UK restaurants: tensions boil over as diners and chefs fall out over VAT cuts and costly no-shows

Restaurants struggling to make money are increasingly finding themselves at loggerheads with customers as tensions over reopening lead to rows and disagreements.

July should be a month of celebration for English restaurants after a financially perilous lockdown. Yet instead of happy tales of booming dining rooms, a growing anger about no-shows, as well as a failure to pass on a VAT discount, are threatening to strain the relationship between some businesses and their customers.

In the past fortnight a number of high-profile chefs, including Tom Kerridge and Paul Ainsworth, have voiced their anger over customers who have booked tables and then haven’t turned up, a practice that costs restaurants thousands of pounds in some cases.

It is now hoped that an advertising campaign will encourage customers to come to the aid of beleaguered restaurants. Manchester hospitality businesses have been sharing the hashtag #nomorenoshows for the past fortnight, urging people to cancel well ahead if they cannot honour a booking. That hashtag has now built up such momentum that after a poster launch on Friday, it is set to go up on 450 billboards around Manchester and London.

Michelin-starred chef Paul Ainsworth said that on Tuesday last week 27 people failed to show at his pub The Mariners in Rock, Cornwall. Like most venues it is already operating at half its normal capacity because of physical distancing restrictions.

“I’ve never had that: 27 in one day is obscene,” says Ainsworth, who argues that, with supplies bought and staffing levels set accordingly, a 10% drop-off in pre-booked tables can turn a profitable service into a loss. “There’s a real cost to this, now more than ever with people fighting for survival.”

Opinion is split on how to combat no-shows. A coterie of top restaurants, such as London’s Clove Club, charge upfront using the Tock reservations platform. Popular casual dining restaurants might normally book 70% of tables, and rely on walk-ins to fill any gaps – difficult now many city centres are so quiet. Others take deposits or hold credit card details to charge no-shows – but there is significant customer resistance to that, and people still don’t turn up.

The Mariners charges £25 per person for missed bookings, says Ainsworth – or it tries to. “More and more people cancel the card so you don’t get anything,” he says. “Plus our [average] spend per head is always greater. It’s not about the 25 quid; it’s about the people who couldn’t get in who genuinely wanted to eat with us.”

The scale of the battle facing restaurants was laid bare two days ago when figures showed a drop in sales of about 40% among restaurants that opened their doors at the beginning of the month.

Last week, in a sign of how fragile hospitality’s recovery will be, Pizza Express announced that it was closing up to 75 outlets. But just as chefs are becoming more vocal about no-shows, an undaunted minority are using this moment to force a public reckoning with diners about the financial reality for restaurants.

London restaurants Oklava and Leroy have reopened minus the 12.5% service charge, which many restaurants use to top up basic staff pay. Instead of relying on what Leroy calls this “undignified” and fluctuating discretionary contribution, both are raising prices and guaranteeing higher regular wages for staff.

Similarly, chef Gary Usher has explained why, unlike large chains such as the price-slashing Wetherspoons, his five restaurants in the north-west of England will not pass the chancellor’s 15 percentage point cut in hospitality VAT on to customers.

“We’ve streamlined,” he says. “We haven’t let anyone go. We are going to open with a quarter of the tables we had. The VAT cut is a temporary help and will stop us going under for a few months.”

Other individual restaurants, as well as a number of chains, are taking the same stance, choosing to pass on just some of the VAT cut, or withhold it altogether.

This refusal to bend to unrealistic public expectations may spread, says Restaurant Magazine editor Stefan Chomka, adding: “Restaurants have to be far more honest about their business model, for instance only opening at times when they can guarantee custom. They can’t be all things to all people now.”

Greater candour could heal “mistrust between punters and restaurants”, suggests Manchester chef Mary-Ellen McTague, who will reopen The Creameries in September. She dreams of decorating her dining room with a huge infographic breaking down how every penny is spent to keep her “labour of love” afloat. She says: “There’s an aversion to talking openly about money. People don’t realise how much of a knife edge restaurants are generally on.”