Restaurant no-shows confirm we are a nation of flakers and it won’t fly in the post-corona world

If we keep booking and bailing, then the only people to blame when our favourite joints go under and the staff suffer unemployment is ourselves

Harriet Hall
Tuesday 21 July 2020 15:08
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James Martin criticises no-show diners after 92 people bail on reservations at friend's restaurant

There’s nothing quite as delicious as a last-minute cancellation: a friend who messages you to say they’re sooo sorry but they simply cannot get out of working late/ their baby has vomited/ they think they might be coming down with a cold/ they forgot they are actually gluten, lactose and soy intolerant and can no longer eat anything.

This was in a time before coronavirus, of course. For four months there have been no plans. Now, we tentatively make suggestions for a weekend break in the hope a local lockdown won’t curtail them, the Foreign Office won’t ban travel or someone won’t get a dreaded call from an NHS track and tracer to let them know they must quarantine for 14 days. The other day, I bought tickets for a drive-in gig; a week later it was called off. At this point all I could do was shrug and wait for the refund. Instead of something we look forward to, plans in 2020 are like mirages in the desert – were they ever really there?

But back to pre-corona. Yes, in those days of yore we were running from A to B like we were completing an Olympic relay race in which the baton was our phone. And on this phone we exchanged 200 emails between the Tube, the office, a social event we didn’t want to go to, a quick pit stop to go to bed and back on the Tube. Naturally, in this absurd life of excess and overworking that we’d curated for ourselves, when a message dropped into our WhatsApp from a friend bailing at the last minute, it was like a glorious gift from the gods of self-care.

The more we allowed each other to bail, the more we made plans we didn’t even really think we could commit to while we were making them. “Yeah let’s see how we feel but pencil it in.” “I may be able to drop by for a bit in between my other plans.” “Don’t count me in, I will let you know.” These were the seasoned classics that made the rounds. At one point last year, the number of scrawled out plans in my paper (yes, reader) diary almost equalled those that did go through.

In the olden days (the Nineties) this just wouldn’t fly. Without mobile phones with which to bail, people had to stick to their word (I am told). Mobile phones have now made us at once more connected and disconnected than ever before. Our friendship groups widened, our free time narrowed and what we were left with was a pinballing of making and breaking plans to distract us from our working days.

But this madness can’t be sustained – and never has that been quite so evident than in the restaurant industry where social-distancing measures and Covid-secure environments continue after months of closures that almost crippled every business left standing.

The absurd New York-style no-booking system that was recently popularised in London provided further reason not to commit to plans. But now, getting a slot at your local caff is as hot a ticket as a seat in Soho’s Bao on a Friday night. Planning, booking – and most importantly actually turning up – has taken on new meaning. We’ve been asked to commit, give details, be responsible and most importantly be more considerate than ever before in our daily lives. But our dedication to flakiness is letting everyone down.

Top chefs have been reporting an alarming number of no-shows since opening their doors following the easing of lockdown measures. Tom Kerridge and Paul Ainsworth both reported having nights when 27 customers didn’t turn up and James Martin reported a friend’s restaurant suffered when 92 people bailed on bookings. Other chains have counted no-shows in the hundreds.

After months of not being able to sit with friends among the excited clamour of fellow diners, eat food and be poured endless glasses of crisp white wine that don’t come from your own cupboard, you’d think people would be more likely to cling on to the small moments of new freedom. Wasn’t one of the biggest personal discoveries of lockdown how much we promised never to take things for granted again?

Kerridge called out the behaviour on his Instagram page, calling it “disgraceful, short-sighted and downright unhelpful”. He’s fair to say as much. “You are putting people’s jobs at risk.”

Some restaurants are considering non-refundable deposits – if you’ve got skin in the game perhaps your willingness-to-bail barometer goes down but, as many have pointed out, the logistics of this far outweigh the insurance policy, which doesn’t even foot the bill.

Restaurants have long been bailed on but usually that meant a walk-in could swoop in, but now restaurants are unable to change reservations due to the contact-tracking process, the onus of which has been placed on them to enforce. Food, staff and space have all been paid for.

What happened to supporting our much loved local businesses? We were ordering from independent bookshops, getting takeaway coffees and having boxes of clothes delivered that had been saved from landfill. And now what? We just can’t be bothered?

If we keep booking and bailing, then the only people to blame when our favourite joints go under and the staff suffer unemployment is ourselves. You know the situation is bad when the Tories jump in to help, flinging vouchers at us. So if we must flake, let’s save it for our friends. At least they’re more likely to still be there when we want to go back – maybe.

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