The pros and cons of email reservations

restaurant reservation
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We have a new restaurant that is a bit of a “scene.” There is a lot of demand and we’ve not had all our reviews yet, so one of our investors asked me to take down reservations from [our reservation software service] and ask our reservationist to only allow guests to email with their requests so that we can retain exclusivity and do research to cultivate the type of guests we want. Is this legal? Apart from the logistical nightmare, of course.

– General manager, fine dining, New York City


I have noticed a trend that some particularly trendy restaurants are no reservation except by email so that, presumably, a VIP or regular could have a table held. I think you are right to question both the logistics and ethics and legalities of operating this way.

First, there are a few advantages to taking reservations by email. As you imply, you can do some background research on your guests. You also add some personal communication and high-touch service, which may be important for you in fine dining. And you can capture emails for marketing, which your reservation software would also do.

As you note, there are also some serious disadvantages. While there is nothing inherently illegal about selecting who has the opportunity to dine at a private business, there is a risk of being accused of selecting guests for the wrong reason (such as not selecting people of a protected class). For example, if you are focusing on the young and hip, could a prospective guest accuse you of discriminating against older guests? Further, beyond the initial labor of making the reservation, both guests and your staff may find it overly cumbersome to adjust their reservation time or number in their party, or cancel. The lag in communicating that information from a reservationist to the dining room is a problem that technology solved decades ago.

There are many models to cultivate hip and savvy diners: opening reservations via social media channels, offering a private reservation line for concierges, publicists, VIPs and regulars, keeping detailed guest notes, and being strategic about pricing and promotions, to name a few. In this case, moving to an email-only reservation system sounds like a mess with more drawbacks than benefits. My advice is to keep your reservation system in place for part of the dining room, using email as an option for a waitlist. There you can mine the emails for any VIPs without alienating people who simply want to spend money with you in exchange for a great experience.

More on researching guests here.

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