Red Medicine and the no-shows

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, no longer have restaurant reviews been the exclusive domain of professional restaurant critics. Services like Yelp have enabled reviews of restaurants (and other establishments), both for better and for worse, by average customers.

But, suddenly some no-show customers at a Beverly Hills restaurant found the shoe on the other foot. This story on KGTV (San Diego ABC affiliate) made a lot of waves, because this time Noah Ellis, the owner of Red Medicine, tweeted the full names of several no-shows after getting sick and tired of losing money from people either missing their reservation or cancelling at the last minute.

This tweet:

All the nice guests who wonder why restaurants overbook and they sometimes have to wait for their res should thank people like those below.

and this quote from the owner (which came from the KGTV story) should give you some idea of the frustration level involved:

The (expletive) who decide to no-show, or cancel 20 minutes before¬†their reservation (because one of their friends made a reservation somewhere else) ruin restaurants (as a whole) for the people who make a reservation and do their best to honor it. Either restaurants are forced to overbook and make the guests (that actually showed up) wait, or they do what we do, turn away guests for some prime-time slots because they’re booked, and then have empty tables.

And if that’s not enough this LA Times article has this quote from a competing chef:

[A competing chef] said he usually responds to no-shows with “Cursing, a lot of f-words and other kitchen-speak. It’s the equivalent of being stood up. Not that I’ve ever been stood up. But I can imagine how it feels with how many no-shows and last-minute cancellations we’ve gotten.

And then, days later, this article on grubstreet.com details that at least one of those no-showing had a death in the family which she found out about less than a half-hour from making the reservation, and that she had only called in the reservation at 6pm for dinner at 7:30pm. According to her, staff at Red Medicine had her cell phone number and never called to see what had happened, and it was (understandably) the last thing on her mind to call and cancel the reservation.

(For the moment, I’m going to set aside that this is the same restaurant that once refused service to S. Irene Virbila and her party, and posted her picture, back in late 2010. As it happens, I blogged about that one too; if you want my post about that incident, you’re welcome to go back in the archives and read it.)

I can see both sides of the story here. Since I’m not a restaurant owner, first I will approach this from the point of view of a restaurant guest (which I have been many times, though not often at the level of restaurants similar to Red Medicine).

I think a death in the family is a valid reason to skip a restaurant reservation. For me, hearing a relative had just passed on would certainly ruin my appetite. If I had made a restaurant reservation at 6pm, and gotten that call around 6:20-6:30pm, it would depend a lot on circumstances if I was able to keep my thoughts in order long enough to remember to call to cancel; I might be able to, and then again I might not. Certainly, though, if the restaurant has my phone number and call to ask where I am, I’d tell them why I wasn’t able to make it. So if the woman’s story is true, then Red Medicine’s staff really dropped the ball and made an already bad situation even worse for at least one potential customer.

We don’t know the stories behind why the other six no-shows didn’t honor their reservations, and in all likelihood, we probably never will. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and assume that the others had reasons which were much less serious than a death in the family. If it was simply a case of someone else in the party having reservations elsewhere, that’s a no-brainer: I would call and cancel as soon as I know. Even if it’s something like accidentally losing the credit/debit card that I was going to pay for dinner with, or problems with the vehicle I’d be driving down there (let’s face it, Red Medicine’s clientele don’t hop the bus down there), I’d rather call and cancel than just no-show.

From a restaurant owner’s point of view, perhaps more could have been done so that things didn’t get to this point. I certainly would want to know why people are no-shows at my restaurant so often. Maybe Noah and his staff already knew or at least already thought they knew. While I’ll probably get my share of flames for just trying to see Noah’s side of the story, it’s entirely possible this has been an ongoing problem they have been trying to resolve for months or years.

That said, there’s enough controversy about this that this isn’t something every restaurant owner should seriously consider. Red Medicine got at least three one-star reviews on Yelp in retaliation that I saw (and no telling how many others which will bubble up to the top once the reviewers better establish themselves), one of which suggested the restaurant should consider converting to walk-ins only. While I’m sure the reviewer meant well, that kind of a change either goes very right, or very wrong. Most places which require reservations require them because otherwise they’d lose many more customers without them, since many are bound to give up on a restaurant as the odds of getting a table equal and then become far worse than winning a decent amount on a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Only time will tell just how right, or how wrong, this move was. One thing’s for sure: if I get to visit LA and dine at Red Medicine, I will honor any reservation I make. The last thing I need is bad publicity.