Austin restaurants are reporting that last-minute reservation cancellations have doubled or tripled in the last year — and that’s having a big effect on an industry that’s already struggling. During a time when filling every seat brings in much-needed profits, no-shows mean wasted dollars.
Restaurants have faced many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic: pivoting to takeout, converting parking lots into patios, advocating for government relief, and following changing dining restrictions. Restaurant capacity is currently limited to 75 percent under an executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott; however, many smaller restaurants have even lower capacity due to space restrictions. Thus, it’s essential that every table is used wisely.
How big of a problem are cancellations?
Being able to rely on reservations is particularly necessary at small restaurants. At East Austin wine bar Apt 115, COVID-19 restrictions have limited the maximum capacity of the already tiny restaurant to just three tables inside and three tables outside — about 13 people at a time, for a total of maybe 40 people total on weekends. If two or three tables cancel, that could halve the restaurant’s income for the night. Owner and curator Joe Pannenbacker told Eater that cancellations have doubled, if not tripled in the last year. On one recent Friday, they had reservations for 38 people, but only 28 showed up. “The difference … is a lot, for us,” he says.
Under normal circumstances before the pandemic, Pannenbacker says cancellations would be less of a problem, as reservations could be replaced with foot traffic; people could grab a spot at the bar or stand and wait outside. However, because the restaurant is so small, this is not possible now while maintaining a safe social distance.
“People can come in, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, you’re completely empty,’” Pannenbecker says. “And then I’m like, ‘Well, actually, we’re booked tonight, we have people coming.’” But if that table doesn’t show up for its reservation, the restaurant misses out on that potential walk-in.
Steven Dilley, owner of Neapolitan pizzeria Bufalina, has also found it hard to replace these cancellations, particularly if they are last-minute. “The problem is you don’t know they’re not showing up until 15 or 20 minutes after the reservation time,” Dilley says. “So even if someone happens to walk up, you’re potentially rushing that diner, because odds are there’s a booked reservation for that table in another hour.”
Bufalina did not offer reservations pre-pandemic, and is currently only reserving a small number of parking-lot-to-patio tables outside. Dilley found that the Cesar Chavez location (which will close this month for unrelated reasons) had many nights when 50 or 60 percent of the reservations canceled. However, Dilley says the Burnet Road location only gets two or three cancellations a month.
Cancellations also make it harder for restaurants to order the right amount of food. Kemuri Tatsu-ya implemented a preset omakase menu to reduce food waste. However, when speaking to Eater in December, chef and co-owner Tatsu Aikawa said the restaurant was experiencing more cancellations than reservations each night.
To keep with Apt 115’s ethos of organic, minimal-intervention wines, Pannenbacker relies on fresh produce from Hausbar Farm for a newly expanded menu. However, he has a difficult time ordering with the unpredictability of cancellations. “Fortunately, the cheese and charcuterie are a little less perishable,” he says. “But we’ve been trying to think of cool, creative menu items that have more staying time than a couple days — with some of the produce that’s all you get.” For example, the restaurant stopped offering a salad with burrata cheese, and replaced it with one that has root vegetables and feta, which has a longer shelf life.
Why are people canceling?
There doesn’t seem to be a clear reason why restaurants are having so many more cancellations. Would-be guests may have had a health scare, life and obligations could have gotten in the way (especially given the difficulties finding child care), or perhaps patrons simply forgot about a reservation. Jennifer Le, the general manager of staple downtown Mexican restaurant La Condesa, shared that several diners have canceled reservations they made far in advance due to rising case numbers.
Pannenbecker also posits that the flurry of cancellations could only be more apparent now that restaurants are more dependent on them. “I think people maybe just don’t understand the impact that a few a few tables can have,” Dilley says.
Le also reports that cancellations have increased 60 percent during the pandemic compared to previous years. She says she has seen a trend of patrons making multiple reservations at restaurants downtown and deciding where to dine at the last minute. “Our servers will greet the tables, and [the diners] will say, ‘We had a reservation at La Condesa, also at North and at ATX Cocina, but we saw that you guys are running like a special on Instagram, so we decided to come here for dinner.’” Le says they are often able to fill those tables during the weekend because of foot traffic downtown, but during the week it’s more difficult.
La Condesa is currently open for dining inside and on the patio. While its downstairs event space, the Flour Room, is closed due to lack of ventilation, its upstairs indoor-outdoor space, Malverde, is still open. Le says event guests have been very understanding of mask protocols.
What are restaurants doing to combat cancellations?
La Condesa has developed a system to minimize cancellations: They cut off reservations at a certain point to save space for walk-ins, and they only hold reservations for 20 minutes before releasing the table. As a backup, they also call the would-be diner twice during this hold period. La Condesa keeps a waiting list since there is such a high rate of cancellations.
Apt 115 uses reservation system Resy, which sends a reminder email the day before and has the option to charge a fee if a diner cancels too frequently. Apt 115 also calls diners to personally confirm the reservation. However, this doesn’t always help — Pannenbecker says one diner recently called to say they were walking over and then never showed. Pannenbecker is considering instituting a $10 fee on Resy if someone cancels within two hours of their reservation time.
At Bufalina, Dilley instituted a $10 deposit on reservations using their reservation system Tock, which “pretty much eliminated” the problem. “As long as you call up before your time, you get your deposit back,” Dilley says. “We’re just asking for a little heads up.”
What can you do as a diner?
All the restaurant operators and managers Eater talked to emphasized the importance of calling to cancel your reservation. Though they prefer at least 24 hours notice, even a call at reservation time increases the likelihood that they will be able to seat someone else, or at least make adjustments. Pannenbecker said that a few times he has kept the restaurant open to accommodate a late reservation that never showed, when he could have closed the restaurant earlier.
Dilley is optimistic: “I like to think that if if diners has some idea of the significance of a no-show to a restaurant, maybe it’ll change behavior.”
Running a restaurant is already difficult enough, let alone at a reduced capacity with increased safety restrictions during a pandemic. The more diners can do to help restaurants and be considerate, the better — even if it’s just calling ahead.