Angered by no-shows, Vancouver restaurants consider prepaid reservations to stay afloat amid pandemic

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Chef-owner Jean-Christophe Poirier chats with diners seated in the show kitchen of St. Lawrence restaurant in Vancouver on October 11, 2017. When reopening for indoor dining, Mr. Poirier made the decision. daring to introduce three-course tasting menus that had to be not only booked with a credit card, but also fully prepaid.

DARRYL DYCK / For the Globe and Mail

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the restaurant industry to its knees. Costs are increasing. Debts are piling up. Staff shortages are dire. And Vancouver diners, who have always been notoriously fickle, aren’t showing up in droves for reservations.

Some say the restaurant industry is broken. But the cracks have also provided opportunities to reinvent oneself.

Prepaid restaurant reservations and credit card deposits have been a long time coming. Today, as the industry struggles to survive and diners slowly re-acclimatize to social life, they are needed more than ever.

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And they work.

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Take the case of Saint-Laurent, which opened in 2017 and received rave reviews.

Even in those early glory days, around 30 percent of bookings were canceled at the last minute or guests simply didn’t show up – an unacceptably high rate, but typical for Vancouver.

For a 55-seat restaurant specializing in French haute cuisine that requires days of preparation, the loss of income was untenable.

Chef-owner Jean-Christophe Poirier quickly switched to an online reservation system that allowed him to charge a cancellation fee of $ 25 per guest. No-shows fell to 5 percent.

The pandemic required more drastic measures.

When reopening indoor dining, Mr Poirier made the bold decision to introduce three-course tasting menus that had to be not only booked with a credit card, but also fully paid for in advance.

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“It really worked for us. We didn’t have a no-show. No one complained. When people can’t come, they usually reschedule for a different date or take a gift certificate.

Mr Poirier says the prepayments gave him better control over food orders, waste, staff planning and cash flow – all crucial to the bottom line when the bank account was emptied, than the whole industry is in crisis and the future is still uncertain.

But it also benefits diners, who are guaranteed a table and don’t have to queue or roll the dice at a party, as restaurants increasingly respond by forgoing reservations altogether.

“It’s not a new system,” says Poirier. “They have been doing it in Europe and the United States for years. It used to be just Michelin-starred restaurants, but now even the most laid-back places are embracing it.

He says he doesn’t know why the other restaurants here are hesitant.

“They think customers won’t buy into it. But when COVID happened, things changed. “

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Bartender Camilo Romero pours a Bereziartua cider at Como Taperia in Vancouver on March 25, 2019. The restaurant now expects six to 12 no-shows each night and has recently started charging groups of six over $ 25 per head. for cancellations without 24-hour notice.

BEN NELMS

No one has balked at paying up front for concerts, hockey games, museums or art galleries.

Cancel a hair appointment without sufficient notice and you will likely be charged.

During province-wide restaurant closures, we got used to depositing our credit cards and prepaying for take out, often committing to pickup windows 15 minutes days in advance.

Almost all wineries have phased out walk-in tours and now operate by appointment only while implementing new tasting fees.

Even yoga classes and public swimming pools now require prepaid registration.

Why should it be any different for restaurants?

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Vancouver diners are behaving badly. Talk to any restaurateur and they’ll tell you about customers who change their minds as quickly as time permits and usually make multiple reservations on the same night.

“It happens all the time,” says Shaun Layton, co-owner of Como Taperia, who expects six to 12 no-shows every night and has recently started charging groups of six or more at $ 25 per head for cancellations. without 24-hour notice.

“There are a lot of people who reserve a few places and forget to cancel the others. We call them when they don’t show up and you can tell they are in another restaurant.

Mr. Layton says he’s “all for” prepayments and deposits. “You just need a bunch of more restaurants to start doing it and that will be the new normal.”

Not all restaurants are ready to accept full prepayments. This usually only works for set menus and restaurants for special occasions.

Patrons enjoy the Keefer Bar in Vancouver on September 13, 2020. The bar is also experimenting with prepaid reservations to reduce its no-show rate.

Jackie Dives / The Globe and Mail

But even bars – or at least the smarter ones – have started taking credit card reservations.

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“Reservations are new to us since COVID,” says Keenan Hood, general manager of Keefer Bar in Chinatown.

“Originally it was a matter of security, to assure people that they would come in and not have to wait outside in crowded lines. But now it has become very important to prevent people from canceling at the last minute.

Mr Hood says that with over 3,000 covers for July, he only had a 3% no-show rate.

“I can assure you that it would have been a much higher percentage if we hadn’t had a $ 10 cancellation fee. When people have money at stake, even if it is a small amount, they are less fuzzy.

Credit card deposits hold people accountable, says Mark Briand, COO of Kitchen Table Restaurants, which has designed a mix of new deposits for its various locations, depending on the size, price and timeliness of the stores. seats.

For example, a reservation for a brunch at the intimate Ask For Luigi requires a $ 15 deposit; dinner costs $ 25 (and should probably be higher).

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The Pourhouse charges a $ 20 deposit for its coveted bar seating every weekday night, but the fee only applies to the larger dining room on weekends.

“Deposits were an absolute deterrent to no-shows,” says Briand. “The point is not to penalize people, but to make sure that the people who come really want to be there.

“It was not all smooth sailing. And each restaurant will need to examine their space and determine what works for them. But the industry as a whole will have to adapt.

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