Veteran restaurateur Elbert Cuenca expressed his frustration on social media recently over an increasingly common customer practice impacting local restaurants of late. “I guess ghosting really is a thing now,” Elbert, the man behind Elbert’s Steak Room and Metronome wrote on Facebook. “Our restaurant industry is currently being victimized by reservation no-shows. They book, they confirm on the day, they even say they’re just parking, but they still don’t show up.”
Cuenca said guests not showing up have been a daily occurrence for months now. “In my decades of experience, I have never seen it this bad, not even on Valentine’s Day. Wasted tables happen every night now, and I feel for those who were deprived the opportunity to dine with us,” he added.
In the beginning, Cuenca and his staff didn’t bother much about the no-shows—or “reservation ghosting” as he now calls it—thinking it’s part of restaurant life. As in any business, you win some, you lose some. But later on, Cuenca and his team realized it’s happening too often and is already becoming a norm—so they decided to take action.
“Our first way of addressing it was to ensure via phone call that they will show up,” the restaurateur told ANCX. “By lunchtime on the day of their reservation, we message to check if they are confirmed for the evening. I’d say about 80% will respond and say ‘Yes, I'll be there.’ Some will not answer the text, so we’d call them maybe an hour after messaging since we didn't get a response. Most will pick up, and about 10% won’t pick up. That 10% that don't pick up becomes a [wasted] table or two every night.”
The tricky part, he said, is that they can’t just give a table away to another customer. “What if on the last minute—and this has happened—they’ll say I'm pushing through, but we’ve already given the table away?” What’s unique about his situation, Cuenca added, is that his steak room only has seven tables, so every table is really valuable.
Opening Elbert’s Steakroom to walk-ins doesn’t seem like a suitable solution because of its location, which is at the 3rd floor of Sagittarius Building III in HV dela Costa St, Salcedo Village, Makati. “It's not like customers can see from the outside whether it’s full or not. People will have to go three flights up, then they’d be disappointed if they find out we’re full,” he said. Also, since the place is small, it’s ideal if everything is pre-booked.
Because of the situation, Cuenca has resolved to collect a consumable, non-refundable reservation fee of Php1000 per head. “I’m sure this is going to be an industry-wide standard soon, as it’s not just my establishments that’s affected,” he said.
This new policy applies to both his Steak Room and Metronome especially for large groups.
Cuenca’s post sparked a discussion on his Facebook page, with friends mostly agreeing with his decision to charge a reservation fee.
“Why not if it guarantees my reservations?” wrote one commenter.
“I’d rather pay a reservation fee than have restaurants tell me ‘no reservations, walk-in only,’” went another.
Someone added that convenience in paying a reservation fee is no longer an issue nowadays as there’s GCash anyway for those who are not comfortable divulging credit card details.
It's prevalent worldwide
No-shows are not only becoming commonplace here in Manila but in other countries as well, and establishments have started out collecting reservation deposits. It’s a standard practice in restaurants in Belgium, Dubai, Singapore, Guam, and Bangkok especially in high-end dining facilities to observe strict cancellation policies and require reservation fees.
“Everyone is doing that in Paris,” said the Filipina chef Erica Paredes who has a restaurant called Reyna in the City of Light. “It's crazy how many no-shows there are. And we call before service to confirm pa. We started asking for a card imprint a couple months ago that automatically charges 15€ per person if you don't show up.”
Cuenca said it’s a difficult decision as the new policy tends to upset some of their returning customers. “It’s almost like we don’t trust them,” he said. “We want to trust everyone, but we have to be a bit discerning and selective about it.” So what he’s decided to do is exempt their regular patrons from the reservation policy.
At Metiz, the fine-dining Filipino restaurant inside the Karrivin Plaza in Makati, they don’t have no-shows anymore since they implemented a reservation system a few years back, its French-Filipino chef Stephan Roxas Duhesme told ANCX. However, they get a lot of same-day, last-minute cancellations. “I think it’s important to properly differentiate. A no-show is the worst, yes, but a notified cancellation that happens during dinner service is just as costly to a restaurant because the seats most likely won’t be filled by other customers. This is especially true for reservation-only restaurants,” he said.
Duhesme said they began collecting reservation fees (Php2,000 per head) when cancellations and no-shows reached scary numbers a few years back. “Maybe around 8 to 10 customers per day which in a 30-seater is a lot of lost business. No-shows are less possible since we text customers the day before [their supposed day of visit] to confirm bookings. If we text multiple times and there are no replies, we cancel the booking by 12noon on the day of the booking.”
As for last-minute cancellations, he and his partners have accepted this the reality of the business they’re in. Thus they have decided to open Metiz for lunch on Saturdays to make up for lost income.
Leon Araneta, owner of Kashmir Indian Restaurant, also implemented a modest consumable fee of Php200 per head from Friday to Sunday. “Yes, those no-shows are painful,” he wrote on Cuenca’s page. “Not just for lost revenue but for extra wages you may have incurred anticipating volume.” Chef Josh Boutwood told ANCX they’ve also been collecting a reservation fee at his 10-seater fine-dining restaurant, Helm, since 2018.
Boracay-based restaurateur Nowie Potenciano said he’s been requiring a consumable but non-refundable reservation fee of P500 per head since his new Percy Seafood opened in April. The place has become a popular dining spot for groups who want to celebrate special occasions facing the beach. “Big groups would sometimes make reservations and leave us hanging. That meant we had to turn away potential seats,” he said. Potenciano is the founder of The Sunny Side Group, which is behind restaurants like The Sunny Side Café, Supermagic Burgers, Spicebird, and Coco Mama, as well as the new boutique hotel Seaworthy Boracay.
“We learned very quickly though to institute a reservation fee for big groups because we experienced customers just cancelling at the last minute.” They give their customers at Percy Seafood a 15-minute grace period, after which they give the table away to walk-ins.
Why customers do it
Cuenca thinks this inconsiderate behavior stems from customers being unmindful of the consequences of their actions. “I don’t think they’d intentionally want to harm the restaurant. I think they’re just playing it safe,” he said. It could be that some are trying to be romantic, booking three different restaurants to give options to their dates. “That's just my suspicion because I don't want to think naman that we’re a society of thoughtless people who’d do such things, especially now when we really need to recover from the pandemic.”
Duhesme is of similar opinion. “I don’t think there is any bad intent. For last-minute cancellations, it’s just due to lack of understanding of how reservation-only restaurants work. But not showing up without letting us know, that’s just bad manners and complete disregard for the industry.”
“[Customers] think that a reservation is something that can easily be ditched without any impact precisely because there’s no penalty on their part,” shared Potenciano. “They don’t realize the financial and operational impact this has on the restaurant.” One reason he doesn’t accommodate reservations in their other restaurants is because people often arrive late or do last-minute cancellations.
“Customers don’t realize that when they make a reservation, that means the restaurant has to block off that table at least an hour before they arrive. If they are late or they don’t show up, that is a table wasted and could have gone to someone else. It seems counter-initiative, but I think that by not accepting reservations, we are able to serve more guests and serve them better.”
Cuenca hopes that thru the ongoing discussion on “reservation ghosting,” customers would be more aware of the effects of their actions and actually put value to tables reserved for them. Duhesme said restaurants are integral to an interesting, bustling city. “Opening a good restaurant is very difficult in itself, but doing so without an educated market is impossible. If we want better restaurants, then we need to be just a little bit more considerate and responsible as guests as well.”