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A Refresher Course in Reservations 101


DHagedorn
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This is an excerpt from a version of an article published in The Washington Post on August 31, 2005:

Restaurant diners view reservations as solid contracts when they show up on time, open-ended agreements when they show up late, at-will arrangements when they show up unannounced, and tentative suggestions when they do not show up at all. The public could benefit from a refresher course in Reservations 101:

What is a reservation? A reservation is an appointment whereby a person promises that a party will arrive at a specific time. An accepted reservation is a probability, not a guarantee.

Why do restaurants take reservations? A restaurant’s success depends on its management’s ability to meet sales projections. Projected sales are the function of two numbers only, one a constant (average check price) and the other a variable (covers). A restaurant’s budget, how much labor it employs and how much inventory it carries, is based entirely on its projected revenue: (average check x covers). Restaurateurs accept reservations to take some of the guesswork out of calculating the number of guests they will serve.

Unpredicted changes in reservations are detrimental to a restaurant’s fiscal health and have consequences that affect others adversely. Amongst these changes are:

No-shows: People who fail to cancel reservations renege on a promise to help a restaurateur and his staff pay their rents. They do not care that the restaurateur has turned away other business, that the host had to wait at least fifteen minutes before seating a walk-in party in their place, or that they reduced the income of the person who was going to serve them.

Many restaurateurs have instituted the terrible policy of guaranteeing reservations to a credit card and charging no-shows a fee. It is not unenforceable; if a diner contests the charge, the credit card company will issue a “charge-back” to the restaurant and then demand proof that does not exist for a purchase that did not take place. Moreover, whatever paltry fee the restaurateur could charge is not worth the bad faith its collection would inspire. The policy offends everyone, but the people who object the loudest are those who abuse the reservation system the most.

Late parties have turned themselves into walk-ins. They throw everything off-kilter for everyone else. A restaurateur generally ascribes one-and-a-half hours for a lunch reservation and two-and-a-half hours for dinner. Vacationers with a Saturday-to-Saturday time-share condo understand they must still depart on Saturday even though they arrived on Monday; yet, the 7:00 reservation that “ran behind” by thirty minutes feels no urgency to vacate their table for the 9:30 reservation that was punctual. The restaurateur then gets to buy two rounds of drinks, one to buy the patience of the innocent party, the other to buy back the table of the guilty diners who have suddenly acquired a taste for aged French cognac.

Incomplete parties are late. See above.

Changes in party size: People who announce upon arrival that the size of their party has changed have also transformed themselves into walk-ins. It is a big deal when a party of six becomes a party of two. The restaurant has perhaps turned away other parties of six. The host has to scramble to find a deuce that does not exist. The server who was to have waited on the six-top may have lost twenty percent of his income for that evening. Adding a chair to a four-top for an unexpected fifth diner usually compromises the comfort of diners at adjacent tables.

Overbooking: “Oh, restaurants always overbook,” is the reply thoughtless people offer to the question, “Don’t you think we should cancel our reservations?” Rather than an offensive ploy, overbooking is a defensive strategy to which a restaurateur must resort to avert the threat of economic disaster posed by no-shows. He overbooks by the number of guests he thinks will not show up.

Squatters: Like the hairdresser’s chair and the doctor’s exam room, a restaurant table is time-shared, not purchased, space. When the hairdo is done and the physical is over, clients and patients do not “hang out” ad infinitum. When the coffee cups have been thrice emptied and the check presenter has acquired a layer of dust, the diner’s lease has expired and it is time to go.

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After reading KMango's experience at Volt 21, and my personal experience at Morimoto (in Philly, I left after waiting 15 minutes past my reserved time), I wonder how restaurants should compensate patrons who have reservation and can't eat on time? Time is valuable to me, oftentimes my time is worth more than the cost of a meal. If I already spent 1 hr driving to Volt, and I don't get seated for another hr., the opportunity cost to me is already over the cost of Table 21 for 2, and I still have to drive an hour home. In those circumstances, I think the restaurant should remind their patrons of another seating and stop dicking around so the second seating can eat their dinner at a decent time. And offering free drinks to people on empty stomachs hardly solves the problem. I've ate at Volt, the food puts me into a coma already. Add lots of drinks and I'm likely to have an accident.

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Time is valuable to me, oftentimes my time is worth more than the cost of a meal... I think the restaurant should remind their patrons of another seating and stop dicking around so the second seating can eat their dinner at a decent time.

Consider dining on highly efficient and punctual airlines such as Hawaiian (93% on time) Aloha (92.4%) or Eurostar trains (96%) and let guests whose dining pleasure and purses do not revolve around a surly stopwatch enjoy themselves. Short of that, Vienna’s (Austria) airport is alleged to be remarkably punctual* and the food court has top notch schwanz eiskaffee, oaschloch klöße and duty free paprika.

*avoid holidays or weekends.

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Squatters: Like the hairdresser’s chair and the doctor’s exam room, a restaurant table is time-shared, not purchased, space. When the hairdo is done and the physical is over, clients and patients do not “hang out” ad infinitum. When the coffee cups have been thrice emptied and the check presenter has acquired a layer of dust, the diner’s lease has expired and it is time to go.

It is different in Italy....you pay a table charge, usually just a few euros, and you are allowed to stay there at the table for as long as you would like.

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A reservation is an appointment whereby a person promises that a party will arrive at a specific time. An accepted reservation is a probability, not a guarantee.

If this is so, then I hope the restaurant doesn't mind if I am a gambler, and like to play the odds. My reservation is a promise, your acceptance is a probability? Cheeky.

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