Are last minute cancellations ruining Yorkshire's restaurant trade?

You don't have to walk far through the centre of Leeds to find somewhere to eat '“ whether it's a well-known chain, gourmet burger joint, street food shack, fine-dining restaurant or family run independent.

Jo and Stuart Myers, who run The Greedy Pig/The Swine That Dines, in Leeds. Picture Tony Johnson.
Jo and Stuart Myers, who run The Greedy Pig/The Swine That Dines, in Leeds. Picture Tony Johnson.

It’s a similar story, too, in places like Harrogate, Sheffield and York where the foodie revolution shows little sign of abating. This boom has led to more competition with customers now spoilt for choice and, whereas 20 years ago going for a meal was a special occasion, for some people it’s now become a weekly night out.

But as we’ve grown accustomed to dining out, so attitudes towards restaurant bookings have become more casual – with many businesses reporting a problem with last-minute cancellations or people not even bothering to show up.

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Jo Myers and her husband Stuart run the The Greedy Pig Kitchen and the Swine That Dines – a cafe by day and restaurant at night. It’s an intimate place with a 14-seat capacity that’s attracted a raft of rave reviews for its inventive cooking. But one occasion last year when they were expecting a busy service the issue of late cancellations came to a head.

Harrogate's Norse restaurant owner Paul Rawlinson.

“It was a September evening and for whatever reason, perhaps because the sun came out, we ended up with an empty restaurant,” says Jo. “We had two members of staff on plus me and my husband. We didn’t work for anything but I still had to pay the two staff members because it wasn’t their fault that nobody turned up.”

After going on social media to vent her frustration, Jo was inundated with messages of support not only from friends but chefs from all over the country who understood where she was coming from.

“No business can afford that but especially a small one like ours,” says Jo. “The competition in Leeds is so fierce that we’re fighting for every table and it’s got to the point where you have to say something, because I don’t think people always realise the consequences of what they’re doing.”

After being left with an empty restaurant, Jo and Stuart decided to start taking customers’ credit card details for bookings in case they didn’t show up, or they cancelled at too short notice, in which case they charge £10 per head.

20 February 2018...... Claire Kitching co-owner of Friends of Ham. YP feature on restaurants & the impact late booking cancellations is having on businesses. Picture Tony Johnson.

She says it seems to be working because they’ve only had to do this once. “If people cancel two or three days in advance that’s fine because it gives me the chance to fill that table.

“We don’t mind people cancelling, things happen and plans change, but if someone doesn’t show up or cancels half an hour before their booking there’s nothing you can do.”

Jo says more restaurants are adopting similar policies. “The issue we always had with that before was it was seen as the preserve of the high-end restaurants. So trying to convince customers to hand over their credit card details for a mid-range restaurant is still quite new, but I think in the next few years it’s going to become the norm because it’s the only way people can safeguard their business.”

On the other side of Leeds city centre is Friends of Ham, loosely-based around a Spanish-style tapas bar that specialises in good cheese, beer and, you guessed it, ham. Since opening in July 2012 it’s become hugely popular with standing room only at peak times.

Harrogate's Norse restaurant owner Paul Rawlinson.

“For the first five years we didn’t take bookings but then there was a backlash against businesses that wouldn’t take them so we thought we’d give it a try,” says co-owner Claire Kitching.

“It was fine in the beginning but I think there’s been a step change in customers’ attitudes as more places open and I think some people are potentially booking two or three options if there’s a group going out on a Saturday night and then they go to the one that suits them on the evening.”

On one occasion they took a booking for a party of 12 that didn’t turn up. “During that time while we were waiting for them to turn up we were turning customers away,” says Claire.

Last month they took the decision to only take bookings for groups of six or over and to ask them to pay a deposit.

20 February 2018...... Claire Kitching co-owner of Friends of Ham. YP feature on restaurants & the impact late booking cancellations is having on businesses. Picture Tony Johnson.

“I’d say 75 per cent of people are fine paying a deposit and pay straight away, and when people don’t want to pay it says to us that they possibly weren’t going to show up.”

Many of those in the trade say the problem of last-minute cancellations and ‘no shows’ has become worse in recent years.

Norse in Harrogate is a fine dining restaurant that’s been going for almost four years. It was voted the town’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017 and has garnered praise from such influential figures as Marina O’Loughlin and Jay Rayner, but even it isn’t immune from the problem.

Paul Rawlinson, director of Norse, says late cancellations or people simply not turning up is a huge issue. “When people aren’t just going to walk in off the street then booking is pretty essential,” he says.

“We had an instance one Saturday night where we had a party of 23 booked in and they didn’t turn up. We called them back and they said they’d booked on the wrong date, but that was the best part of £1,000 that we were never going to get back.”

A couple of years ago the restaurant started taking deposits on bookings in an effort to tackle the problem. “That made a big difference though it means you have to have slightly awkward conversations with customers. Certainly when we started some people took it quite personally. They could understand it in somewhere like London but not in Yorkshire.”

The fact is though that many restaurants operate on fine margins and can’t afford to have empty seats 
on their busiest nights. “It’s people 
who see it’s snowing outside and 
think ‘let’s just cancel,’ or they’ve had a rough day at work and can’t be bothered going out.

“We’ve all been there, we’ve made a booking and for one reason or another you’re really not up for it, but from a small business point of view it’s crushing. People might think ‘they won’t miss a table of two’, but it’s the other four couples that have done the same thing that night and suddenly you’ve got 20 per cent fewer people 
in the restaurant when you’ve prepped all the food.”

Paul doesn’t think people should start pre-paying for meals but feels there does need to be some kind of compromise. “If people had the same attitude towards restaurants as they do towards concert tickets it would be such a smaller problem. If you have a cold or a bad day at work would you still go to the gig? Yes, you would because you’ve paid for your ticket.

“It’s the same situation, the difference is it’s the restaurateur who takes all the risk and in the concert industry it’s the consumer who does. It would be nice to rebalance that.”

However he does believe that attitudes are starting to shift. “They are changing and I think more restaurants are going to have to start taking deposits because otherwise you’re just relying on the goodwill of people.”