Words by Jon Stefani
You have something to celebrate. It’s been a hard six months, brutal actually, and you are treating yourselves to a movie and then dinner somewhere lovely. You book a taxi in advance and tickets to Tenet. You can’t get a table at your favourite place because of reduced capacity and so you book a table at a couple of other places you’re very fond of and which are also nearby to give you options. After all you’re not sure what you’ll fancy and it’s still more than two weeks away.
The taxi is on time, Tenet is amazing and the Everyman cinema you choose has a new truffle burger on their menu which you order to your seat along with a chocolate brownie milkshake and a large glass of wine. Leaving the film you’re both full, sleepy and happy to call it a day. You bring your return cab forward, let the babysitter know you’ll be home earlier than expected and after a drink in a bar next to the cinema while you wait for your cab, head home happily discussing RPatz’s ties and how much John David Washington sounds like his dad.
A: Brave, cultural, social adventurers doing your bit to help the country out of a crisis?
B: Just a regular couple having a long awaited and unremarkable night out and my goodness how we’ve all missed that?
C: Offensive, rude, entitled, deceitful, privileged, arrogant, thoughtless small business killers with no thought for anything except your own obliviously selfish pleasures?
Just in case you’re in any doubt the answer is C. Capital C. Booking restaurant tables and not cancelling is not just bad form, bad manners or a trifling matter, it is theft. The booking is a signal and an instruction to a business – it is a soft contract. It says I commit to using your services, please make sure you have a full ingredient list available for me, invest in our arrival, anticipate and budget for the income I will generate, make staffing and capacity decisions. In short, take my word as confirmation of my intent to do business with you to our mutual benefit and incur cost and invest resources to maximise our mutual reward.
Except this soft contract is soft only for the diner. For too long the intention to dine, the diner’s word in the form of a reservation has had consequence-free culpability FOR THE DINER ONLY. The restaurant still buys ingredients, employs staff and budgets based on their expected bookings. The restaurant turns down reservations from other guests in the meantime. The guest however has no financial obligation to turn up, but they do have a moral one. Typically, 40% of London restaurant bookings are no shows. After the recent easing of lockdown countless restaurants starved of any income whatsoever and having to invest in new systems and processes to allow diners to return reported 75% of their booked capacity not turning up. You can read some good reporting on some well justified outrage from high profile voices here and a scoot through the hashtag noshows will be instructive.
What the hospitality industry’s experience of no-shows demonstrates is that this moral contract needs to be strengthened, it needs new systems and it requires a financial component.
We want to help.
At WeFiFo, our no-show record is negligible. And those that don’t show up, don’t matter as – though it always a shame to have a spare seat at the table – at least the host still gets paid in full.
The only events that tend to attract no shows are free events proving that once again, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. People book and pay in advance on our platform and yet where there is no financial penalty to not attending, people view the booking as arbitrary and non-binding. Where even a nominal fee is charged the no show rates disappear entirely.
We tend to liken our dining experiences to going to the cinema or theatre – seats are desirable and limited and as such, hard fought for. Of course things come up but providing you cancel within 72 hours, you get a full refund. This allows our hosts to resell your cancelled seat or adjust the ingredients they’re buying up front.
People are happy to pay in advance for the cinema, for theatre, for a cab, for a holiday, for the vast majority of the other services we consume but somehow it’s different when it comes to restaurants. There has historically been an odd resistance to taking credit card details in advance of a meal, but this must change. We (the customers) must stop being offended if we’re asked for a deposit. We must train and alter consumer behaviour and expectation – to align it with other experience-based activities. You would not expect a cinema to reserve you seats for various different films, just in case you feel like showing up. So it should be with restaurants and food experiences more generally.
Let’s just remind ourselves one more time what we do when we don’t cancel our table:
We add to food waste: Chefs buy and prepare food in anticipation of the demand they believe they have secured. Unused food goes in to the bin to enormous environmental, social and financial cost.
We incentivise walk in only businesses. Unadvisable in the current climate and entirely inconvenient/unmanageable for both diners and restauranteurs.
Choice: Restaurant margins are thin, no shows destroy those margins entirely. This means the variety and type of restaurants that can survive are restricted.
Employment: If people don’t come and pay for food then wages and employment are threatened.
Industry survival: no shows are an existential threat to the industry.
The solution is simple.
Diners: Get used to securing your booking with a down-payment. Your advance payment will be taken off your bill and providing you cancel in time, you will be refunded so you won’t be out of pocket if you need to change your plans. (It’s amazing how it jogs the memory once you’ve got a non-refundable £5 or £10 commitment per head attached to your credit card.)
Restaurants: Insist on a payment in advance to the level you are comfortable with and deduct if from your guests’ final bill. If a diner is not prepared to leave a deposit, then add them to the waiting list and let them chance it on the evening.
At WeFiFo, we have no skin in this particular game except for a deep and selfish love of a thriving environment in which to eat out and a huge respect for the tireless, talented chefs we work with. If you’re a restauranteur and need help with your booking system, track or trace, deposits and refunds, do let us know – we’ll happily help you manage this and we won’t charge you a penny. We’re adding much more flexibility to our booking system to help you where we can, and we are always available for a friendly chat.
We’ve set up our fair share of events, we’ve worked with some of the best and most hardworking chefs in the country. We’ve cooked for them and been cooked for by them. We’ve washed up, loaded chairs in trailers and laundered table cloths. And whilst we can’t always help you with the washing up, we’ve built a platform that at least removes some of the admin headache.
There are plenty of things out of our control at the moment – let’s be sensible in how we respond to the things we can.