I started working in a restaurant at weekends and school holidays when I was 15 years old. It may come as a surprise to some given my *ahem* youthful appearance, that this was all of 27 years ago!
The problem of people making bookings, confirming on the day, and then not turning up, was as big a problem then as it is now. The difference now is that it gets reported more thanks to social media. This may just prove to be an important factor in reducing the problem over the long term.
The first reaction of most people when they hear about it is "why not take credit cards and charge a fee for no-shows?" This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion but difficult to implement in practice here. The reason is that there are specific economic factors which need to exist in order for this to succeed. Demand must exceed supply. This is the case at Christmas time which enables restaurants to requests deposits and credit card confirmations.
My own view is that we do not have a large enough pool of diners in this country, nor do we have a sufficiently well developed culture of dining out. It has certainly improved but I still think that too many Irish diners are indifferent about their choice of restaurant. Price is the biggest driver for many.
Like most restaurants, we had a big issue with no-shows in Alexis. We decided to pilot a scheme for four weeks in 2011 to try combat the problem. We planned to take credit card details with every booking and charge a fee of €25 per person for confirmed bookings that were unfulfilled. It was a spectacular failure and we abandoned it after two weeks. We found that regular customers only very reluctantly gave their details, while others were outraged and simply went elsewhere. It appeared that we succeeded only in getting our customers' backs up.
I've read a few suggestions on Twitter and various other media recently about what can be done to eradicate the problem here. Most are unworkable, mainly for the reasons outlined above. International destination restaurants such as Grant Achatz's Next in Chicago can get away with selling tickets. I suspect that Irish restaurants fighting for business to survive would have a harder job.
So what can be done to solve the problem in Ireland? I don't believe there is any one "quick fix" solution. In my opinion, the best chance of reducing no-shows in the long term in education. The more the issue gets highlighted in social and mainstream media, and people become aware how damaging it is for small businesses, the better chance of it eventually becoming frowned upon and socially unacceptable.
In the meantime, restaurants can look to take credit card details for peak times like Saturday nights to ease the burden. In addition, they can over book to compensate for inevitable no-shows. This has to be carefully managed however, and must never penalise guests who arrive on time for their reservation.
The restaurant business is tough enough without having to deal with this unnecessary and avoidable problem. Genuine issues can always arise, but in many cases it is caused by people either staying in the pub or else booking several restaurants and deciding last minute which one to go to.
Every time I read restaurants tweeting about it, I remember how disheartening it was. It's one of the very few things I don't miss about the business.