Making Reservations? Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.

by Jason Roth on September 1, 2009

In a story on Grub Street about the closing of The John Dory, owner Ken Friedman is quoted about the problem a small restaurant has in taking reservations, in that the consequences of losing any one reservation are proportionately greater. Makes sense. They’ve lost an expected cover for the night, and the no-show likely prevents them from finding replacement customers. If the restaurant lacks a bar, the chances increase further. But there’s an easy solution to this, if only it doesn’t put the entire dining world’s panties in a bunch. Charge a forfeitable deposit for the reservation.

Technically, it’s not a deposit, but a fine. You don’t get charged unless you cancel or fail to show. A few restaurants already do this, and obviously it wouldn’t be practical for every restaurant. But I think more lower-end restaurants would benefit from such a policy, if only customers would be receptive to the idea. It’s only fair that we as customers put our money where our mouth is. If a restaurant is setting aside for us its only means of existence, doesn’t its management have the right to be compensated if we should decide to return their act of graciousness with the proverbial shaft? I think so.

The James Beard Foundation does it, and I agree with the policy. You lose a small amount of money for cancelling at any time, and the amount goes up during the week prior to the reservations, with a 100% forfeiture of the cost of the meal within 24 hours of the reservation. (JBF meals are a fixed price, including tax and tip.) I would always call a restaurant if I needed to cancel, anyway, but when you risk getting fined for “forgetting”, I guarantee the thought moves just a little further up in your consciousness.

I’d actually prefer a deposit (or cancellation fine) over having to call to reconfirm my reservation. I find a requirement to call back to reconfirm a big, pretentious, pain in the ass. To me, it’s a penalty for the real customer, the one who’s not going to screw the restaurant. The non-customer who’s going to be the no-show gets off scot free, but I have to go out of my way to call. Why not just penalize me for not showing? (If the restaurant wants to go the extra distance to reconfirm, let them call me, as some do.)

If I reserve a seat on an airplane, I have to pay for it, and there are conditions for cancellation. The same should be true with other businesses which place so much value on each seat. Just one caveat: if a business takes a reservation, they should be sure they can hold the reservation.


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