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'It's disheartening:' No-shows, reservation cancellations hurting Austin restaurants during pandemic

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
Nic Yanes, chef-owner of East Austin restaurant Juniper, said his business on weekends can suffer about 20% from last-second cancellations and no-shows.

With Austin restaurants operating at limited capacity for the past year, each table has become even more important to a business’s bottom line.

Restaurants need to maximize their table space and manage their flow of customers as efficiently as possible in order to maintain their thin margins, which means when diners don’t show up for reservations or cancel at the last minute, the business suffers. 

Ghosted reservations and last-second cancellations hurt restaurants in the best of times. During the coronavirus pandemic, the pain from people not showing up for their reservations has been amplified, El Naranjo chef-owner Iliana de la Vega said.

“If this happened before COVID, it was bad. Now, it’s devastating,” she said.

Iliana de la Vega said she has considered not taking reservations anymore in order to combat the scourge of last-second cancellations and no-shows.

De la Vega’s modern Mexican restaurant on South Lamar Boulevard had 65 reservations on the books for brunch last Sunday. But as certain reservation times approached, some diners did not. Last-minute cancellations and no-shows meant that only 43 of the 65 expected reservations ended up coming through the doors. Walk-in business filled some of those gaps, but de la Vega said the missed reservations cost her staff time and money.

For the small El Naranjo, which currently only has room for 32 diners while seating at 50% capacity, this phenomenon has worsened during the pandemic and become even more intense in 2021. De la Vega said that weekend nights often see 20% of reservations walked with no notice, and one Saturday night, 50% of reservations didn't show. 

Juniper chef-owner Nic Yanes has faced a similar problem. The chef who helms one of the city’s best Italian restaurants said that a weekend night may see 20-30% last-second cancellations or no-shows. Walk-in guests at the East Austin restaurant can make up about 10%, Yanes says, but it still means the restaurant is down about 20% of its expected business. 

Juniper chef-owner Nic Yanes said he has considered going to an overbooking model like the kind that airlines use for reservations.

The bailed reservations lead to costs and logistical considerations that the average guest may not see. If a restaurant is expecting a large crowd, de la Vega said, it can add additional staff and prepare more food. No-shows can mean lost money on excess food that goes to waste and a larger staff having to share fewer tips.

“It’s disheartening,” de le Vega said. “It’s a really tough time for us. We are barely surviving. And the worst part is the sadness from the lack of consideration and empathy. We are in a dire situation already.”

De la Vega said her restaurant still follows an old-school model of reaching out to guests to confirm reservations the day before, but even direct contact and confirmation does not guarantee a guest will come. 

Juniper attempts to confirm all reservations 24 hours in advance via phone or text, but Yanes said people often don’t answer their phones and don’t return calls. The restaurant charges $25 for any cancelled tasting menu reservation (the 10-course meal costs $110 per person) or cancellation/no-show of a party of eight or more, if the cancellation is made within a day of the reservation time. 

While some restaurants use reservation systems that require a deposit or a credit card on file so a skipped reservation can be charged, de la Vega said she is hesitant to install such a policy. She thinks financial commitments and penalties can dissuade guests from booking a table at a restaurant.

Yanes said that the cancellations and no-shows have become “more glaring” during the pandemic, but he admitted they might have health-related reasons. Some people could have a scratchy throat or runny nose, and even if it might just be allergies, Yanes wants customers erring on the side of caution.

“If someone has the idea that they might have a symptom, I don’t want them coming in anyway,” Yanes said. 

While Yanes wants to have faith in people’s honesty, he said that people take advantage of restaurants’ reservation systems, sometimes making multiple reservations around town at the same time and then deciding last minute which establishment to visit without cancelling the extra reservations. A recent Wednesday night perusal of booking sites OpenTable and Resy showed almost no patio dinner reservations for the weekend at most of Austin's top restaurants. 

He acknowledged the irony of a hospitality-based business that is welcoming of guests having to rely on a customer base that may not show the same level of empathy and concern. When hospitality is met with that kind of passive hostility, Yanes said the restaurant industry is put in a position that few other professional services are. 

“If you don’t show up to your haircut appointment, they’re going to charge you. If you don’t show up to your doctor’s appointment, they’re going to charge you,” Yanes said. “No ifs, ands or buts.”

Chef Iliana de la Vega moved her El Naranjo from Rainey Street to a smaller space on South Lamar Avenue in 2019.

De la Vega has decided to make a temporary shift away from reservations for Sunday brunch and will leave her restaurant open only for walk-ins for the daytime. Since the restaurant now has parking capacity, which it lacked during its long run on Rainey Street, de la Vega said she is also open to instituting the no-reservations policy for dinner, as well. 

“We will try anything at this moment,” de la Vega said. 

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Yanes doesn’t intend to change the reservation policy at Juniper but said he has considered taking the airline model approach to reservations, booking at over 100% capacity in order to allow for expected no shows. 

But, on the rare chance that every person who booked a reservation showed up, Yanes said his team would be left to scramble to serve people a complimentary glass of wine in a waiting area, which would not be ideal. The chef wants everyone to feel welcomed and accommodated; that’s the business he’s in. He just asks for the consideration to work both ways.

“We can adapt to what people are doing, but if everyone has some understanding and empathy, then I think it is easier,” Yanes said.