'All it takes is a phone call': Montreal restaurants say no-shows eating away at their bottom line

At the best of times, deciding to be a last-minute no-show instead of canceling restaurant reservations in advance is unsavoury behaviour, but restaurateurs say the practice is even more distasteful now as they struggle to stay afloat post lockdown.

"It's exceptionally galling at this point. I find it's cruel to people that have been working so hard," said the co-owner of Monkland Taverne in NDG in an interview with CTV news.

Barbara Irwin was referring to staff members who, for many months, worried about cobbling together rent with minimal pay and some government support and "stuck with it for us because they love working here and they love the clientele."

But being happy to be back on the job full-time won’t pay their rent or the restaurant’s rent when each diner who stands you up can represent a loss of "potentially anywhere from $80 to $100 a person. Yeah, it's a lot of money," Irwin said.

And so when the Tavern, as it's known, felt the brunt of that type of "inconsiderate" behaviour this past week, Irwin took to Twitter to issue a diplomatic but frank message to the restaurant’s followers.

The upscale resto owner thanked everyone who came out to "show us all the love" but then politely, but pointedly, addressed a message "to the 16 no-shows for their reservations, I beg of you, all it takes is a phone call. We turned away so many that would have loved to have your table!"

Thank you to all that came out to show us all the love, this week. We appreciate it so much. To the 16 no shows for their reservations, I beg of you, all it takes is a phone call. We turned away so many that would have loved to have your table. Thank you!

— Taverne Monkland (@MonklandTaverne) June 13, 2021

‘WHY DIDN’T YOU GIVE THE TABLES TO OTHERS?’

Some who responded to Irwin’s plea suggested she simply should have given the available tables to other clients.

But "we don't have a lineup of people to choose [from], since it's supposed to be reservation-only right now," she said, of the public health measure intended to prevent lineups and crowds.

Fortunately, a few people who didn't book reservations this past weekend decided to try their luck at the door and Irwin was able to invite a small number in for an hour and 20 minutes at a time.

They said "'Yeah, that's fine, we'll just have wine and oysters!' People are just so excited to dine out,” she said.

One former Montreal restaurant owner who frequently felt the same kind of sting at his Old Montreal lunch spot came up some years ago with a strategy to encourage clients to honour their booking.

If someone reserved a table for six people at noon, for example, Matthew Schnarch would say "absolutely no problem, but we will only keep it until 12:05 and after that the next person in can have your seat."

That changed everything, said Schnarch, formerly of Cafe Pave, a restaurant he was forced to close because of the strain of the pandemic.

His reservation guidelines put the "onus on the customer" to be on time, he explained, knowing if they were late they’d lose the table.

It also allowed Schnarch to provide the congenial service he wanted to provide, but with some safeguards in place. "It got the customer to think about what they were saying," he said.

When "those six and 10 and 12 people don't show up and you've only got 40 seats in your place, that's life and death," said Schnarch.

CREDIT CARD NUMBERS AS INSURANCE?

If the restaurants don’t like to lose money it stands to reason that neither would prospective diners.

What if people were asked for a credit card number when they make a reservation as a little insurance, in case they skip out?

Right now, a restaurant is not permitted to charge a person’s credit card as a penalty for not appearing at the restaurant at an appointed time and date since the restaurant hasn't delivered a service, explained Martin Vezina, a spokesperson with the Quebec Restaurant Association (ARQ).

However, Vezina says that could change one day, as discussions on a related association proposal are ongoing with Quebec’s consumer protection office.

"Maybe a little fee; it can be as low as $10 or $20, just to change the behaviour of the customers, to say that there are consequences if you don't call up to cancel your reservation."

Reservation apps have made the problem worse, adds Vezina. Although they’re efficient, they eliminate all interaction with the humans who run and operate the restaurant.

"It’s so easy to reserve now with different reservation apps," said Vezina. You can also "cancel on the app but even though canceling is just a click away, people won’t do it,” when the booking process is so impersonal, he added. 

But it’s all very personal for Irwin and every other Quebec restaurant owner, chef, waiter, and person bussing tables, and she asks customers to be kind, as most are, she said.

"There are so many wonderful people that call, they're like, 'Oh my God, I can't make my reservation' and they call to cancel. Great, thank you so much," she said, also mentioning her appreciation for everyone who calls to say they’re going to be late.

“We all just want to make this work," she said. "We're so happy to see our clients back.”