Restaurants Stop Taking Reservations in Favor of Walk-Ins

Restaurant Trends

Tired of no-shows? You’re not alone. In fact, there are many restaurants that have opted out of accepting reservations completely, and the trend has been going on for years. While some customers find no-reservation restaurants a buzz-kill, there is a class of diners that are enthusiastic about waiting in line for the newest restaurant, mostly bloggers, critics, and young people.

Back in 2010, the New York Times reported on the sea of new walk-in only restaurants, which had grown so large in number, Zagat created a specific category for them. Some of the diners interviewed by the writer found the no-reservation policy infuriating, inconvenient, and not worth the trouble. Like interior designer Mario Buatto told the Times, “To tell you the truth, I can’t think of a place that I would go that doesn’t take reservations.”

According to NYC restaurateurs who had been following the trend, David Chang’s Momofuku, the famously authentic (and delicious) Japanese udon noodle shop, was the original trendsetter. His restaurant applied a “first-come, first-serve” policy, and was the first hotspot to do so. Until Momofuku, people had not been willing to wait so long in line to eat.

For Chang, taking no reservations is his way of paying homage to the food and the experience.

“There is a little bit of something going on—maybe “democratic” is the wrong word, but it is the closest one,” Chang explained in the article. “By not taking reservations, there is a certain lack of pretension. It is saying that we want people to eat something delicious. And that people aren’t there for the scene—or anything else but the food.”

In 2014, the Washington Post focused on how Washington DC had also become filled with restaurants that didn’t accept reservations, much to the author’s annoyance. To eat some of the best food in the city, would-be diners had to wait in lines up to three hours long, depending on the night.

The Post author was also incredulous by how walk-in only restaurants were changing the dining hierarchy. Rank-conscious diners, which formally preferred starched white tablecloths over paper napkins, were starting to stand in line for the latest Pad Thai with octopus’s ink, or other equally trendy foods.

The change in dining style was credited to the celebrity-chef appeal. Ever since food Network turned respected chefs into national TV stars, dining out became like an attending a sporting event or rock concert. With the similar fervor of a music junkie scoring concert tickets, self-described foodies were hunting for the next “it” restaurant. Walk-in only establishments made the desire to eat there stronger, and the hype would build.

The Post author writes, “The more adventuresome the meal, the more challenging it appears to be for a chowhound to reach it. But to the victor go the uni-scrambled eggs with sea urchin hollandaise.” The article includes that this bizarre combination is served at the walk-in-only restaurant, Rose’s Luxury, where wait times can be four hours.

The Benefits of Being a Walk-In Only Restaurant

According to the Seattle Times, restaurant reservations are a “tricky business,” as telephone reservations can lead to costly no shows. Conversely, not accepting reservations and relying on walk-ins alone can equally lead to a long wait for a table. What then is the better way?

A rock and a hard place

There’s no denying the extremes that some restaurant owners have gone, in their desperate attempt to stave off no show reservations, from public shaming to charging as high as $200 for no show fees.

Seattle Times food columnist Providence Cicero recently published ‘Reservations Are A Tricky Business For Restaurants, ’ which talks about Jet City restaurants grappling with reservations versus walk-ins. It highlights that the prices seem to be in favor of walk-ins, as a lot of restaurants seem to have abandoned reservations and now rely solely on walk-ins – sometimes to the detriment of the customers.

Walk-in policies are an ‘easy’ fix for no shows; however, not taking reservations takes it strains on regular paying customers in the long term.

“Ethan Stowell, the owner of two Seattle area restaurants, says that he was one of the first to abandon reservations and make people wait for a table, but the no-reservations policy changed after about a year. One day Stowell ran into a former steady customer who lived two blocks away. The former customer said he had stopped coming in because he couldn’t make a reservation and didn’t want to eat at five o’clock.”

After citing other restaurants that have replaced telephone reservations with walk-ins, Cicero goes on to write:

“The restaurateurs I talked to agree that not taking reservations is more profitable. You don’t run the risk of empty seats because of no-shows, or last-minute cancellations, or having customers occupy tables far longer than calculated. But that works best when you have a steady stream of customers willing to wait or to dine very early or very late.”

Statistics show that not accepting reservations works best for mid- to low-priced menus. Patrons of more expensive restaurants and bars would be hard-pressed to show up without reservations and be told to wait two hours for a table. For some owners, that’s one of the draws.

To those running walk-in only establishments, the no-reservations system is more egalitarian. Gone is the elitism of knowing the right person. By not taking reservations, anyone can eat at their restaurants and enjoy the food.

Competitive reservation-making tends to be made exclusively at higher-end restaurants. There can be a sentiment of snobbery and pretension of knowing the maître d and getting the coveted Saturday night 8 o’clock reservation, one that turns off many. The system is sustained by people coveting a seat in the center of the action, and for having a chance to enjoy the creations of the best chefs. But with customers becoming savvy about different chefs and food styles, people are no longer vying for these dinner spots.

For the hot and trendy spots, rejecting reservations is an excellent marketing tool. Exclusivity, based on the number of seats available instead of stature, attracts big numbers and builds a buzz. People don’t feel excluded from what’s cool and find it rewarding to get to the head of the line and be seated.

Not taking reservations works extremely well for radical menus, as mentioned by The Washington Post. Surprising recipes or thoughtful ingredient sourcing are the two most common menu draws for walk-in recipes. And of course, when a budding celebrity chef opens a kitchen, food lovers in town will wait in long lines for a chance to taste the menu.

Interestingly, walk-in only restaurants are making higher profits than if they were to accept reservations. Most restaurants subscribe to the 70/30 rule of reservation-making. Yet for some restaurants, no-shows pose too great a threat to their business.

The average rate of no-shows at restaurants is 15%, sapping revenue every time a reservation is missed or not met. Some restaurateurs have opted to sell tickets for dinner to ensure guests show up, but it has become more common to scrap reservations altogether.

Without the lag time between reservations, instead of two or three table turns a night, tables can turn four times throughout the evening. For restaurants that have small margins, this change in revenue makes a large impact.

Despite the popularity of walk-in-only bars and restaurants, it does alienate a large number of customers, namely senior citizens, parents hiring babysitters, and an older generation with deeper pockets who like to have a table waiting. Despite it not being for everyone, walk-in only restaurants have found a way to attract crowds and make more money.

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