What restaurants wish you knew

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Changing ingredients in carefully crafted food or drink can drastically alter your experience at a restaurant

Recently, I wrote about what it’s like to review restaurants for a living and talked about a few things readers might not know about the job. It occurred to me that readers also might be interested in getting the inside scoop on the pitfalls of owning or running a restaurant. Specifically, what restaurant insiders would tell you, if they could. So I asked a number of local places to anonymously weigh in on the toughest parts of the job and what diners do that drives them crazy. What do people do to cause problems unknowingly, and what impact do those issues have on a place in terms of efficiency and profitability?

No Reservations

The first thing that was nearly universal in everyone’s response: reservations! What happens when you don’t show, are late, or add or subtract from your party’s number? Here are some insights that might make you pause before pulling a no show:

“If a restaurant does take reservations and you choose to just walk in on a Saturday at 7 p.m., don’t act shocked when you are told there is a wait.”

“Please, please, please do not cancel reservations at the last-minute, unless it is a true emergency. Last-minute cancellations not only wreak havoc on the actual schedule for the evening, but can severely damage a restaurant’s income for the night. Especially for a small restaurant—every booking can be a significant percentage of its nightly income. A large party of six or eight people could represent as much as 20 percent of the revenue for that service. They have very likely purchased extra food in order to accommodate the diners and may have even brought in additional staff.”

“It is common-practice for many people to make multiple bookings for their party in order to ‘save’ the table, and then wait until everyone weighs-in on their preferences, later canceling the unwanted bookings, usually at the last-minute. Please never do this!”

“It should go without saying, but the absolute mortal sin for a diner is to no-show for a reservation, without calling to cancel. Doing this on a prime day such as Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve is the absolute worst offense. In all likelihood, on those nights, the restaurant has refused other bookings or turned away customers at the door, because they are holding that table for the reservation. When the diner no-shows, they are hit with the loss of that reservation as well as the loss of those that were turned away. If the damage to a small business’ bottom-line is not enough to convince you, bear this in-mind: almost all restaurants keep notes on no-shows. If you are on ‘the list,’ you may find yourself given the least preference for future bookings, and special requests may not be honored. This may sound harsh, but it does happen. Don’t put yourself on the naughty list!”

So when you walk in and see empty tables, why can’t you have one of them? It goes back to the reservation thing. If you are late, restaurants usually wait for 20 minutes before actually canceling your spot. The result of that is, if there is another reservation later in the evening, there is insufficient time to accommodate another seating without making the next reservation late. Or, what about when a table is booked for 12 but only eight show up? Tables that were staged and set for a large party that ends up smaller could have been occupied by walk-ins who ultimately were turned away. It’s a ripple effect that leaves tables empty, potential diners disgruntled, reduces profits, and prevents servers from making money.

Don’t Let Them Eat Cake

“Bringing in your own food, whether it is a birthday cake, cookies, or a happy meal for your kid is tacky. Even Fricker’s doesn’t allow that, so why do people think it is OK?”

“It is shocking how many diners see no problem bringing supplemental items for themselves. It could be as small as bringing a tea bag of your favorite brand or as blatant as bringing an outside birthday cake for a large party of 20 people. Unless you have asked in advance and received permission from the restaurant, these actions create a huge revenue loss and are also rude. In the example of the birthday cake, not only does the restaurant lose dessert sales for everyone in your party, but in most cases the group also expects the restaurant to provide free labor by way of cutting and serving the cake and washing the extra dishes. It cannot be over-emphasized, but for a small business, every sale matters, even down to a cup of hot tea.”

Can You Make That Steak Vegan?

“OK, you knew this was coming—the people who call me to see if we have a gluten-free or vegan menu. We do not. We have marked items to make it easier for you, but if you don’t know what you can eat, or if you cannot eat almost everything, don’t put your life in my hands!!! I am a restaurateur, not a doctor.”

“When you request a bunch of changes and/or substitutions to a dish, do not expect magic to happen when you take that first bite. The chef has spent time and effort designing a dish, testing it for flavor and appearance. When you step in and monkey around with that creation, you are essentially cooking for yourself. Expecting a carefully balanced dish, created by a trained chef to ‘wow’ you, after you have altered half of the ingredients, is going to be a lose-lose for everyone. This also applies to cocktails. When you switch spirits or ingredients on a listed drink, you are changing the drink, and should not expect it to deliver the experience that the mixologist intended. Proceed at your own risk!”

“Also on the subject of substitutions, small restaurants plan their food purchases very carefully in order to minimize waste and maximize their revenue. Often they truly cannot just switch side dishes or ingredients without completely throwing off the count of those ingredients for other dishes. Feel free to ask, but please be understanding if the staff informs you that it is not possible.”

Cash is King

“Credit card fees are a large burden on small businesses. Paying in cash or even tipping in cash is a great way to support them and ultimately have more local dining options around. Note—most things are doubly (or more) important when the restaurant in question is a small or locally owned establishment.”

“Booking fees from Open Table (the most popular online booking tool) are very expensive, and many small restaurants cannot afford them. Other options do exist, and supporting them can really help a restaurant survive. Telephone the restaurant to make your booking, and let them know you are not using the expensive service out of an effort to help local businesses. If you do wish to book online, consider using the Yelp booking tool (available right on the Yelp page of many restaurants) which is available at a MUCH lower cost to small businesses”

Larger Isn’t Better

“Large menus usually equal bad menus. When a restaurant has a huge, encyclopedic menu, you may marvel at the variety, but what you should also be thinking is: ‘There is no way that all of these dishes can be great.’ Large menus generally indicate a high-degree of pre-made, even potentially frozen product. When you see that, it is most likely going to result in an experience that fails to impress. Getting an enormous plate of food (especially if ‘free refills’ are offered), or a fishbowl-sized drink that takes two people to finish, is not a better deal. A moment’s thought should tell you that in order to provide that “endless pasta” or that jumbo drink, the business owner has been forced to compromise somewhere and it usually means lower-grade products and ingredients. That entree will likely have low-grade proteins and inexpensive fillers, and that huge drink will often contain the same amount of alcohol as the smaller, properly made drink.”

Fresh Takes Time

“Whether it is a craft cocktail prepared by hand or a fresh steak cooked to-order, many items you order in a good restaurant are going to take a bit of extra time to deliver to your table, especially on a busy night! In a nicer local restaurant, which is likely preparing many items from scratch, a little patience will usually be rewarded with a much better dining experience.”

Restaurants have revealed what makes them nuts and told you how to show your love and support for the local dining scene. Now you know, Dayton diners.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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