NEW JERSEY — No-shows have always been an issue for restaurants, but with pandemic restrictions limiting seating, these days the effects can be devastating.

Restaurant owners have a plea for patrons who can’t make their reservations: Just call and cancel.

“In previous years, busy days for us were a logistics challenge,” said Chris Migton, executive chef at Chez Catherine, an acclaimed French restaurant in Westfield. “How could we accommodate as many guests as possible while still providing great food and service? The pandemic restrictions made that even more of a puzzle.”

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Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the fine dining establishment has gone from 17 tables to 9.

“Even as curfews and capacity restrictions are lifted, we are still limited by the 6-foot social distancing regulation. Every table counts even more,” Migton said.

No-shows affect restaurants in more than one way, said Chez Catherine’s owner, Stephane Bocket.

“Not only is it a loss of revenue for the restaurant but it is also a loss tips for the staff — staff that may be in bigger number than necessary, leaving them with less money for them,” he said.

The restaurant may also buy more perishable food and even rent linens in expectation of making up the costs that day, Bocket said.

“It’s difficult, because there are a lot of moving parts in the restaurant business,” agreed Steve Scro, who owns the fine dining restaurant Mohawk House in Sparta with his wife, Rachael Scro.

“It is so much appreciated when people can take a minute or two to give us a courtesy call,” Scro said. “At the same time, when you get a no call, no show and you’ll call the phone and nobody answers, it’s a bit disappointing.”

“A reservation is a verbal contract,” said Migton. “We are expected to provide goods and services at prices specified on our menu and we expect guests to show up when they say they will.”

Marilou Halvorsen, president of the NJ Restaurant & Hospitality Association, said that restaurants can choose to require a credit card to hold a reservation and charge a no-show fee if the patron does not show up, as long as they disclose that upfront.

“Very few restaurants do that,” Halvorsen said.

Bocket called no-show fees a “double-edged sword,” because patrons who are charged for a no-show are now walking away with a negative experience.

“I do not want to lose a potential customer for the future,” Bocket said.

So instead, most restaurant owners rely on customers to do the right thing and hope for the best.

Sal Siconolfi, owner of Bella Napoli in Bloomfield, called canceling a reservation you can’t keep “a huge help.”

“I really feel for the smaller restaurants,” said Siconolfi, whose Italian restaurant can seat up to 200 during non-pandemic times. “Your heart goes out, because it’s a volume game in the restaurant business. If you’re not getting the volume … your overhead stays the same.”

When a customer calls to cancel a reservation, not only does it allow the restaurant to fill the table with someone on the waiting list or a walk-in, it’s also an opportunity for the restaurant to re-book you, noted Scro.

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Showing up late for a reservation or lingering long after the check arrives can also hurt restaurants.

“If a guest has a reservation for an early seating and arrives late, the next group for that table may not get their table at their reservation time,” Migton said. “Please show up for your reservation on time to be fair to all other guests. If you arrive more than a few minutes early, you may be waiting. This is not the fault of the restaurant.”

Siconolfi said he understands that customers are frustrated when they arrive on time and their table isn’t ready, especially right now when they can’t sit at the bar because of COVID restrictions.

“Be a little flexible and lenient,” he requests. 

“With reduced capacity, restaurants are trying to accommodate as many guests as possible within these restrictions,” Migton added. “Some restaurants are limiting the amount of time that guests have for dining. Please be respectful of these time limits if you are asked. While we recognize that guests are enjoying dining out and reconnecting with loved ones, we ask that you continue conversations elsewhere once your check is paid.”

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