To you, it's a button on a screen, but to a struggling restaurant, a no-show can be devastating.

By John Winterman
March 08, 2021
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empty restaurant table
Credit: Mint Images / Getty Images

We don't need another anguished screed about how restaurants have razor-thin margins and how perilous a position the industry finds itself in. Everyone knows the effects of the pandemic on the service industry have been devastating. Subject to blanket shutdowns, restaurants were forced to offer additional services such as delivery, takeout, grocery boxes, and the construction of those ridiculous stables you see lining the avenues to allow for outdoor dining. The toll is extremely apparent in New York City, even now after those initial, tentative steps toward reopening have been taken for the second time. What we do need now, however, is a real lesson in manners, especially after a long year of concerned hand-wringing on behalf of restaurants and those who work in them.

It is a fine thing to have a reservation at a restaurant in New York City, the dining capital of the world. It is even better to have a booking on a Saturday night after a long, pandemic-induced shutdown. After months of takeout and gift cards and to-go cocktails, sitting down at a restaurant and ordering an old fashioned and some steak frites brought me back to life. I would also say it is a fine thing to have restaurants open again, and I express that as a restaurant owner. To know that someone else might want to sit in a room that sprung from my imagination, to revel in food that my partner dedicated some 100 hours this week to producing, with only a skeleton staff—it feels tremendous. 

Reservations are fairly easy to make these days. Diners have any number of apps available at their fingertips with which to browse, based on location, and make an impersonal selection of a restaurant at a time of their choosing. For transparency's sake, I use and support reservation apps. The ease and convenience to reserve a table, leave your information, and make adjustments has disrupted the whole industry from the consumer side. From the restaurant side, the same can be said; the convenience of not having to answer multiple phone lines and record information (in a book or on a screen) is a convenience that cannot be overstated. 

But the convenience of such apps should not be a replacement for character or good manners. And, I admit that while using those same apps, I also advocate for the personal connection. When I lived in the West Village, I had trouble getting into a well-known restaurant that opened up on warm days and became one with the sun and sidewalk. I imagined myself eating the famous chicken and quaffing gallons of cold wine. But the hosts were always on a long wait and snagging a table became a sport. Within a few months, though, I had made a connection with the manager through perseverance, politeness, and manners, so that I never had another issue getting a table. 

At one time, the success of restaurants depended on—at least in part—personal connection. One would get to know the owner or the maître d' and develop a relationship. This crucial customer-facing aspect of our hospitality business is in peril. The predominance of dining apps has ushered in a precipitous decline in this relationship as there is no longer a personal stake, an emotional connection and hence, when a diner books, cancels, or "no-shows," it becomes a decision of no consequence, merely a tap on a screen. The pandemic has made this worse.

Restaurants in New York City are open again for indoor dining under onerous restrictions. There is a maximum capacity of 35% of total occupancy, the math of which is different for every restaurant. Tables must be distanced by six feet, we are unable to seat people at the bar or have them wait for tables, and everyone must be out by 11 p.m. Coupled with the overwhelming fear of indoor dining, restaurants are barely holding on and most of the workforce has still not been re-hired, which is why it is ever more important to show good manners. 

With the limited number of seats available, diners who book need to show up for their reservation in a timely fashion or to cancel in a timely fashion. This is a tangible show of support for your restaurant community, and more impactful than the right hashtags. A reservation holds an inventory of seats that is now subject to capacity restrictions. In non-pandemic times, restaurants might have a waitlist, people at the bar, last minute requests, all of which can help mitigate the loss of a "no-show." In the current climate, a lost reservation is just that: lost, irretrievable, irreplaceable. 

The night it happened at my restaurant Francie (which opened for in-person dining for the first time in December before having to shut down just days later) the party of six who no-showed on their three-weeks-ago booking represented 20% of what we had planned on for the evening. This lack of manners and—I'll say it—complete lack of character, impacts our staff, not only financially but morally. And that's something all the well-meaning hashtags in the world cannot fix. 

John Winterman is the Owner-Operator of Francie in Brooklyn, NY.