass, the party that doesn’t show up is a punch in the gut. There is a strong chance a no-show will hurt a restaurant’s bottom line, it’s definitely an unwanted inconvenience and it’s absolutely, without question, incredibly rude on the part of the customer.


So what’s happened? Has Britain’s entire restaurant-going population suddenly turned into insensitive, entitled bastards? Customers rarely change their attitudes en masse spontaneously. There have to be causes, and instead of entertaining notions of a Giant Conspiracy of Punters, we might think for a moment about what those could be.


When online booking engines first arrived — OpenTable, one of the earliest and most successful, was launched in San Francisco 20 years ago — they sold themselves in two directions. To the customer they offered a new way to book. Quick, efficient and fair. You could go online, find a choice of tables in increasingly busy restaurants and not have to listen to hold music. Even being refused a table was better — you didn’t have the humiliation of a human telling you they were full up on the night you wanted. You could plan your evening from your screen. At the same time, the restaurants gained full tables and a high-tech, usually free electronic diary with all sorts of cunning systems for tracking customers and storing their data. They could keep track of regular customers’ needs without requiring a big book or a ma?tre d’ with a memory like an elephant and, best of all, you could fire the receptionist and not bother answering the damn phone all day. It was a benign innovation, a total win-win.


But simply making booking more convenient is obviously not enough. The wider ambitions of the booking engines are becoming more apparent. Look at your phone now, tap into your favourite booking engine. Try to book a table in another city a couple of weeks away. Difficult, isn’t it? Almost impossible on some platforms. Because the system wants to know where you are and make recommendations. Making a booking for you, in exchange for a small fee from the restaurant, was a good start, but that’s not going to supply the kind of growth that impresses investors. You need to “capture the consumer”, you need to be able to use their data to predict their desires, the better to sell restaurants that are prepared to pay more. Do you think those recommendations your phone wants to make are based solely on what might delight you? Or do you think they’re suggesting places that have stumped up for better placement?


Think you can get round it by simply calling the restaurant? Good luck. Most are too busy to answer the phone now they’ve laid off the receptionist. In fact, if you can actually get to the restaurant’s own website — you’ll find it halfway down the second page of search results after the TripAdvisor reviews and the booking engines — you’ll probably find it doesn’t actually list a phone number. It makes no sense. Customers get hacked off after the 15th ring, and the answering machine they installed just filled up with angry people shouting at them.


This is called intermediation. Inserting yourself between buyer and seller. Controlling access. It’s a bit like what the mob did to the booze industry under Prohibition. The booking engines have got in between us and now there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.


So yes. Customers have changed their attitude, but can anyone blame them? In making a booking they’ve probably had to make all manner of compromises for time and location. Of course, if they’re diligent or care about the people they’re dining with, online booking also gives them the power to set up a couple of alternatives. And when the time comes to make the final decision? Well, strangely, they don’t recall having a conversation with the chef or the owner or a smart and professional-sounding receptionist.


In fact, they didn’t feel any more valued booking a table than they did booking a seat on Ryanair. They feel precisely like a faceless commodity being herded in to fill seats, fed quickly and spat back out at the end of their “two-hour slot” while the staff hose down the table and set it up for the next victims. Can they be arsed to call and cancel? The only truly amazing thing is that some people are actually so polite that they do.


I’m a restaurant critic and a restaurateur so I’ve got skin in both sides of this game. Customers think restaurants don’t give a damn about them any more, and restaurants think customers are inconsiderate oafs who have forgotten their side of the social contract. Both are factually wrong.


No-shows are rude and inconsiderate — there’s no way round that fact — but I can’t actually blame them. Restaurants have thrown out their best tool in customer service for a more glamorous model and I can’t actually blame them either. Meanwhile, the online booking industry has effectively insinuated itself as a new and powerful middle man in a place where, it turns out, they’re making dining out worse for both buyer and seller while supposedly making it better. If the blame for this mess lies anywhere, it lies there.