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Side Dish 

Vince Bommarito of Tony's is known for his goodnatured charm. But there's one thing that makes him hopping mad.

"No-shows are a terrible scourge on the restaurant industry," fumes Vince Bommarito, owner of Tony's restaurant. We recently asked Bommarito and three other restaurant owners and managers how they handle the vexing problem of customers who don't keep their reservations. Eddie Neill, owner of Café Provençal and Eddie's Steak and Chop, says customers are more likely to go AWOL on weekends and holidays. "On Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, no-shows can be as high as 40 percent," he estimates. Mark Thompson, manager of Big Sky Café, finds Washington University's graduation weekend particularly exasperating. "People make reservations months in advance," he says. "Then, when we call to confirm them, the students have moved out of their dorms. Now we don't take reservations [for that occasion] until two weeks before." Bommarito recalls one Wash. U. graduation night a few years ago when 100 would-be diners absconded. Now his restaurant insists on a deposit of $25 per person for graduation parties. Les Carter, manager of Yia Yia's Eurocafé, says lousy weather can drive up the desertion rate at his restaurant to 25 percent. Even major sporting events can leave him with 15 percent of his reserved tables unoccupied.

According to a study reported in Scientific American, one Chicago restaurateur decreased his no-show rate from 30 percent to 10 percent simply by changing the telephone script. Instead of saying, "Please call if you have to change your plans," the receptionist added, "Will you please call ..." and then awaited a reply. Having given their word, customers seemed loath to renege. The men we spoke to claim that they always call at least once to confirm large groups, and one of them admits he routinely overbooks tables by about 10 percent to account for absentees.

The St. Louis owners and managers speculate that truants make reservations at more than one restaurant and then decide at the last minute what they feel like eating and which place offers the best time slot. "People really like having a reservation because they hate to wait and want to know exactly what time they'll be seated," Thompson observes. Carter says this courtesy should be reciprocated. "We accept reservations because we want a guaranteed guest," he explains candidly. Bommarito, who notes crustily that no-shows at Tony's are almost exclusively out-of-town visitors, believes it's a matter of civility. "What is good manners?" he rails indignantly. "Consideration of other people, and not showing up is very inconsiderate. People should get good manners."

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