It was a recent opera night at Sotto Sopra that put owner and executive chef Riccardo Bosio over the edge. The Mount Vernon restaurateur was prepared to serve 95 guests a five-course meal while they were serenaded by a tenor and a soprano. Only 65 showed up.
Now Bosio will require credit card information for high-stakes reservations — and charge a penalty to diners who don't show.
No-shows and last-minute cancellations increasingly trouble the hospitality industry as online platforms such as OpenTable remove the personal interactions reservation once required, and reduce the guilt customers feel for backing out at the last minute, say industry analysts, owners and consumers.
Those cancellations cost restaurateurs such as Bosio, who said he loses up to $150,000 a year from no-shows and canceled reservations. It hurts tipped employees the most.
For opera nights and major holidays, the Italian restaurant will charge $50 a person for no-shows and cancellations made within 48 hours of the reservation. For parties of six or more on weekends, Sotto Sopra will charge $30 per person for reservations canceled with less than a day's notice.
Restaurants across the country have started raising the stakes for diners who back out. Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas launched the concept of selling tickets to dinners at his restaurants, which include Next and Alinea, and the idea is spreading. In Washington, the Columbia Room, the Shaw Bijou and Pineapple and Pearls all now sell tickets.
New technology, including a system Kokonas created called Tock, has emerged to support the ticketing concept. Forty-eight restaurants worldwide — including 12 in Chicago, eight in New York and the Columbia Room — now use the platform.
The national trend transfers power from diners to restaurants, which can better control the supply of desirable times. That could lead to complaints of stratification — creating classes of diners who can commit large sums to guarantee a table at 8 p.m. Saturday, versus those who prefer a free reservation at off-peak hours.
So far, Sotto Sopra's policy announcement on Facebook has met with support. And Bosio said assessing fees when diners fail to turn up has been a long time coming at his 20-year-old restaurant.
Tim Reilly, beverage director for the Bagby Restaurant Group, said his group is watching closely to see how diners respond to Sotto Sopra's new tactic. The Bagby Group owns local restaurants including Fleet Street Kitchen, Ten Ten American Bistro and Cunningham's.
Reilly acknowledged that no-shows and last-minute cancellations have become major problems in the industry, most pronounced on weekends and holidays. "It's really detrimental to our finances and our businesses," Reilly said.
Still, Reilly said, "we don't want to alienate any of our guests, because things happen."
Restaurants may report customers to OpenTable if they don't show up for a reservation, but Reilly said his restaurant group won't mark guests as "no-shows" on the platform because they don't want to anger customers who might return.
A spokeswoman for San Francisco-based OpenTable said less than 4 percent of reservations made through the platform end in a no-show.
Bosio doesn't think guests consider the business impact when they back out of their plans. He thinks it comes down to a lack of respect for the industry.
Janet Wagner, director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said the lack of human interaction in online reservation systems such as OpenTable lets consumers cancel without feeling responsible for the consequences.
"When you're working with the Internet, it's just so faceless that it's easy to forget that you're actually hurting the businesses that you've promised to patronize," Wagner said.
Wagner thinks Sotto Sopra's new policy will deter most no-shows. But she expects a segment of customers will still not show up and eat the cost.
"Cancellation fees are a standard practice in a number of industries — fees or penalties of some kind at hotels, airlines — it's not at all unusual," she said. "So I think people are getting used to the idea."
Wagner said calling customers to confirm they're coming is one way to get people to follow through.
But that approach didn't work for Bosio before Sotto Sopra's April 10 opera night — 20 customers who promised by phone that they would attend failed to show.
"It's just embarrassing," Bosio said.
Opera nights are particularly tough because the restaurant prepares special dishes. But Bosio said weekends are difficult, generally.
"People play games," he said, booking multiple reservations and choosing one at the last minute.
Other restaurateurs report the same phenomenon.
"You almost get this feeling that you're on a dating show and they didn't pick you," Reilly said.
OpenTable spokeswoman Tiffany Fox said in an email she didn't have any insight into diners or groups who might make multiple reservations at the same time, only to choose one later. Diners are unable to make reservations within 2.5 hours of each other on the site.
Jacob Finkelstein is the sort of patron restaurants love. He said he uses OpenTable to book reservations a handful of times each year. He said he has never made multiple reservations and then canceled at the last minute. The 28-year-old Owings Mills man reserved a table at the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley this year on the night he proposed to his girlfriend.
"I decided to use OpenTable because I wanted to make sure I had had the reservation — I wanted to guarantee it — and I prefer to do that as opposed to calling the actual restaurant," he said.
Another way restaurants combat expected cancellations is by overbooking, which can frustrate customers who aren't seated promptly.
"There are times restaurants can't do anything but overbook because not overbooking will lead to a nonprofitable night," Reilly said. "They really don't have a lot of options otherwise financially."
Christopher Spann, owner of the Wine Market in Locust Point, said walk-in customers usually fill tables left open by no-shows. His restaurant requires credit card information only on the busiest days of the year — Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve — when reservations are made well in advance.
"Those two days of the year we're not likely to get walk-ins to replace reservations that cancel on us," Spann said.
On those nights, the Wine Market charges half the price of the prix-fixe menu for customers who cancel within 48 hours, or just don't show up. But Spann said it's rare that the restaurant has to follow through on that policy — only one or two parties a year back out of dinner on Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve.
Scott Thurston said he doesn't remember how many times he no-showed at restaurants before OpenTable dropped him several years ago. OpenTable requires users to cancel their reservations at least 30 minutes in advance, and the company will terminate users' accounts if they fail to show up four times in a year.
Thurston, 49, said he dines out often. But when he can't keep a reservation he's more likely to ignore it than call and cancel because he doesn't want to have to make up an excuse as to why he can't be there.
"You have the best-laid intentions," the Mount Vernon man said. "Saturday at 7 sounds like a really great idea a week and a half before."
Thurston has dined at Sotto Sopra. But he said the new credit card policy would be enough to deter him from making a reservation.
Bosio said most of his customers aren't so casual about keeping reservations, and he doesn't want to inconvenience the loyal patrons who keep the tables they book.
"I've got regular customers that would never do that," Bosio said. "I don't want to baby-sit people, but I guess we have to do it."