John Fulchino, the co-owner of Cashion's Eat Place and Johnny's Half Shell restaurants in Washington, once told me that deciding to take reservations at Cashion's was "the best decision I ever made."
I wondered at the time what he meant, but before I could ask, the conversation had moved on to something else. Recently, I went back to Fulchino to find out why he felt taking reservations -- vs. making people wait -- was so much better. It turns out that Fulchino sees reservation policies as integral to creating the right type of atmosphere in a restaurant. Cashion's, with its sophisticated menu and intimate setting, doesn't seem right for the more chaotic first-come, first-served system, he says. But the reverse is true, too: As passionately as Fulchino feels about taking reservations at Cashion's, he feels equally strongly about not doing so at Johnny's, his busy seafood eatery near Dupont Circle.
"If I were to take reservations at the Half Shell, I think it would bust up the energy of the place," he said.
But it's not just a question of atmosphere. The decision to take reservations involves matters of efficiency, food costs, volume, staffing and customer relations. In a business with such thin profit margins, eliminating any element of waste is paramount, and the right reservation policy can help.
As a rule, busier, smaller, more casual restaurants are far less likely to take reservations. They are spots that benefit from the hustle and bustle of a waiting list at the door and a hungry crowd at the bar. Often the shoulder-to-shoulder feel of a place lends to its cachet and buzz, and patrons might find it's as much fun to go and wait as it is to go and eat.
And by not taking reservations, a restaurant can also squeeze more people in. As soon as a table opens, there's someone waiting in the wings to take it.
"The turnover is faster and greater -- it makes the night a little more efficient," said Daniel Godoy, a manager at the popular Bethesda restaurant Red Tomato. The owners of Red Tomato take reservations during the week but not on Friday and Saturday nights, when the place is busiest. On those nights, it's harder to predict when a group will linger and throw off the reservation schedule, Godoy said. It's also inefficient on a busy night to leave a table unoccupied until the next reservation arrives, he said.
Godoy estimates that Red Tomato does 25 to 40 percent more business on Friday and Saturday nights because it doesn't take reservations. A diner who wouldn't dream of reserving a table for dinner at 9:30 or 10p.m., he said, may well arrive at 8:30 and willingly wait for a table, even if it means not eating until 9:30 or 10. People also start arriving earlier at a non-reservation restaurant to beat the rush.
"Sixty to 80 percent of people who call for a reservation want to make it between 7 and 9," he said.
Technology has helped make this hip, place-to-be atmosphere more manageable with beeper systems for patrons to carry while they wait at the bar or stroll a bit. Some of the bigger, flashier beepers vibrate so violently that they might just startle the margarita out of your hand, but it's still better than not hearing your name when it's finally called over the din.
Restaurants that focus more on food than on crowds tend to be more reservation-oriented. Particularly if a place is known as a "special
occasion" restaurant, diners want to have a table that belongs to them at a certain time. Fulchino considers taking reservations at Cashion's another part of the service people expect when they seek out a restaurant for "a two-hour dining experience."
How those reservations are allotted is important to the flow of the evening. Washington chef Roberto Donna allots less time to early-evening reservations at his flagship restaurant, Galileo, on the theory that diners are probably headed to a movie or the theater. The real advantage to reservations, he said, is they spread the diners throughout the evening to keep the kitchen going at a steady, manageable pace.
"That's the easy part," Donna said. The real quagmire created by taking reservations is the no-shows. On a Friday or Saturday night, he said, it's not unusual for 20 percent of a restaurant's reservations to never show up -- even ones who've confirmed a reservation the same day or up to a few minutes before. "So what you do is you overbook," Donna said. "We don't want to, but you have to."
Overbooking means the occasional group shows up to find there's no table available. Donna will throw in free drinks, or more, to make it right ("the more nice they are, the more they get," he half-jokes), but sometimes the angry diners simply leave.
The no-show rate not only leaves an element of uncertainty in all confirmed reservations, it also wastes food. "If you have booked for 120, you should be able to buy for 120," Donna said. "There is always waste involved."
Some restaurants take credit card numbers when booking a table, which
may or may not be charged in the event of a no-show. Others have found help in another technological development: online reservations.
The San Francisco company OpenTable.com has been slowly building its base of restaurants in cities such as Washington, New York and Chicago, with 1,600 online now. Galileo is one of 130 in the D.C. area, with 30 more ready to go online soon.
OpenTable lets a diner enter criteria for a reservation -- time, type of food, location, number of people, etc. -- and the system searches all the restaurants in OpenTable's network and reports back what is available. Clicking a button reserves the table, simultaneously showing up in the restaurant's own terminal, after asking for contact information including an e-mail address and phone number.
"You want a Friday-night table at 7 -- how many phone calls are you going to have to make?" said Thomas Layton, hief executive of the company. OpenTable fills about 150 to 200 seats a month for a typical restaurant on the site. A third of its reservations are made between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m., and half of those are for the same or the ext day.
But in selling OpenTable to restaurants -- it costs about $200 a month for a basic system and charges $1 for every seat filled -- the company stresses different advantages. The system allows restaurants to keep
track of a customer's table or waiter preferences or food allergies. Plus, the no-show rate for OpenTable reservations is much lower than the industry average, only about 4 percent. Layton thinks it's because canceling online is anonymous and quick, so people are more likely to do it.
I'm more cynical. I think people cancel because they know if they don't cancel and don't show, the restaurant knows who they are.