The customer isn't always right


I urge you to read Dan Rubin's Inquirer column today about the landscaper who created a website to allow his fellow contractors can call out bad, nasty customers - an anti-AngiesList.

It got me to thinking about Chip Roman, chef-owner of Mica in Chestnut Hill. Not 24 hours before, he went onto Facebook to complain about a party of six that canceled its reservation just before the appointed time. Reason unknown. "Dear 6 top that just canceled five minutes before your reservation, **** you," it began.

One of the most vexing aspects of running a restaurant is dealing with no-shows, especially for a restaurateur almost entirely dependent on reservations. (Roman also owns Blackfish in Conshohocken and Ela in Queen Village.)

No-shows or last-minute cancellations have been a problem for years. You get your "shoppers" - the couples who make reservations at three restaurants and at the last minute decide to grace one with their presence, in effect stiffing the other two restaurants. And you get your legitimate cancellations - someone is sick, a babysitter doesn't show up (hmm).

Roman fielded a couple dozen private messages from fellow restaurateurs to commiserate. The reaction mainly from his non-restaurant Facebook friends included calls for him to identify the transgressor. "Nah, I won't do that," Roman told me.

The impact of Friday's last-minute cancellation was this: Roman has 30 seats at Mica. Dinner tabs average $80 a person. "The food's already bought, the staff is there," he said. He said he could have booked that table 10 times over the course of the week. After reconfiguring the dining room, Mica accommodated a deuce, meaning that he "ate" four covers.

To combat this kind of thing, many restaurateurs ask for credit-card numbers to hold a table and threaten to charge patrons who cancel at the last minute or don't show. But they seldom follow through.

The offending customers invariably will contest the charges. Even worse, said one Facebook commenter, they'll go on a social-media site like Yelp to trash the restaurateur.

The Internet, which gives restaurateurs services like OpenTable and CityEats to book tables painlessly, has also created what Roman calls a "lost intimacy. Now, it's easy for people to click everywhere." He added: "They're not necessarily doing it to be mean." Phone reservations tend to be better honored.

"If you buy tickets to a football game and you get sick, tough [noogies]," Roman said.

So what's the solution - short of changing human nature? Selling tickets to a restaurant? Creating a database of deadbeats that restaurateurs can share? Put someone on the phones that day to double-confirm reservations?