In a competitive climate, restaurants are vying for your custom, but that doesn’t mean diners should take advantage. With some restaurants starting to ask for deposits up front, others are naming and shaming no-shows in a fight to beat empty tables and keep business afloat.
Compared with many of the world’s leading and most celebrated fine dining restaurant cities, Bangkok offers a seemingly cheap and affordable offering. Tasting menus here range from B2,000 to B5,000, on average, and you can dine in a multitude of places for much less, sampling food in restaurants that have a Michelin star and/or appear on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
The affordable culinary offering of Bangkok has made it a food tourism destination, with global gourmets planning trips around a carefully crafted food itinerary. Equally, the adventurousness of the Bangkok palate, following years of low-wages and diets of Thai street food, not to mention a lack of cosmopolitan foreign dining options, has seen the city blossom, opening diner’s eyes to the wonders of myriad flavours beyond som tam and tom yum.
All of this is excellent news for local chefs and restauranteurs, you’d think, however, this is a competitive city with tens of thousands of restaurants, from street-level to a multitude of high-rise dining on the rooftops of hotels. The dining options here are seemingly endless, but for every new restaurant opening, a wealth faces declining fortunes.
Don’t be mislead by the glossy food guides and over-zealous PR agencies; restaurants here are feeling the pinch. From independent operations to major chains, all are fighting for customers. What doesn’t help the cause, are no-shows.
Several high-profile independent chefs and restauranteurs reveal that they regularly lose hundreds of thousands of Baht simply because of no-shows: some, including LeDu in the Sathorn area, named and shamed them on social media.
Head chef and co-owner of LeDu, Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, took to Facebook to vent his frustration recently when a booking of ten people failed to show for dinner. “This is not just a restaurant, but a business and people’s livelihoods,” he said. “People might assume the restaurants make a lot of money, but they don’t realise how the impact of no-shows can damage our business. One customer can mean the difference between an extra penny, breaking even, or going bust! Hotels and airlines charge in advance, but no one complains about that.”
There are a few well-documented problems with the independent restaurant model. Rents, rates, and unfavourable economic conditions; VAT, the increasing cost of ingredients, staff wages, wine import costs—it was new fire escape laws that were behind the 2017 closure of Crying Thaiger. Moreover, while chefs may not enter the profession solely to make money—and small, independent restaurants, in particular, are not what you’d describe as profit machines—adding no-shows to an already long list of business challenges is becoming a serious and damaging issue.
The issue of no-shows is not helped by the relatively affordable, so-called fine dining options in Bangkok. I know of fellow foodies who will phone around their choice of potential Friday night dining options, making bookings in each in order to secure a reservation, and then on the day of the meal, decide where they’ll eat depending on the mood they’re in; not bothering to cancel the other reservations. Likewise, the issue is being fuelled by online booking services, which allow diners to book a table from their phone with a click.
Some online booking sites said they had tried to tackle the problem. OpenTable—one of the earliest and most successful such booking engines, launched in San Francisco 20 years ago—said it prohibited users from making more than one booking in the same time slot and that diners who didn’t show up for a reservation four times over 12 months were blocked. It said that the no-show rate was about 4.5 per cent, less than the 5.4 per cent for diners who book traditionally by phone. As long as booking apps continue to promote discounts and dining incentives, customers will continue to relinquish the telephone and move across to app and mobile bookings.
Pongcharn ‘Top’ Russell, head chef at Freebird in Sukhumvit, also has concerns over no-shows and was one of many who left comments on Chef Ton’s Facebook page, writing, “If you’re a big party you shouldn’t be offended when a restaurant ask that you commit so they can secure your table. Giving credit card details and helping the restaurant recuperate some of the lost revenue is not exactly stealing. Small independent restaurants don’t have that many legs to stand on.”
For a string of restaurants in the mid-market, where private equity has fuelled expansion, no-shows present a head-scratching problem. While, financially, many of these restaurants can afford empty tables, supplementing income by filling tables at their other outlets, they are still only given a relatively small timeframe to perform. There is little time for error or experimentation in this business, and some—like Little Beast—have been forced to close sites.
Riley Sanders is head chef at Canvas. For him, it’s not unusual to have 12 confirmed bookings and only nine turn up. “The strange part is there is a ton of variation between days of the week, times of the month, specific months, or times of the year,” says Chef Riley. “I’m always looking at this stuff to find patterns, but it’s still quite a challenge consistently predicting how many guests to expect on any given day. No-shows are a part of it, but I think just a smaller one for us.”
According to the Restaurant Business Trade Association (RBTA), 2,300 small restaurants nationwide were forced to close last year, many of which were heavily impacted by no-shows and lost income. Further studies by RBTA suggest that there are, at current, around 200,000 restaurants operating in Thailand, although with the seesaw of new openings and closings, this is undoubtedly a guesstimate.
“The competition in Thailand’s restaurant business is intensifying every year thanks to new foreign brands that continue to set up chains while existing brands keep expanding,” says RBTA president Ladda Sampawthong.
One manager at Dean & Deluca Bangkok—who currently have 11 outlets in Thailand—said the chain’s steady flow of customers means that they can make up for no-shows, but states that lost bookings only pile on the pressure in an already tough industry. “We have a pretty quick turnaround and offer customers both quick and long-term dining options, plus most of our customers are walk-ins. Even so, we receive large bookings, particularly over the weekends, and certainly do experience no-shows and therefore, empty tables.”
Samantha Proyrungtong, who works in F&B Marketing and Publicity, says that the problem of no-shows, and the effect they have on the business, is something she regularly discusses with chefs. “Bangkokians have been spoilt for choice for many years and the business of restaurants here is so competitive that people are willing to take large orders on any given day. Then, of course, if they don’t show, there’s the challenge of filling those empty seats. Chefs are, rightly so, getting fed up. It’s time for them to act.”
To combat no-shows, it will take more than chefs taking to social media to vent their anger. Some restaurants have long taken deposits for special occasions such as Valentine’s Day or bookings for groups, while others businesses maintain a database of no-shows. Bangkok should take note, this is a practice that across Europe and North America has already become commonplace. When purchasing a concert or sporting event tickets, the customer is expected to pay upfront, the same when buying cinema tickets over the internet, so why not restaurants?
The alternative, as has been long-practiced in many places already, is a policy of no bookings, relying on walk-up trade to turn tables quickly. A no-booking policy is not always effective, but then, what guarantee is there that when someone makes a reservation they will turn up? Ultimately, the decision is down to the restaurant, but either way, it’s a gamble. “You are beginning to see more pre-booking systems, such as Chope, being implemented,” says Samantha. “The industry is still relatively small, so as long as a booking is traceable they can be held accountable. Using a specially designed restaurant booking system to guarantee bookings and hold either upfront payments of deposits, I believe, is highly advisable.”
One restaurant who has been requesting deposits upon making bookings for some time now is Bo.Ian. “We require a credit card guarantee and if they no-show or cancel, then we charge 2,000 Baht,” says Dylan Jones of Bo.Ian. “In general, if someone cancels and we are able to fill the booking from our waitlist, then we won’t charge, but if we can’t fill and we lose revenue, then we will.” This isn’t drastic or unusual behavior. This is a business, and a stance many more restaurants should be taking. If you cancel a flight or hotel booking—or don’t even cancel, but are a no-show—you still pay, one way or another.
“Since adopting this policy,” Jones continues, “We’ve had a 95 per cent reduction in no-shows and 99 per cent of cancellations have been with 24 hours.” This upturn in business management means the restaurant can profit and continue with the business without worry or concern over a potential loss of profits.
The reality is, that no-shows make up around 10 per cent, sometimes even 20 per cent of bookings each night, and while there’s no security for restaurants, there are a number of protectional measures they can take to limit the number: drop prices during off-peak times, promote to online customers, research and use booking engines, but no-shows can never be fully combated or prevented; rude and inconsiderate behaviour will continue to exist, but as diners, let us all consider just a little bit more, the overall workload and passion that goes into creating a menu, operating a restaurant and running a business. We are all in this together: chef-customer, customer-chef; and remember that actions can damage a business. We want our best chefs and our best restaurants to remain for our pleasure. Support them.