5 ways to avert murder when you can’t honor a reservation

“You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can take them.”

Wise words yelled by an angry Jerry Seinfeld ... and then repeated by a friend’s father after a particularly terrible experience at a Chicago restaurant that lost me as a customer.

Let me paint the picture: It was a busy Saturday night in Chicago; after all, the Blackhawks were playing the game that would determine their Western Conference victory. Knowing my friend’s parents were coming to town, we’d booked 7 p.m. reservations at this hotspot we’ll call Pizza X.

It was pouring outside, as it had been since noon. Pizza X has a very large outdoor space that it obviously was planning on seating when it set the number of reservations it could take. Yet when we got there, in the rain, we were told that the restaurant was at capacity and that we had to go wait in line. It’d be about an hour and a half. Under no circumstances could we come inside or wait under the awning. Get in line, barked the bouncer. Between the rain eating the patio space and the campers refusing to get up from watching the game, Pizza X clearly had less capacity than it was originally thinking. But really, Pizza X? You wanted us to wait 90 minutes … in a line in the freezing rain … for pizza in Chicago … when we had a reservation? My friend’s dad bellowed the Seinfeld quote at just about the time we were getting barked at to step away from the awning and onto the rainy sidewalk. And the applause he got spoke volumes.

Granted, Pizza X could not have predicted the storm weeks ahead when we made the reservation. Nor could it know that there would be a crucial Hawks game on. But there are a few consumer-minded practices that could have been employed to make for a more pleasant experience, not costing the restaurant potential regular customers (like myself, who will never go back because of their attitude alone). Here are some ideas:

  1. When it starts monsooning at noon and isn’t showing any signs of letting up, be proactive. If you accounted for patio seating when you set the reservations, get on the phone and call some of your guests to warn them that you might not be able to keep their reservation due to reduced capacity. You know you’re overbooked—try to correct it before it comes an issue.
  2. Admit that you messed up. And remember that the “I’m sorry” phrase goes a long way.
  3. If you do hit capacity and must make guests stand in line, offer them something to acknowledge that they are waiting. It can be a small token, like a single-bite appetizer passed while they’re standing outside, but it’s a nice gesture when these diners were expecting to be seated an hour ago.
  4. If people are forced to stand outside in the rain, run to a big-box store and get a $10 box of those single-use ponchos to hand out. Again, a small but nice show of compassion that will go a long way.
  5. Inside, if you have campers, try to get them up and out. I’ve been to various restaurants with a group of chatty girls and have been asked, “I’m sorry, but is there any way we could buy you a drink at the bar?,” eluding to the reservation that’s next at the table. Every time, we get up, happy to oblige.

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