Reservations Table. Photo: nipiphon na chiangmai / Alamy Stock Photo
As restaurateurs take to social media to debate taking reservations against credit card numbers to charge a cancellation fee, restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, the man behind brands such as Social, Smoke House Deli and Salt Water Cafe, weighs in on how what happens to a restaurant when a table is cancelled and whether the practice is realistic in India.
About 20 years ago, when Olive in Bandra had just opened, a friend and I went there to eat. We didn’t have a reservation, because it was impossible to get one those days. But we thought we would try our luck. We got there early on a weeknight. The place was empty and we were excited about dining at the city’s hottest new restaurant. Unfortunately, we were told the restaurant had no free tables. This was absurd because we were looking at an empty restaurant. What we didn’t understand back then was how us Indians enjoy the concept of IST or Indian Stretchable Time. The restaurant was booked out, but no one showed up on time, which put Olive in the uncomfortable position of having to turn away walk-ins who saw an empty restaurant. I’ve been on the other side many times since then and let me tell you, being tardy about a restaurant reservation may seem inconsequential to a diner, but for restaurants, it often spells doom.
World over, for restaurants, reservations are central for planning operations and logistics. In the West, restaurants manage to do three seatings for dinner, beginning at 6.30pm, going all the way up to 10.30pm. In India, restaurants barely manage to do 1.5 seatings, as no one likes to dine at 7.30pm. When they are eating out, 9-9.30pm is the ideal eating time for most people. That leaves a restaurant fewer options to turn their inventory over a few times. Apart from the actual timing of the meal is the question of punctuality and courtesy. Sure, it’s understandable that people get stuck in traffic and get delayed, but a quick call to the restaurant to let them know would help them manage the stream of walk-ins trying to get a table. And if you have no plans of actually turning up, please do inform the restaurant. For smaller restaurants, a cancelled reservation for a big party means a waste of hours of prep and crucial resources during a time like this.
Restaurants are already hurting because of COVID. In fact, many have already shut down. Of the ones that survived the lockdown, many are not operational through the week. Now imagine prepping for a big table on one of the few nights you’re open and then having it cancelled?
For a while now, restaurateurs in India have been calling for a reservation system that allows them to take down credit card numbers, and charge a small fee for a cancellation. This practice is followed by many restaurants across the world, but no one in India does it. The entire industry would have to make a conscious move to do so if they really wanted to implement this. Otherwise, the one or two places that do would lose out on reservations.
The last thing restaurateurs want to do now is scare away a customer by asking for a credit card number. We may be a while off from that reality but right now, all we’re asking for is for a little sensitivity. Thinking of dining out? Please do! Restaurants are more than happy to help you have a good time and enjoy a great meal. But a humble request: think of us as your friends. Cancelling dinner plans? Let us know, please.
As told to Smitha Menon