by Peter Pharos

Not Bending It Like Beckham

I have often been told I am a dream restaurant customer. I love thinking and discussing everything about them: the décor, the ambience, the service, the food and the wine (of course). I spend a disproportionate amount of my money in them, at times wildly so. I would like to say that museums and sites of historical interest are the first thing I look into when travelling, but it’s restaurants. I like talking to chefs and I love talking to sommeliers (since coming to Britain, I’ve also found out that apparently I have an incredible tolerance to being snubbed – I don’t find somms snobbish, but, at the very worst, overenthusiastic). I am also unfailingly (or, according to my co-diners, comically) polite, this last one partly out of respect, and partly out of a strong instinct for self-preservation – I admire the bravery of those who are willing to risk the ire of people that prepare their food. Restaurateurs, if all your customers were like me, you would really have it made.

And yet here I am, your biggest fan, about to tell you that I am worried about how you’ve begun seeing yourselves recently.

The topic at hand is charging for no-shows, including loyal punters, and customers’ stubborn resistance to it. Genuinely heart-breaking stories abound. Last-minute cancellations for tables of 18. Two-third no-shows on a bank holiday. The sort of stuff that closes down good, honest businesses, run by keen, hard-working people. I can absolutely understand why you are furious, I can totally see why you are desperate for change. And I don’t enjoy at all telling you that, bar a handful of exceptions, I wouldn’t pay a deposit, I understand entirely why people don’t, and I would be very surprised if you manage to pull this off.

As a crowd, you’re a quick one to anger, so let me lay my cards on the table. No, I absolutely do not think no-shows are fine. Yes, I understand that it’s a major issue. No, I would absolutely never be a no-show (though I’ve had to cancel on the day, and, yes, I had no remorse about it – my apologies if me having spent the night at a hospital inconvenienced your business). No, I very definitely do not feel that because you’re in “hospitality” you should somehow be all warm and fuzzy. I am entirely familiar with the concept of exchanging currency for goods and services. The fake overfriendliness actually irritates me immensely – that’s why I much prefer the honest nonchalance of French waiting service, over the plastic American one, where service staff seem to either cosplay Downtown Abbey butlers or display all the punchability of a grown man dressed in a Goofy suit following you around Disney World.

I get worried when I hear your analogies and counter-arguments, which seem to run roughly along three lines: costs mean we need near-100% capacity to survive; booking platforms mean people feel comfortable to book at six places and then decide; if people do it for theatre plays and football games, why not for us? I get worried, because I feel you don’t get it.

The answer to the first point is obvious. I know it, you know it, and I don’t expect any laurels for pointing it out. If you need near-100% capacity, you’re operating in a market with unsustainable supply and, frankly, there is not much to do about it, as it relies on external factors.  If there is  salvation, it will not come from booking policies but from actual politics, the things that actually affect consumer income, real estate prices, and the labour market. It’s only one in my long list of surprises the past three years that some of you are Brexit-agnostic or even pro-Brexit – turkeys confident of Tory assurances that, if you only put a cross next to Christmas, this will be strictly poultry-free.

Booking platforms are also part of a greater political and economic conversation. I’m a restaurant Luddite, so I avoid them as much as I can, but I’m surprised you didn’t see that customer behaviour would be completely different when you signed up. I’m even more surprised you think that you can “educate” customers not to make use of what a platform offers. Let’s be clear: customers using these platforms to ditch you without repercussions is not a bug, it’s a feature. They’ll feel approximately as bad about it as you felt the last time you ordered on Amazon. The nature and anonymity of digital platforms might, however, also hold something of a semi-solution. It’s easier to give an advance payment in a central platform (you need your head checked if you think I’m going to give my credit card details to whoever picked up the phone in a business of 11, in a sector notorious for low wages and quick staff turnover). In the future there might be Uber-style customer ratings or ways to block those with a track record of no-shows. Just a word of warning though: once you sign up to such a platform, you’re not a business owner anymore. You’re just another product on the digital platform’s shelf – and their customer is always right.

It’s the third argument that concerns me most, though: the analogy with football and the theatre. It makes me wonder if you’ve missed how this works altogether.

First things first: there are 72 professional football clubs in England and Wales, playing a couple of times a week, for two hours each, three quarters of the year. There are maybe around a thousand theatre production companies, many heavily reliant on state subsidies. Now, how many restaurants, with how many services per year? The people that make it to kicking a ball or wondering whether it’s nobler to suffer the slings of fortune for a living, are not just dedicated or hard-working. They are the very best of the very best of the very best in their field. Rest assured, the Pogbas of cooking and the McKellens of restoration will do just fine. Massimo Bottura can not only sell tickets, but also ask prospective patrons to pen a love letter to balsamic vinegar in Vulgar Latin or justify why they should get a seat via the medium of interpretative dance, and Francescana would still be fully booked two Olympiads in advance. The question is what happens to the rest.

The point is that there are very very few restaurants that count as a performance, and even then only for those patrons that are not lucky to experience them often. Booking at Humm or Darroze might make the cooking, wine, and service the event itself. Going to eat at a reasonably good, even a great, restaurant doesn’t.

You see, most of the time when we go to a restaurant (yes, even highly engaged customers like me), we think we are the performance. The friends and family we go with; the things we discuss; the time we make to share. Sure, we want the food to be good, and the service functional, and the place nice. But the main thing we want is to spend some time away from home with people whose company we enjoy, and not have to do the dishes afterwards. If it’s not one restaurant, it will be the other. That’s why nobody can have a truly great experience at a business lunch – even the world’s best meal is just a consolation prize. That’s the psychological barrier, the implicit pact you’re breaking, when you ask to charge us in advance or penalise us if we don’t give you a 48-hour notice. We don’t go out to see you. We go out to see us.

If there is a silver lining, it’s in the fact that there are many occasions that are exceptions to this rule. Booking a meal for many people, say for more than six or eight, is already an event, something out of the ordinary for which people have to plan well in advance (and I suspect most are much more sympathetic of the business impact on a restaurant for this). Anything that involves a performance element or is a one-off, say a guided wine tasting on a themed night with some background, is also an event and customers are much more open to paying ahead for a (transferable) ticket. And tourists or visitors are also somewhat more likely to pay a no-show fine (perhaps with an incentive such as a discount if they do show up). As with hotels, if what I’m booking is only part of a greater visit, I might be willing to write off the cost together with the rest of my losses if I fail to make it.

I realise that all this might sound disproportionately harsh. You might also be thinking that I’m not nearly as good or involved a customer as I think I am, that I completely fail to appreciate all the amazing things you do for me or the work that goes on in the background. Sadly, such is life and I can list a number of goods and services provided by committed, hardworking people, whose nuance and effort we all fail to appreciate as we go about living our lives. Then there is, of course, the chance that I am entirely wrong. Maybe going to a restaurant is like going to a performance, maybe you are artists, not craftsmen, and maybe you’ll convince customers to pay in advance for tickets and bear the loss if they fail to make it to your show. A last word of caution, however: before you decide you are artists, better check with some real artists how easy they have it.