Should you pay to book a table at a restaurant – and what are your rights if you need to cancel?

Sue Hayward
25 October 2019

Should you pay to book a table at a restaurant – and what are your rights  if you need to cancel?

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Paying a deposit to book a table at a posh restaurant used to be the ‘done thing’, but now an increasing number of restaurants, pubs and buffet outlets want a deposit, or at least your card details, if you want to book ahead.

So is forking out before you have set foot in a restaurant becoming the new norm and what are your rights if you need to cancel?

How common is it?

The number of restaurants seeking some form of financial security, either as a deposit, or by taking your card details, has increased by 40% over the past year, according to research by restaurant booking platform ResDiary. 

From the restaurant’s side of the table, it is a way to offset some of the cost if diners cancel at the last minute or just don’t turn up. The research also revealed that ‘no shows’, are estimated to cost the UK restaurant industry between £4 billion and £16 billion a year as up to 20% of diners fail to turn up for bookings.

“Putting down a deposit to book a table is much more common than you might think”, says Spencer Roberts from Resolver, a free independent resolution service, “and it’s a way of cutting down on the number of no-shows, which are a big problem for restaurants”.

Some restaurants operate on very low margins. So if, for example, they are targeting a profit of 10% above costs and 10% of the tables are no-shows, it can have a severe impact.

Which restaurants want deposits? 

Each outlet will have its own policy on this, but even some high street chains now expect deposits, or want your debit or credit card details to secure a booking, especially if you want to book ahead for a popular day.  

At Loch Fyne, for example, you can be asked for deposits of between £5 and £25 a head if you want to book a table on popular dates such as Easter, Bank Holidays, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve.  Any deposit is taken off the final bill, or refunded if the booking is cancelled with at least 48 hours’ notice.  

The Ivy Café, in Cambridge, needs card details for bookings for five or more people and if you don’t give 24 hours’ notice for cancellation, you’ll be billed £20 a head.  

If you are booking for eight people or more at a Cosmo World Buffet restaurant, (which has 21 locations across the UK), you will need a credit card to secure the booking, and there is a £5 charge per person if you don’t turn up or fail to cancel within 24 hours.

Some places like the Michelin starred eatery, Ynyshir in mid Wales, charge diners the full cost of their meal up front, which can be £150 a head, as there is a set tasting menu for lunch and dinner.

Bookings are non-refundable, (although changes may be made with at least 48 hours’ notice). As its website points out, it is a small remote restaurant with five tables so it would be difficult to fill tables from passing trade.

In many cases, the cumbersome process of taking card details or deposits, is something that can easily be done through online booking platforms like OpenTable and ResDiary, which are used by many pubs and independent restaurants as well as chains like Zizzi, Giraffe, Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito. 

If a deposit or card details are needed, this is clearly stated at the booking stage and carried out through a secure system, which in turn frees up restaurant teams to concentrate on customer service.

Are ‘no shows’ fuelling the deposit drive?

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If you book a table and don’t turn up, this can cost a restaurant money, especially if it has turned other diners away and are left with an empty table. 

It is a situation that Brendan Padfield, owner of the Unruly Pig pub in Bromeswell, Suffolk, knows all too well. After a total of 13 tables failed to show up in just one day, he now asks for customers’ debit or credit card details if they want to reserve tables at busy times, including Saturday evening and Sunday lunchtime.

“We understand that things happen and arrangements need to be changed, so this isn’t about us taking advantage, but unfortunately there’s a growing trend towards people thinking it’s OK to make multiple bookings and just not turn up,” says Mr Padfield.

 If customers book, but later cancel without giving the required 48 hours’ notice, a charge of £10 per head goes on their card, but Brendan says the team tries to be as flexible as possible, “and if we get a late cancellation but someone wants to rebook, we don’t charge”.

“It is a tricky situation for restaurants,” says Resolver’s Mr Roberts. “Do pubs and restaurants charge a deposit and risk scaring off customers or accept they will lose out to a certain number of no-shows?”

Under the Unruly Pig’s old system, deposits were only taken for parties of eight or more, “but this was too time consuming for the staff as they had to remember who had paid a deposit and then make sure it was taken off the bill, whereas now it’s much easier to take credit card details to secure the table”, adds Mr Padfield.

And the proof is in the pudding, as since introducing the new policy of asking for card details to secure peak time reservations, “we’ve seen our no-shows cut to virtually zero”.

‘The restaurant forgot to take off the deposit!’

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Sian Broad, 34, from Folkestone, Kent, says: “I arranged a family dinner for 14 of us to celebrate my husband’s 30th birthday at his favourite curry house.

As it was a Saturday night, and there were so many of us, when I rang to book, they told me I’d have to pay a £20 deposit, which would come off the bill at the end of the night.

I happily handed over my card details and we had a great evening. When the bill came, we agreed to split it equally, so some of us paid cash and others by card. 

It wasn’t until we got home, we realised the restaurant hadn’t taken our £20 deposit off the bill. I called and asked if they could put the £20 back on my card, but they said they couldn’t do this. 

“I felt a bit silly for not remembering about the deposit in the restaurant, but given it was a relatively small amount, we’ve put this down to a ‘lesson learnt’”.

When should you pay to book?

As a customer, you won’t usually get a choice over this, as it’s down to the restaurant to set the rules.

So if you want to book a table on a Saturday night, and the restaurant policy means it needs your card details to secure the booking, (or even a deposit), and you’re not happy with this, you won’t get your table. 

If you’re worried about paying a deposit, bear in mind the size of deposit required can vary significantly between restaurants so you could seek an alternative that asks for a smaller sum.

What should you look out for in the Ts&Cs?

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“If you’ve paid a deposit, then the rules as to whether you get your money  back if you cancel should be set out clearly in the terms and conditions on their booking system or website”, says Mr Roberts. “However, you should generally expect to lose your deposit if you don’t cancel with sufficient notice”.  

With some restaurants this may be 24 hours, while with others it can be 48 hours, and in some cases, as is the policy with the Cosmo World Buffet, arriving with fewer guests than you originally booked can mean you are charged £5 a head for any missing diners.

“If a restaurant does decide to charge a deposit, it must be clear and up front about how the system works”, says Mr Roberts, ‘so it should make it clear when the cut-off point is for no-shows, so always read the small print.’

However, if you have been charged a sum that you think is unreasonable, don’t assume you are obliged to pay it because it is in the contract. This does not mean it is always legally binding: businesses cannot rely on unfair terms.

According to the Competition and Markets Authority, if you cancel a contract, the business is “generally only entitled to keep or receive an amount sufficient to cover their actual losses that directly result from your cancellation”.

Businesses must take reasonable steps to reduce their losses – by trying to fill the table, for instance. 

Also bear in mind that restaurant owners are likely to have considerable discretion over whether or not they refund a deposit in the event of a cancellation.

Deposits schemes are generally designed to deter careless no-shows and people who make more than one reservation and cancel all but one at the last minute.

If you have a genuine reason why you can no longer dine, cancel as early as you can and speak to the restaurant to explain the situation. 

Walk-ins only

Many restaurants limit the number of advance bookings they will take so they have plenty of room for walk-in diners, or chains such as Honest Burger and Wagamama only take bookings for large groups or private hire. 

Watch out as some chains’ policies vary depending on the location. Granger & Co., for example, which has four restaurants across London, operates a walk-in policy at King’s Cross and Notting Hill, but it does offer a booking option at Chelsea and Clerkenwell and with these, you need to provide card details when booking for five people or more.

Nandos says the decision to take a booking is down to the manager of each restaurant, and so it’s best to contact them directly. 

The writer’s experience

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Sue Hayward also has had meals where deposits were expected: “I went to my local Thai restaurant with friends recently and was surprised to hear we’d been asked to pay a deposit of £10 a head to book our table for five.

The friend who had paid it was told it was because it’s a small restaurant, so it needed deposits for more than four diners as it lost business if diners didn’t turn up.

“I also paid a deposit for afternoon tea at Browns in Birmingham as a treat for a friend. Brown’s  explained they were busy with group bookings in the run-up to Christmas, and would need a £10 deposit each.”

Leave a deposit

Without even a split second thought - ABSOLUTELY.

Too many people have become disrespectful and arrogant when it comes to bookings these days.
If there's no penalty associated with any kind of reservation then people just don't care any more.

Nothing instills commitment more than having to pay for something.
I absolutely hate this attitude and I disagree with it but the cold, hard truth is that people just don't think about anyone but themselves any more so having to leave a deposit makes people more consciencious about their decisions.

Deposit should be charged

I once helped run 2 restaurants mostly on financial side for a friend who lived abroad 6 months a year, we charged a simple table deposit if a certain table reserved or if for a group where tables had to be rearranged, only had 48 covers each so small in a small market town, failing to show was disruptive and cost us trade. Restaurants should set their own deposit charge and have a clear policy for refund if cancelled, I felt 24hrs for normal week days, 48hrs for Friday, Saturday and bank holidays, many groups of young people used to change their minds change their minds without any notice before we charged which could have upset our regulars and disrupted trade. If a restaurant fails to knock deposit off final bill they should compensate the customer if complaint is made after customer has left as goodwill for their failure as it should have been marked on their account first so not missed.

Deposits for bookings

I run a small B&B. Some years ago, no shows were running at 25% of all bookings. Since asking for a £10 Deposit per night per room non refundable, no shows have dwindled to nothing. Occasionally folk ring or email to cancel but if the excuse is reasonable we do refund. However there are so many broken arms we keep the deposit unless the room is re let. We too look at face book and corroborating evidence can be found.

no advance booking

Is really advanced booking really required these days (except Xmas etc)? Most restaurants and pubs are half empty even on Friday/ Saturday night.

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