The No-Show Showdown: Top Chefs Join Movement to Break The No-Show Habit Once And For All

No-shows have been a pain in the restaurants business’ backside for as long as we can remember. But how can it be that some guests don’t feel like they are obligated to call or write to cancel their table if something comes up? The no-show issue is not limited to restaurants only, but how can it be that the restaurant business, in particular, suffers from this problem on a daily basis?

Lately, some of the best and most renowned restaurants in Europe have decided to join forces and fight this issue together in 2018. Their fight has led to better financial security and less worrying in general. To find out how far the fight has come, we’ve held a finger on the pulse and spoken to six prominent chefs who work across Scandinavia; Joel Åhlin of Agrikultur, Mikael Svensson of Kontrast, Sven Jensen of SAV, Rene Mammén of Substans, Karlos Ponte of PMY and Matt Orlando of Amass, about the seemingly perpetual no-show pain, why they’ve joined the fight against no-shows and how they’ve solved the no-show problem.

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The No-Show Culture

The no-show culture last stepped into the media spotlight in 2016 in Denmark, when Manager of Restaurant Taller, Jakob Brink Lauridsen, aired his frustrations about the no-shows he experienced as a restauranteur on Facebook. And it seems like he’s not the only one who’s had enough. We spoke to Joel Åhlin of Agrikultur in Stockholm who chimed in on the issue:

“It’s a very big problem. It’s like a new culture. When I speak with friends who are not in the restaurant business, they’re like ‘Oh, we booked tables at four different restaurants tonight. We can decide later where we’re going’ – and that’s ridiculous. It’s like there’s no commitment. We’re trying to run a business and do something very special for the guests – and then that’s the way they treat us.”

Sven Jensen of SAV, a Michelin restaurant in Tygelsjö, Sweden, consolidates Joel’s statement and adds:

“It’s a very big problem – It’s the biggest problem… I’ve worked places where 5, 6 or 7 tables could be no-shows in one night. It’s a disaster!”

If we look at the restaurant industry as a whole, it’s still an industry that has a hard time actually making a profit. 34 % of restaurants in Denmark alone had a negative result in 2016 (PWC, 2017) and that suggests that it’s no longer enough to make great food in your restaurant, you also have no have a nose for business. Or as Karlos Ponte of PMY puts it:

“You have to be aware of everything around a restaurant in order to run it, not just the cooking. You have to adjust a lot more when you can’t count on people to show up and you have to make the restaurant run well… And it’s too bad because we want to give the guests a certain experience.

Matt Orlando, who himself wrote an explicit blog post about the no-shows at his restaurant Amass, underlines the severity of the no-show pain: “We all operate with such a small profit margin, that when 6 guests don’t show up and this happens repeatedly it really affects the bottom line. It is the difference between making money and losing money…If we had not had all these no-shows it would have given me the opportunity to hire more staff and in turn have people work fewer hours and at the same time give the guest a better experience.”

And exactly this guest experience is at the forefront of the movement against no-shows, which we have actually seen variations from around the world previously, but none having the desired effect on the overall culture. Jakob Brink Lauridsen of Taller wrote in his original Facebook post: “The calculation is easy: If we continue like this, then there won’t be a Restaurant Taller much longer and that’s the last thing we want.” Taller closed its doors in 2017 and now houses Karlos Ponte’s new brainchild Restaurant PMY.

Introducing the Movement

There is a consensus amongst the chefs that a no-show consist of people who have decided when they want to come and that they are going to spend money – and then not coming, without saying anything, while being unreachable. Baffled over how this culture exists within the industry on such a large scale, Joel Åhlin comments that you don’t act that way when you have a bank appointment or a dentist appointment. So why here?

Mikael Svensson of Kontrast in Oslo says that he doesn’t think people understand what it means for the restaurant if they don’t come to their reservation:

“I don’t think it’s out of disrespect with most people, it’s more that they don’t understand the consequences for the restaurant.”

And this seems to be a common theme from the interviews: How come people don’t know how it affects a restaurant when they don’t show up? Or worse: How come they don’t care?

The issue could be a bigger societal problem than we think. The San Fransisco Chronicle has commented on the issue and blames the current state of no-shows on de-socialization of society. “It’s completely easy for people to not worry about no-showing. They don’t even want to cancel a reservation on the phone because they don’t want to deal with a person. It’s society. Everybody is so isolated.”

If the de-socialization is to blame can be discussed but a matter of fact is that it is incredibly hard to prepare for a service when you have to take something as unpredictable as no-shows into account. Gayle Pirie of Foreign Cinema in San Fransisco told the Chronicle: “It’s hard on the kitchen, hard on the clients. Every day you look at the book and you check the weather, trying to find some clues about potential no-shows. It really is a day-to-day process. There is no formula.”

But what if the solution has been found? That instead of relying solely on your gut feeling to run a successful restaurant, there was actually a way of minimizing the no-show issue. A lot of prominent restaurants have started asking their guest for credit card details to confirm the reservation, so they have the possibility of charging a no-show fee if people should decide to stay away from a reservation.

Mikael Svensson says: “It’s nothing new, you do it everywhere. If you’re booking a hotel room, your movie tickets, your opera tickets, I mean everything you’re buying or planning to do, you have to give away your credit card details or just buy it straight up.” For some reason, this is not an industry standard. He adds:

“But it’s up to us in the industry to change it. If we let people get away with that behavior, then it’s never going to happen.”

Before implementing the credit card solution, Mikael Svensson used to have 1-2 no-shows a week at Kontrast. “But it could be a table of 5, a table of 6, a table of 2. I remember the last Saturday before we started taking credit card details, it was a 6 tabletop and a 4 tabletop no-show on a Saturday. So that’s a lot.”

Matt Orlando elaborates on the situation at Amass: “It has always been a problem, but the last 6 months of 2017 was out of control. If we had a night where everyone showed up, then we were actually surprised. But I believe we averaged between 2-4 no-shows a night. As soon as we implemented the credit card policy in January, we have only experienced one no-show.”

With more and more restaurants opting for the option of taking credit card details at reservation, we’re starting to see a movement forming. A movement out to change the restaurant business for good. Mikael Svensson elaborates: “For me, it’s the only way forward. I’m actually surprised when you don’t have to give away your credit card information. I mean, even simpler restaurants would benefit from it. The more you do it, the more it becomes a standard practice and then guests would have a better understanding of it.

Karlos Ponte also points out that if more restaurants join the movement “it would help because then people can’t say that it’s just an issue at one restaurant but they’ll be able to see that it’s a real problem.” Matt Orlando adds: “It will also help in the longevity of restaurants as well as giving restaurants the resources to offer a superior experience.”

Hitting the Restaurants Where It Hurts

At Restaurant Substans in Aarhus, chef Rene Mammen shares how he tries to calculate no-shows in his environment: “I’ve spoken to colleagues multiple times about people who have the same reservation all over town.” He adds that the reason why people might make multiple reservations in one night is that “it’s to be sure that they have the opportunity to eat exactly what they want to at that time and then they’re just not good at canceling the reservations that they are not going to use.”

While it may seem like it doesn’t have any consequences for the guest not being good at canceling reservations that you’re not going to use, the consequences for the restaurant can be many and vast.

“I can only speak for us, but we are fully booked. We have an average spending in the restaurant about 2-2500 kroner, so if a table of three doesn’t come and they have a reservation at 8 o’clock … that means we’re losing 7500 kroner (approx. €1000). We’ve already prepped the food and we have to throw it away…So if you have that once every week, when we’re open 48 weeks a year, then it starts to become a big number.” says Mikael Svensson.

How does No-Shows affect Restaurants

Karlos Ponte chimes in with the fact that a single table no-show at his restaurant can mean 10 % of his revenue for that night, so the economy around no-shows can be very damaging. “It doesn’t seem like people think about how it affects a restaurant… Just yesterday I had 4 no-shows despite our deposit rule. That’s quite a lot. I might as well have canceled an employee. There’s more to it than food waste…but it’s the whole planning of the restaurant that goes to shit.”

In total, the consequences add up and ultimately affects more than you would think. Even the work environment suffers at the hand of no-shows. Rene Mammen calls it “a mood killer” and Joel Åhlin explains:

“Everyone gets a bit mad and angry. It’s very much like you don’t care. Very diva acting behavior.”

Matt Orlando says it feels like “a slap in the face”, especially “when you are looking at all this food left at the end of service that was prepared and supposed to be served. Aside from the emotional side of it, you are throwing away food and that for me makes me even more frustrated than the financial part of it. It is the opposite of what we are trying to do here from a sustainable standpoint.”

As a result, the no-show culture in the restaurant industry is a pain with consequences both economically, socially and emotionally, and it needs to be confronted in order to change – especially since it has been rooted there for so long.

The Action Plan

In this movement against no-shows, a lot of different strategies has been taken into use. Mikael Svensson explains that they started to use a ‘scare tactic’ out of pure desperation. It involved a message on your booking confirmation saying that ‘if you don’t come, we’ll send you an invoice for this amount’. But it didn’t have an effect according to Mikael Svensson. “Trying to scare people into respecting you doesn’t work. And it’s just more work sending invoices to people who don’t come.”

These chefs have all implemented a system where they either take a deposit with the reservation or charge a no-show fee if people don’t show up. It all involves giving your credit card details while reserving a table and it’s a real step towards eliminating no-shows once and for all. To Matt Orlando, it’s crucial for his business:

“For us it’s simply a matter of survival.”

Rene Mammen explains the thought behind the fee: “It’s just supposed to be a preemptive strike against no-shows, a friendly incentive. Nobody is interested in actually taking the fee. It has had the effect that we were hoping for, definitely.” Rene Mammen used to have 1-2 no-shows per week at Substans but after starting to take credit card information, things have changed: “After we’ve started registering credit card information that was it, we haven’t experienced any no-shows since. We’ve had one where the guests thought they had reserved a table for the night after but that was a mistake in good faith. Besides that, we haven’t had any no-shows after. Not one.”

Sven Jensen at SAV also implemented the credit card model from the very start: “At SAV we only have four tables and we have a no-show policy that says you have to cancel at least 24 hours before your reservation. It has happened very few times that we’ve had a no-show. I actually only think we’ve had one no-show since we opened 14 months ago. It’s insane!”

Having something at stake might be the reason that people respect their reservations more after entering credit card details. Mikael Svensson elaborates: “If you’re sitting on people’s credit card details and you are ready to charge them, then I think they’re much more likely to cancel…People have become much more attentive and canceling when there’s a big risk of getting charged.”

It’s important to note that no-shows can be completely real and well-grounded. “There can be something wrong, it can be the subway or bus or the taxi broke down, you know. Everyone can relate.” Joel Åhlin says.

But how are you supposed to handle it, if the worst happens and you’re not able to make your reservation? It’s about the balance of convenience for the guest and commitment to the restaurant. For Mikael Svensson it’s a simple request:

“All I want is for them to honor their reservation or cancel if they’re not coming, so we can fill up with other guests that want to be here. Or if we have a lot of different cancellations, then we won’t be fully staffed, because we don’t need to be fully staffed when we have a half full dining room.”

Best Ways to Avoid No-Shows in 2018

Joel Åhlin underlines the importance of educating the guests in the ins and outs of a restaurant, so they have an idea of how their actions can affect the business and the people behind it, but he also emphasizes the manner in which this has to be done: “You have to do it very delicately, so you don’t make the guests afraid of going out to eat.”

Sven Jensen also emphasizes the importance of the balance between good customer service and business. At SAV they rebook any people who would have trouble coming to their reservation. Sven adds: “In the end, it’s all about happy and satisfied guests. It’s about the entire experience. If I had only taken the no-show fee, they probably wouldn’t have come back.”

Creating a New Culture

The idea of changing an entire established culture that exists all over the world within a specific industry seems like a tough job – and it definitely will be. But in joining forces, the chefs and their restaurants have started to disrupt the industry by starting to protect themselves against no-shows and hopefully make people think more about how their actions can affect a restaurant and its employees. They are part of the movement set out to respectfully educate and efficiently eliminate no-shows, one happy guest at a time, in order to save the restaurant business.

We wouldn’t want our favorite restaurants to shut down because we didn’t think about the consequences of our actions, would we? Especially when the people behind it put so much love and thought into the experience. After all, running a restaurant is a business, but a business that evolves around us, the guests. Wouldn’t it only be fair to show them the same amount of respect?

Kontrast, , Substans, SAV, Agrikultur & PMY have all used SUPERB to fight no-shows, lowering their no-show rate from an average of 16 % to 0,8 %. Want to join the movement? Click here to book a meeting and start protecting your restaurant against no-shows.

Mads Borst