Restaurants here grapple with cancellations, no-shows amid surge in bookings
A pent-up appetite to dine out in tables of up to 10 has seen restaurants inundated with reservations after group size restrictions were eased on March 29.
Since then, the pace of bookings has quickly picked up, especially for celebratory meals over long weekends for Labour Day, Hari Raya Puasa and Vesak Day next month.
Slots for upcoming big occasions such as Mother's Day, also next month, and Father's Day in June are also filling up fast.
While eateries welcome receiving diners back in droves, they are also grappling with slews of cancellations and no-shows, a long-time problem exacerbated by the pandemic.
It is now a three-month wait to dine at popular venues under hospitality company The Lo & Behold Group.
These include the three-Michelin-starred Odette, one-Michelin-starred Esora as well as Le Bon Funk, Claudine and Tanjong Beach Club - all of which have seen their usual month-long wait lists lengthen.
Food and beverage (F&B) group Ebb & Flow's one-Michelin-starred Sommer restaurant, as well as two-month-old Willow, are both fully booked till June.
Weekends at restaurant-bar Neon Pigeon, which features live music and deejay sets, have been booked out weeks in advance.
Over at Regent Singapore, bookings have increased by 20 per cent for its one-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Summer Palace, Italian establishment Basilico and Manhattan bar, says the hotel's general manager Oscar Postma.
This is despite demand for its Take Regent Home takeaway and home delivery initiative still going strong.
"This is proof that while many are ready to dine out again, home delivery has really cemented itself as a norm too," says Mr Postma.
Reservations are also up at online portals Chope Singapore and Oddle.
Since restrictions were eased, Chope Singapore's general manager Jean Wee, 35, has noted a 20 per cent bump in bookings, with an uptick in reservations for halal restaurants as well as Chinese restaurants and cafes that cater to large groups.
Some restaurants - from mid-range to high-end establishments - on the Chope site have now chosen to impose deposits, especially for reservations of six or more people, she adds.
At Oddle, bookings on its reservation platform have seen 70 per cent week-on-week growth since the relaxation of rules, says its founder Jonathan Lim, 37.
On the booking surge, Mr Lim notes: "Diners are definitely more aware now of the long-weekend peak periods and are more cautious to plan their meals in advance."
Oddle's reservation arm now also allows restaurants to collect pre-payments and deposits to ensure reservations show up and restaurant revenue is maximised.
Mr Lim says: "The way to prevent no-shows and last-minute cancellations is to make sure customers have skin in the game. Restaurants with the lowest cancellation and no-show rates are the ones who are able to get their customers to commit to their reservations - usually in the form of pre-paid purchases and deposits.
"A token deposit of $10 can reduce the cancellation and no-show rate drastically, by as much as 30 per cent."
Mr Robert Chua, 75, owner of Kam's Roast restaurant at Jewel Changi Airport, has implemented a $10 deposit for bookings via Oddle Reserve since last month.
So far, he has yet to deal with any cancellations, and hopes that the deposit works as a deterrent.
This does not apply to his other two express outlets at Ion Orchard and Junction 8 - both located in foodcourts.
With Covid-19 now often cited as the reason for not showing up, some restaurants have started to ask for proof of infection.
They are also enforcing penalties or confiscating deposits in the event of last-minute cancellations.
Others resort to rescheduling the booking, calling diners on a waitlist to fill the empty spots or leaving the seats empty for walk-in customers.
But these no-shows affect businesses greatly.
As Mr Pinaki Rath, 52, managing director of the L'Angelus Group, puts it: "Ingredients are prepared in advance which results in unnecessary wastage and incurs losses. Seats that have been set aside become a loss of potential revenue."
The group's brands comprise Spanish restaurant-bar Tapas,24 and French restaurants L'Angelus and Les Bouchons. Reservation fees of $10 to $20 a person are charged for late cancellations and no-shows during peak periods and special occasions.
For F&B company Proper Concepts, its group general manager Goh Peng Yu, 34, notes that typically one out of five groups cancels at the last minute.
Its restaurants - Rappu handroll bar, Japanese-Mexican taco bar Mezcla, The Feather Blade steakhouse and kaiseki restaurant Goho - take credit card details upon booking.
He emphasises that no charge is made unless no one turns up or there is a late cancellation. But unfortunately, he notes that many customers are "not very understanding" of this practice.
"While we are thrilled to have bigger groups and longer nights back, the 1m social distancing still means we operate at a lower capacity than usual," he says.
Customers who cancel repeatedly for no reason are blacklisted, along with those who are rude to staff and fellow diners, he adds.
Italian restaurant Zafferano's managing director Vadim Korob, 31, has blacklisted customers who provide invalid credit card details when making bookings, which results in the restaurant not being able to charge the no-show penalty.
The "Covid-19 excuse" has become very common, he laments, so for late cancellations, proof of infection is now requested, to avoid forgoing the deposit.
For modern Korean restaurant Nae:um - which is fully booked till mid-July - it has imposed a cancellation charge of $100 a diner for late cancellations or amendments within 48 hours of the reservation.
Nae:um's chef-founder Louis Han, 32, says: "We can waive the fee if the diner manages to find a replacement or if we manage to call our waitlisted guests to fill the table. It definitely gives us a lot more work and stress, but we are committed to resolve such situations in a fair manner."
For engineer Kent Lim, 36, his meal at Esora had to be postponed not once but several times.
His first booking in January had to be cancelled as a diner in his party of four caught Covid-19 overseas.
Dinner was rescheduled to early last month, but on the day of the booking, one of his family members tested positive for the virus, placing him on Health Risk Warning.
He says: "The restaurant would waive the charges if we could find a last-minute replacement. But it was a challenge to find one for a 5.30pm reservation."
He ended up paying $400 in cancellation fees. The restaurant agreed to halve the original cancellation charge of $200 a person.
Mr Lim, who eventually dined at Esora later that month, says: "The situation of Covid-19 has not made it easy for anyone. As long as there is a written policy on cancellations that is acknowledged by consumers, I think it is all right as the restaurants are protecting themselves too."