Top Sheffield restaurant explains how it is charging no-show diners – as nearly 100 customers fail to turn up for reservations at popular bar
and live on Freeview channel 276
"We did a Saturday where we did 16 covers – we've got a 34-seater restaurant. We were getting about a 25 per cent no-show rate.”
Alongside his business partner and head chef Tom Lawson, Alistair set up a system two years ago where diners’ bank card details are taken in advance – and if they do not arrive on the day they are charged regardless.
The strategy has been revived now Rafters in Nether Green has reopened with a smaller number of tables, meaning a bill of £45 per person is levied for those who don’t show up for their reservations.
“It stopped it for us,” says Alistair. “We'd bought all the food, brought all the staff here – it's not like we can sell it to anyone else. It was a problem.”
The scourge of ‘no-shows’ is high on the agenda after restaurants, pubs, cafés and bars were given the green light to reopen with social distancing measures from July 4. The need to control numbers and offer table service means many places that would traditionally have a relaxed walk-in policy are now insisting on bookings.
Last weekend Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge reported that 27 customers did not turn up as expected at his London establishment, while TV cook Paul Ainsworth said he had 27 ‘shocking’ no-shows in Rock, Cornwall, on July 14.
Kerridge said such behaviour was ‘disgraceful’ and was putting jobs at risk after coronavirus forced the hospitality industry to shut down in March.
In Sheffield, the issue made the front page of The Star’s print edition after 30 customers did not turn up at the Piña bar in Neepsend during its reopening weekend.
And the problem is widespread – at BoozeHound, another Neepsend bar which specialises in craft beer and spirits at the Cutlery Works food hall, almost 100 people with bookings did not arrive on the first two weekends that followed the relaxation of lockdown restrictions.
"It was around the 40 mark on July 4 when everything kicked off again, and around 50 last weekend,” says Martin Renwick, who co-owns BoozeHound with Robbie Macdonald. “It was quite significant.”
It is, he says, an extra complication in what is already a ‘challenging environment’.
“We've got the Covid situation to plan and prepare for. Staffing levels are very particular – everyone is getting service to the table, you've got a host that takes someone in from the front door and seats them... this is all extra staff that wouldn't ordinarily be in place. If you gear up for it, and people don't turn up – and don't give you the heads-up, most importantly – you've potentially got staff around who aren't required and need to be sent home. It can be quite demoralising.”
The last two weekends, he says, have been ‘booked out’ in advance.
“From 6.30/7pm it's at capacity. If there are people that would have come down, but can't because our system is showing it's fully booked, it's depriving people of a night out.”
Martin says he feels frustrated ‘for the industry, as opposed to anything personal’.
"We're quite lucky that we're dealing with stock that is canned and keg beer – for guys that are dealing with food, it's really difficult. They're getting everything ready for a certain number of people at any one time.”
He wonders whether the ease of online bookings – allowing potential customers to place reservations at several bars and restaurants, before making a choice at the last minute – might be contributing to the ‘damaging’ no-show situation.
“It's very convenient,” Martin says. “All of our bookings are exclusively online.”
Back at Rafters, Alistair says no-shows leave him baffled.
“I don't know whether it's because it's a luxury thing, or people thinking 'It's OK, someone else will turn up tonight'. It's not something I would do. If I was running 10 minutes late to a restaurant I'd ring and tell them. It's not a new problem, I just think it's more in the public eye because of how tight it is now. People see restaurants as something that has been very hard hit. The impact of it is being understood.
"It is important that people turn up for restaurant reservations. You wouldn't not turn up for your hair appointment or your MOT for your car.”
He says Rafters could even start taking deposits, but this could get ‘messy’ if refunds became necessary.
“There are genuine reasons why people can't come to restaurants. If someone rings us up and they're ill it's fine, no problem. We'll waive the charge.”
But he urges other restaurants to ‘do something’ to discourage customers from not showing up. “They need to have their own system that works for them.”
Rafters is operating with 22 covers – “We’ve lost 12, about a third of them,” Alistair says – which is the most its bosses deemed to be safe.
“I could cram a few more in but it wouldn't be responsible,” says Alistair. “This feels comfortable, the dining room feels lovely... it really feels nice, actually. But we have effectively lost that turnover.”
To diversify and protect jobs, the restaurant’s successful Rafters At Home brand that launched during lockdown is becoming a full-time outside catering company.
“We don't want to make people redundant,” says Alistair, who warns the hospitality sector will suffer if no-shows persist.
“They'll have to make cuts. Some people are on casual contracts – it might be the difference between a person working three hours a night, and their manager saying 'Twenty people haven't turned up, get yourself off', and not the eight-hour shift they were meant to. That person will lose five hours' wages.”
Meanwhile at BoozeHound, Martin agrees the idea of charging no-show customers ‘needs to be looked at’ more widely.
“I think there's been a reluctance to do it but it's particularly pertinent now. Everywhere's been shut for months and there's been a lot of closures in Sheffield – The Devonshire Cat, The Railway Hotel, The Grind café... it's been really tough and it's exacerbating what is already a difficult situation.
"Genuinely plans change – we get that. All this is about is notification. Please let us know. Without that it puts extra pressure on what is already a pretty pressurised industry. Just be courteous.”