Last year was an exceedingly good year for Drifters Wife, a small, modern American restaurant on Washington Avenue in Portland. The original 28-seat restaurant moved into a larger space, about doubling its size. It was named one of America’s Best New Restaurants by Bon Appetit magazine, then later got onto the publication’s coveted “Hot 10” list.

And everyone wanted to eat there. Until they didn’t.

Even before all the national accolades, Peter and Orenda Hale, the owners of the restaurant, found themselves with an increasing number of “no-shows” – diners who make reservations but either cancel at the last minute or don’t show up and never bother to call. So they started taking credit card numbers with reservations. Now, if a party skips out on its reservation, their credit card is charged $15 per person.

Charging for no-shows has been a regular practice in large cities such as Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., but it’s becoming more common in Portland as the city attracts more diners – especially during the summer months, when tourists sometimes make reservations at three restaurants, and then wait until the last minute to decide where they want to eat. These restaurateurs say that customers are told about the charges ahead of time.

“We were seeing large amounts of last-minute cancellations and no-shows, particularly during popular times, and found ourselves unable to fill those cancellations and no-shows last minute,” Orenda Hale said. “This, as you can imagine, was frustrating and affected the health of our business.”

The new policy has worked.

“I would wager that we’ve only charged five guests in the past year,” Hale said. “For us, it’s not about charging guests. It’s about ensuring that people who book a reservation with us actually intend to join us.”

Fore Street, one of the city’s most popular restaurants, has been calling diners to confirm reservations ever since it opened in 1996, according to general manager Robyn Violette. The restaurant has a full-time reservationist, and also accepts reservations online, through OpenTable.com. Number of no-shows? At least one a night.

And if a party of 10 doesn’t show, “it’s a huge loss, not only for the restaurant but for other guests who wanted to dine here who we’ve turned away.”

At Drifters Wife in Portland, co-owner Orenda Hale said no-shows were “frustrating and affected the health of our business.” Now, they’re taking credit card numbers with reservations and charging $15 per person whenever a party fails to honor its booking. Staff photo by Derek Davis

So two years ago, Violette started testing a new cancellation policy. Parties of one or more have until 4 p.m. the day of their reservation to cancel. If they don’t, the credit card they used to make their online reservation is charged $50. If diners make their reservation by calling the restaurant directly, the same policy applies to parties of five or more.

“Because there are so many people who want to eat here and we only have 30 tables, we decided to make people more responsible for the reservations that they make,” Violette said. “You have to make people accountable. This is 2019, this isn’t 1951 where it’s not a big deal. People fight over dinner reservations.”

GIFT CARDS RATHER THAN PENALTIES

Restaurateurs say that when you skip out on your reservation, it can have a big ripple effect on supplies, staffing and finances, especially for smaller restaurants. Knowing how many diners to expect helps the chef determine how much food to buy, and what size staff to have on the floor that night.

“It hurts everybody here,” said Niko Regas, chef at Emilitsa, a 48-seat Greek restaurant on Congress Street in Portland. “It doesn’t just hurt the business. It hurts my employees as well.”

Servers may go without tips, Regas said, and the back-of-house staff might be sent home an hour early.

A couple of years ago, Emilitsa started charging $25 per head for parties of four or more that don’t call and cancel reservations 24 hours ahead of time. The restaurant still gets at least two no-shows a night, Regas said.

At the nearby Vinland on Congress Street, with only 11 tables, “it’s devastating for us when people no-show,” said chef/owner David Levi.

Levi has been experimenting for at least four years on a cancellation policy using credit card holds and deposits, trying to find the right balance between discouraging no-shows yet not scaring away customers. When even one table doesn’t show up, it can destroy his bottom line for the evening.

Levi’s newest policy requires a deposit of $35 per head for parties of five or more. Cancellations must be made 48 hours in advance. Anyone who incurs the $35 charge and then doesn’t show up for dinner will receive a gift certificate for that amount from Levi. That makes the payment seem less like a penalty and more like an enticement to visit the restaurant. The diner gets his money back, but he’s committed to spending it at Vinland.

“I would do it all the time if I could because we do have a terrible problem with no-shows,” Levi said. “We’re a small restaurant, and there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into the food.”

Levi also requires full advance payment for Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve dinners, typically two of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants.

Levi’s gift card concept is one option recommended by the National Restaurant Association to deter no-shows, along with offering perks to people who honor their reservations and incentives such as discounts for those who are willing to dine at off-peak times, when things are slower and reserving a table might not be as necessary. Some restaurants, including many in Portland, deal with the issue by refusing to accept reservations at all.

Violette says most of Fore Street’s no-shows make reservations for 9 p.m. or after. So when a diner makes a 9:30 reservation, but it’s clear they really wanted a 7 p.m. time slot, Violette encourages the staff to steer them toward other options, such as eating earlier at the bar or trying to get a walk-in table at their preferred time. That way, they are less likely to be a no-show.

SIMILAR FEES IN OTHER INDUSTRIES

Michelle Corry, co-owner of Five Fifty-Five in Portland, notes that some restaurants in Chicago are selling tickets to discourage no-shows.

“You’re buying your reservation, and it’s nonrefundable,” she said. “I think it’s really funny that the same person who’s getting mad at me for our reservation policy will buy a ticket to the Merrill, and that’s non-refundable. If they don’t show up, they don’t get that money back, and they have no problem with that.”

At Five Fifty-Five, parties of six or more are required to give a credit card number, as are diners who reserve for holidays and special-occasion dinners. The no-show fee is $30 for the party, or the full cost of the dinner when it’s a special occasion night.

Emilitsa, a 48-seat Greek restaurant on Congress Street in Portland, started charging $25 per person for parties of four or more that don’t call and cancel reservations 24 hours ahead of time. “It doesn’t just hurt the business,” says chef Niko Regas. “It hurts my employees as well.” Staff photo by Joel Page

“If someone calls and complains, we’ll send them a gift card,” Corry said. “The idea is they’re still spending the money here.” If it’s a local or a regular customer, they’ll probably waive the fee, she said. Many restaurateurs say they would waive the fee if the cancellation were due to illness, accident, family emergency, or another event out of the diner’s control.

Corry and other restaurateurs figure the same customers who balk at no-show fees probably already pay their doctor or dentist for a missed appointment. They also point out that most hotels and airlines require credit cards at the time of purchase, and charge cancellation fees.

Jeremy DaRos, for one, isn’t buying it.

DaRos, a 42-year-old Maine native who works as a manager for a network engineering company, has lived in Portland for 20 years and dines out with his fiancee at least once a week. DaRos jokes that they’ve eaten out so much they’ve “contributed to the growth” of Portland’s restaurant scene.

The couple always make reservations and have never been charged a cancellation fee – but then they always show up. Still, DaRos is on the side of the no-shows – excepting on special occasions – because he thinks consumers “have the right to change their mind.”

DaRos sees dining out as social plans that are “less structured than making an appointment for a haircut or going to the dentist.” If restaurants are unable to fill no-show seats, he said, “their problem isn’t with the consumer. It might be their food.”

If other consumers feel the same as DaRos about the fees, they aren’t expressing their displeasure. A spokeswoman for the consumer complaint division of the Office of the Maine Attorney General says they are aware of the practice, but have had no complaints filed against restaurants.

PROBLEM’S MUCH WORSE IN SUMMER

Matt Ginn, chef at Evo Kitchen and Bar on Fore Street, said his restaurant is lenient about its no-show fee if the reservation is for a night in January or February, when he has more seats available, or if the restaurant is able to seat someone else at the table quickly. But he thinks any restaurant that offers reservations should have a cancellation policy because “in the summertime, it’s absolutely necessary.” Ginn estimates that during a typical summer, 20 to 50 diners with reservations at Evo are no-shows.

One of Portland’s most popular restaurants, Fore Street sees at least one no-show a night. “It’s a huge loss,” says general manager Robyn Violette, “not only for the restaurant but for other guests who wanted to dine here who we’ve turned away.” Whitney Hayward photo

Evo, which has fewer than 50 seats, tries to steer diners to off-peak hours by offering specials on food and alcohol at, say, 5 and 9 p.m. The restaurant is full most weekend nights, so it takes customers’ credit card numbers on weekends and, like Vinland, on “big nights” such as New Year’s Eve. Ginn estimates that in the nearly four years the restaurant has been open, it has charged 12 to 15 people no-show fees, “and there are far more than that who have made a reservation and don’t show up.”

Unsurprisingly, the no-show problem is much worse in summer, and it’s especially bad on “campers weekend” in late July, when hordes of parents come to Maine to visit their kids in summer camp. These out-of-state visitors may make two or three reservations for dinner in Portland. Come dinnertime, they’ll settle on one based on what they’re in the mood for and neglect to call the other restaurants to let them know they’re not coming. Or maybe they manage to snag a table at Central Provisions or some other hot restaurant that does not take reservations, so they skip out on the reservation they made elsewhere.

“On campers weekend we see a lot of misbehaving,” Violette said.

Fore Street, Scales and Street & Co. all have the same reservation policies because they have the same owners, and they share reservation lists during campers weekend, Violette said. If they find a diner has made reservations at all three restaurants – a frequent occurrence – Violette will call and ask them to choose.

“I’ll call and say, ‘You know, we’ve noticed that you have duplicate reservations at some of our other restaurants. We’d like you to select one, or unfortunately you’ll lose both,’ ” she said.

‘HAPPY WITH THE RESULTS’

Locals tend to balk at turning over their credit card number to hold a reservation, which is standard practice in larger cities, restaurateurs say.

“A lot of people are nervous about giving their credit card,” Corry said, “but the credit card goes into a vault with our reservation system and it’s totally protected. Only our managers have access, and it disappears after your reservation.”

Violette says about 10 percent of diners who are charged a no-show fee at Fore Street call back to complain. Of that 10 percent, she says, “90 percent of them say, ‘I was sick.’ ”

To Violette, that’s not an excuse, even though she may decide to waive the fee. If six people were in the party, one of the five who wasn’t sick could have called the restaurant to cancel, she noted, “and No. 2, you didn’t get sick five minutes before your reservation.”

Hale, of Drifters Wife, says she’d rather have a few “real” reservations on the books each night than think the restaurant will be busy, only to have four to eight last-minute cancellations. Or for potential customers to see online that no tables are available, and to assume the restaurant won’t be able to accommodate them as walk-ins.

“Taking credit cards to hold the reservation has been extremely effective because now only those who actually intend to join us for dinner make a reservation,” Hale said. “And those who still have unforeseen circumstances give us more notice. A lot of thought and consideration has gone into our decision, and so far we’re really happy with the results.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad