Posted by Colin Ransom on 18 Feb 2013

OK so I went to this new place (that shall remain anonymous) in Leeds on Saturday night. It’s been open a few months now and it’s fair to say it’s proved more than a hit with the locals. The Facebook page has over 6000 likes and it doesn’t appear like the page admins are able to keep on top of replying to all posts.

I did check the website earlier in the week where I learned that they have a no bookings at weekends policy. I’d kind of expected this and as a result, my group of friends and I (4 in total) decided to get the restaurant early (6:30), to make sure we were in with more of a chance of getting a precious table at this new yet revered establishment.

We arrived and were met by a gaggle of clearly disgruntled punters aimlessly milling about in the doorway. In fact, this made it quite difficult to even get into the place.

We eventually got in and were told “Sorry, we’re full until 10:00!” by the crumply faced, shaky headed door host – all before she’d even ascertained what our actual requirements were.

We were disappointed but it wasn’t the end of the world. I was quite pleased on one level because I felt a cheeky blog post coming on, and here it is.

We opted to not wait the 3.5 hours and we went to Raja’s on Roundhay Road. The restaurant was heaving when we got there but as always, he was happy to accommodate us and we had a wonderful meal. As always.

I was talking to a friend the following day about my evening. Now this guy is a REAL foodie and a very learned chap, and we ended up having a very interesting conversation about bookings policies in restaurants.

Here’s what we discussed:

No booking policies are just irritating from a customer point of view, frankly. And in an article by Giles Coren, he even describes them as arrogant.

Arrogant, yes, but on the flip side, businesses (especially restaurants with little space and fewer covers) are often backed into having to do this due to inconsiderate (even arrogant, perhaps) members of the general public booking large tables at peak times and then not only failing to show up, but failing to ring and cancel, resulting in lost precious revenue. You have to then keep the table too because if they turn up late and you’ve given it away, well, that’s a whole other can of worms entirely. Members of the public won’t necessarily factor in all of the above when they’re annoyed that they can’t get a table in a restaurant.

From a customer point of view yes it’s annoying, but no bookings policies often make perfect business sense in the short-term.

It’s difficult in all business to take into account the random human variable that is your users/audience/consumers. But by not addressing it, and attempting blanket policies, it will inevitably go belly up. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later. But it will.

Yes it makes perfect business sense on paper. The benefit being that the quality of the food/experience does need to match up – and for it to truly work, the logistics of people waiting needs to be built in to the whole experience (will this lose you table space – what’s your policy?).

I try as much as possible to not go to non-booked restaurants on a Friday and Saturday unless I happen to be passing, as I simply don’t want to queue to eat or go earlier than I’d actually want to eat on the off chance that when I’m ready to eat, the queue will have subsided to the point where they have a table for me. Surely overall business sense, taking everything into account, is a combination of bookings and walk-ins – and also this safeguards to protect the business from no-shows.

I think it’s just short-sightedness, too, on another level, which is why so many places have to close after not very long at all. The problem with a lot of new restaurant owners is they’re too busy opening up their restaurant to worry about what the future will hold, and so often will not see the bigger picture at all. I guess this is true in all areas of life though, and not just in business.

A competent and talented duty manager or door host should be able to handle a mixture of bookings and walk-ins and also manage a queue. Unfortunately there isn’t enough of this type of manager out there, it would seem. Evidently they do all work in places where bookings are taken AND you’re able to walk in and be greeted appropriately, given a drink and a place to wait until a table becomes available.

I dislike when you walk into a place and you’re greeted by somebody and they tell you “Sorry we’re fully booked” whilst shaking their head and crumpling up their face – all before they’ve even said hello.

I think no bookings policies can send out the wrong message, too, as it shows a lack of consideration for what the future needs of the business might be. For example, when another similar restaurant opens a few doors away and all your customers flock there, the restaurant that felt it didn’t need to take bookings will, in fact, be crying out for bookings, yet it will forever be remembered by those who tried to eat there in the early days as the place where you can’t book.

It’s really a case of finding out what works for the individual business, but also considering what the needs of the business will be in the future.

The trick is, if you’re turning people away, to do so in a way that will make them feel like they want to come back in the future, however that might be.

I left the restaurant in question on Saturday night with no desire to return – and that’s really where they messed up, not in the fact that they don’t take bookings.

 replied 5 yearss ago

Colin I couldn’t agree more. Such short sighted attitudes are relevant across many business sectors. In this case, the reliance on passing trade and foot fall will soon be let down and will not return. Those making the chance run are significantly more likely to not return after taking the time to drive in, park and walk specifically to the venue. The structure you propose, with the ability to flex when a reserved table is cancelled makes real sense. It’s surely not rocket science to run two simple schemes side by side.

My argument is that by taking someone’s name at the door for a table in two hours time is still a booking and would still fall foul of no shows. In fact, I’d argue that someone in town already is more likely to drift around and stumble upon an alternative eating establishment more readily than those wishing to commit to an out of town journey specially to eat there. Let’s hope this particular restaurant changes it’s policy soon and caters for those committed customers making the trip than simply relying on those passing and / or taking a chance.

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