“No one is immune to no-shows in our business,” James Graham-Simpkins says. The sommelier-turned-manager at Joe Beef has a sanguine perspective on the phenomenon.
Surprising but true: while it may simply be an aftereffect of the pandemic (the thrill of being able to get back into restaurants probably yielded mad swiping with no regard for cancelling or double-booking), restaurant no-shows continue to happen with alarming regularity across the Montreal fine-dining scene.
Joe Beef and its partner restaurants Vin Papillon, McKiernan, and Liverpool House can serve up to 1,000 diners on a summer night between terrasse seating and multiple services, so when Graham-Simpkins talks about the impact that no-shows have on their operations—even single digit percentages—it’s not nothing.
“No matter the accolades, television appearances, write-ups, great reviews, or Top 100 list spots, there’s nothing that can immunize restaurants to no-shows; it’s one of our biggest challenges.”
Outremont’s 20-seat intimate dining space Alma has had a pre-paid Carte Blanche menu (nine courses, including two desserts) since November 2021, in part created as a reaction to no-shows in a post-Covid moment of reduced winter dining capacity. Prepayment makes it more relaxed at the end of the meal—knowing the bill is already handled—and also allows the Alma team to manage cash flow and inventory more precisely.
That’s put to the test when people don’t keep their reservation promises, suggests co-owner, sommelier, and wine importer Lindsay Brennan. Paying up front at the time of reservation for the Carte Blanche menu is possible because diners are paying for an experience, similar to seeing a play or a film, explains Brennan.
“Québec’s consumer protection laws prevent restaurants from charging for a service a client doesn’t receive, which makes demanding a deposit for a reservation virtually impossible,” Joe Beef’s Graham-Simpkins adds. “And yet we do provide a service in taking the reservation, just like someone picking up the phone at the front desk at a hotel provides a service when they make a room booking.”
Education about the issue is critical, says Brennan, who also co-owns Tinc Set next door to Alma, a former dépanneur converted to a 35-cover tapas, rotisserie, and wine bar. She and her husband, executive chef and co-owner Juan Lopez Luna, have given a lot of thought to the challenges of no-shows and see restaurant owners as playing a key role in the education process.
Letting customers know the effect of their not showing up—whether by oversight or deliberately making multiple simultaneous bookings—compels Brennan to communicate with no-shows on occasion.
For a restaurant like Alma, where a tasting menu experience is a special event seldom reserved moments ahead of time, cancelling moments before service most often results in an empty table, she says – a far from ideal situation. “At times I’ll write a little text to clients along the lines of ‘We saw you cancelled 15 minutes before your reservation; please remember these are small restaurants and there’s an impact on us when you don’t honour your commitment.’”
“No matter the accolades, television appearances, write-ups, great reviews, or Top 100 list spots, there’s nothing that can immunize restaurants to no-shows; it’s one of our biggest challenges.” – James Graham-Simpkins, Joe Beef
Jessica Midlash, Director of Operations at the 65-seater Garde Manger in Old Montreal, says their reservation system is key to how she and the chef strategize for the kitchen and their operations. It’s more than just ordering vegetables and a few extra cases of oysters for unexpected guests, though.
“We’re looking ahead to see if we’re going to have a busy weekend and how many people we need. Our staff depends on this work to pay their bills,” Midlash says.
“We’re excited for clients to come to the restaurant,” she adds. “If people could just communicate with us, whether they’ll be late, or if they’ll make it or not before the reservation time, we can still make things happen.”
Top restaurants across the province, including the Joe Beef Group, Garde Manger, Alma and Tinc Set, are all members of La Table Ronde, a collective of gastronomic restaurants across the province advocating for the sector as a key driver of cultural and economic growth. They’re using the collective to raise awareness, with both government and consumers, of the power of their industry – and how no-shows can create real challenges with their bottom line (and morale).
Keeping the restaurant informed, ideally 24 hours ahead, is a best practice, all three restaurateurs say. Most reservation services send a reminder the day before and some even send a nudge 30 minutes prior to ensure diners are on their way. But even with these reminders – and with customers confirming – no-shows still happen. That’s where same-day reservation apps like DINR come in, say these restaurateurs.
“I want to know if you’re not coming,” says Graham-Simpkins. “If you’re not, the reservation is made available on the DINR platform,” giving members the chance to make a last-minute reservation. Some of those available seats are posted in the morning, while others are posted as the evening goes on and the no-shows happen. “We use it across our properties,” he says.
“Everything that involves adapting and adjusting to what is truly new for the restaurant world is fascinating: These changes will be so critical in surviving and thriving in the future, especially with the state of our economy and environment,” says Alma’s Brennan.
“The post-pandemic landscape requires us to change our tactics and explore options that we never dreamed of in the past.”