Last-Minute Cancellations Hurting Restaurant Industry, Some Chicago-Area Owners Say

Customers are booking to hold spots but never show up, according to some restaurant owners

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During tough times and a COVID-19 surge, some restaurants say they're facing mass cancellations that end up hurting business during the slower months of the year.

Now, some are trying to crackdown on people who have been referred to as “negligent diners” - those are recklessly booking to hold a spot during prime reservation times - only to cancel at the last minute.

Steven Hartenstein, owner of Lucca Osteria & Bar in Oak Brook, says he faces hundreds of cancellations every weekend. In fact, on one recent Saturday evening, he recorded more than 200 cancellations.

“When people cancel, it really hurts us,” he said. “They’re locking in these reservations early, which prevents somebody else from doing so.”

The service used to book the reservation, like OpenTable, is charging the restaurant thousands of dollars a month.

Hartenstein says each person in a booking costs the restaurant $1.25. This is on top of a flat monthly fee. It’s not uncommon to spend more than $3,000 a month on this service, according to Hartenstein.

Meanwhile, the cancellation issue comes during the slowest months of the year, according to Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

“We’re coming off the holiday season, the weather is very cold [and] we don’t have conventions,” Toia said. “If you cancel reservations on a restaurant… especially during the pandemic, especially during the vaccine mandate, it really throws things off in a restaurant.”

Last year, OpenTable launched a four-strike policy against negligent diners. User accounts are now flagged and could be suspended after four “no shows.”

Toia reminds customers to “be respectful” of the reservation systems, especially if you want to prevent more establishments from closing during tough pandemic times.

Some restaurants, like Lucca, still offer call-in reservations. Bookings made over the phone help restaurants avoid third-party app fees.

Some restaurants require a deposit but not every establishment likes to require this deposit, fearing it may keep some customers away.

“That’s up to every restaurant owner/operator,” Toia said. “I’m not sure what works in the Gold Coast or River North will work in Rogers Park, Chatham or Little Village.”

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