May 13, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
As a celebration of my father’s 60th birthday — April 1st — I reserved a table for eight family members at one of the nicest restaurants near Sacramento. It is a small place, and they are known for incredible steaks and fresh seafood dishes. When the reservation was made, I was told there would be a $50 charge for anyone in our party who was a no show or who failed to cancel in time. Via phone and e-mail to everyone, I sent this information and the restaurant’s Web site.
Once there, my sister and her husband pulled a stunt that we at first thought was an April Fool’s Day joke. When the waiter took our orders, they said, “Oh, we are vegetarians and brought our own food.” We all laughed, but it was no joke, as they opened a small picnic basket and took out enough bean sprouts and odd smelling bread to feed an army of vegans! I’ve got nothing against vegetarians — most of them eat healthier than the typical overweight American — but they both knew what kind of restaurant this was and never objected or declined to come when invited. I should point out that they are very well to do and could write a check for $50,000 without blinking.
Upon seeing this comedy, the waiter quickly sent the manager to our table, and he asked my cheapskate family members politely what they were doing.
“We are strict vegetarians and there is nothing on the menu for us,” my brother-in-law, the miser-in-chief, replied. “Then you will be charged as if you were a no-show, $50 a person. If you had notified us of your dietary preferences in advance, we would have accommodated you, as our chef routinely prepares excellent vegetarian dishes,” he added.
The mood of this family get-together was totally destroyed; few words were spoken during the meal. Even though we all agreed to individually pay our share of the bill, Mr. and Mrs. Miser refused, and I wound up taking care of it to avoid a scene. I am not trying to excuse the incredibly cheap actions of my brother-in-law, but wonder if you think this was legal or appropriate of the restaurant?
No shows costly
Today, most high-end restaurants require a credit card to guarantee reservations. To discourage no-shows, they usually make it clear that unless the booking has been canceled by a certain day or time, there will be a charge of some amount.
I discussed the facts of this case with Paul Paz, president of the National Waiters Association and founder of www.WaitersWorld.com, great resources for anyone with a question about what really goes on in a restaurant. In his more than 30 years as a waiter at some of the finest restaurants in the United States, he has seen a lot.
“If you can imagine it happening in a restaurant, I’ve seen it — including situations similar to the one your reader described,” Paul told me. But he is more than a waiter; Paul is a brilliant writer and observer of changes in American society.
“Over the past 20 years dining out in America has evolved tremendously. We have more restaurants than in the past, better restaurants, much more varied, and which form a venue for social interaction. It is both a place to have a nice meal with friends, and a destination. But we must never forget that a restaurant is a business, has a product to sell and just like any enterprise that survives, you have to watch the bottom line,” he said, beginning an interesting look at an industry that is the second largest employer after government.
“If you own a restaurant, there is no question as to which seat – chair or booth – is the most expensive in the house … it’s the one that remains empty. Especially with high-end, limited seating restaurants, when a reservation is made and the patron goes to the restaurant, it is customary to assume that a purchase will be made — it is an economic necessity. When no-shows become an issue, restaurant owners respond by either eliminating reservations across the board or charging for no-shows.”
“This is a huge issue in major metropolitan markets where several restaurants may be phoned, multiple reservations made, and hosts — at the last minute — decide which one they will select, leaving the other four or five with empty tables. This is extremely unethical, and is nothing short of stealing from restaurants owners and their entire staff,” Paul believes. http://www.WaitersWorld.com
Turning the tables
Unlike chain restaurants, such as Black Angus, Red Lobster or others in a similar price range with a significant “turn” (several seatings per night per table) the Sacramento restaurant my readers visited had only one seating a night, I found out. Space is more than a chair and table: as with any business, insurance, workers’ compensation — overhead is an expensive reality. Paying guests keep the doors open, not cheapskates whose dietary preferences don’t match what the restaurant offers. That’s my non-legal opinion.
For a legal analysis of my reader’s question, I turned to the nation’s leading expert in Hospitality Law, Attorney Stephen Barth of Houston. He firmly believes the restaurant was well within its rights in charging the couple.
“When a restaurant states that it has a cancellation policy, this amounts to what we call Liquidated Damages in contract law. It is the equivalent of saying; We agree to accept $50 as full compensation for your failure to honor the reservation. By coming to the restaurant, aware that it was a steakhouse, and bringing their own food, it is clear this couple had no intention of spending money. They obviously thought it was perfectly fine to deprive the restaurant owner and server staff of income those two places at the table would otherwise have generated.”
“A table for six paying guests is not the same as a table for eight, two of whom are freeloaders. Given advance notice, the restaurant could have re-arranged seating. I would call the couple’s behavior miserly and completely unacceptable. They had choices — to phone ahead and ask that a vegetarian dish be prepared, or to not come at all. They chose neither, wanting to be part of the family event, but not paying their fair share. Shame on them.”
Both Paul Paz and Stephen Barth were quick to point out that restaurant owners do understand parents might need to bring formula or food for an infant, or possibly a special kind of tea and ask for hot water. “However, bringing your own food to a restaurant because you do not want to pay is dishonest and exploitative, very much like accepting legal or medical advice and care and then refusing to pay,” is how they both summed it all up.
Should you be in the Portland, Oregon area, you can find Paul at Stanford’s Restaurant and Bar in Lake Oswego.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.