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Chef-owner Jean-Christophe Poirier talks with diners sitting at the open kitchen at St. Lawrence Restaurant in Vancouver on Oct. 11, 2017. When reopening for indoor dining, Mr. Poirier made the bold decision to introduce three-course tasting menus that had to be not just reserved with a credit card, but also fully paid in advance.DARRYL DYCK/For The Globe and Mail

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the restaurant industry to its knees. Costs are rising. Debts are piling up. Staff shortages are acute. And Vancouver diners, who have always been notoriously fickle, are not showing up for reservations in droves.

Some say the restaurant industry is broken. But the cracks have also provided opportunities to reinvent.

Prepaid restaurant reservations and credit card deposits have been a long time coming. Now, as the industry struggles to survive and diners slowly reacclimatize to social life, they are needed more than ever.

And they work.

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Consider the case of St. Lawrence, which opened in 2017 to rave reviews.

Even in those early, glory days, about 30 per cent of reservations were cancelled at the last minute or guests simply failed to show – an unacceptably high, but typical rate for Vancouver.

For a 55-seat restaurant specializing in haute French cuisine that requires days of preparation, the revenue loss was untenable.

Chef-owner Jean-Christophe Poirier quickly switched to an online booking system that allowed him to charge a cancellation fee of $25 a guest. The no-shows dropped to 5 per cent.

The pandemic required more drastic measures.

When reopening for indoor dining, Mr. Poirier made the bold decision to introduce three-course tasting menus that had to be not just reserved with a credit card, but also fully paid in advance.

“It really worked for us. We’ve haven’t had any no-shows. Nobody has complained. When people can’t make it, they usually reschedule for a different date or take a gift certificate.”

Mr. Poirier says prepayments have given him greater control over food ordering, waste, staff scheduling and cash flow – all crucial to the bottom line when the bank account has been drained, the entire industry is in crisis and the future is still uncertain.

But it also benefits diners, who are guaranteed a table and are not forced to wait in line or roll the dice on an evening out as restaurants increasingly react by forgoing reservations altogether.

“It’s not a new system,” Mr. Poirier says. “They’ve been doing it in Europe and the U.S. for years. It used to be just Michelin-star restaurants, but now even the more casual places are adopting it.”

He says he doesn’t know why other restaurants here are hesitating.

“They think customers won’t buy into it. But when COVID arrived, things changed.”

Bartender Camilo Romero pours a Bereziartua cider at Como Taperia in Vancouver on March 25, 2019. The restaurant has come to expect six to 12 no-shows every night and has recently started charging groups of six of more $25 a head for cancellations without a 24-hour notice.BEN NELMS

Nobody has balked at the idea of prepaying for concerts, hockey games, museums or art galleries.

Cancel a hair appointment without sufficient notice and you’ll likely be charged.

During the provincewide restaurant closings, we became accustomed to putting down our credit cards and prepaying for takeout, often committing to 15-minute pickup windows days in advance.

Wineries have almost all done away with drop-ins and now operate by-appointment-only while also implementing new tasting fees.

Even yoga classes and public swimming pools now require prepaid registration.

Why should it be any different for restaurants?

Diners in Vancouver do behave badly. Talk to any restaurateur and they’ll tell you about guests who change their minds as quickly as the weather and habitually make multiple reservations on the same night.

“It happens all the time,” says Shaun Layton, co-owner of Como Taperia, which has come to expect six to 12 no-shows every night and has recently started charging groups of six or more $25 a head for cancellations without a 24-hour notice.

“There are a lot of people who book a few places and just forget to cancel the others. We call them when they don’t show up and you can tell they’re at another restaurant.”

Mr. Layton says he’s “all for” prepayments and deposits. “You just need a bunch more restaurants to start doing it and it will be the new normal.”

Not all restaurants are poised to accept full prepayments. It usually only works for set menus and special-occasion restaurants.

Patrons enjoy the Keefer Bar in Vancouver on Sept, 13, 2020. The bar is also experimenting with prepaid reservations to cut down on its no-show rate.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

But even bars – or at least the smart ones – have begun taking credit card reservations.

“Reservation are new to us since COVID,” says Keenan Hood, general manager of the Keefer Bar in Chinatown.

“Originally, it was a safety issue, to assure people that they would get in and not have to wait outside in crowded lineups. But now it’s become really important to stop people from cancelling at the last minute.”

Mr. Hood says that with more than 3,000 covers for July, he only had a 3-per-cent no-show rate.

“I can guarantee you that it would have been a wildly larger percentage if we didn’t have a $10 cancellation fee. When people have money on the line, even if it’s a small amount, they’re less flaky.”

Credit card deposits hold people accountable, says Mark Briand, operations manager for Kitchen Table Restaurants, which has devised a mix of new deposits for its various venues, depending on the size, price point and desirability of the seating.

For example, a brunch reservation at the intimate Ask For Luigi requires a $15 deposit; dinner is $25 (and should probably be more).

The Pourhouse charges a $20 deposit for its highly coveted bar seating every weeknight, but the charge is only applied to the larger dining room on weekends.

“Deposits have absolutely deterred no-shows,” Mr. Briand says. “The goal isn’t to penalize people, but to make sure the people who are coming really want to be there.

“It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. And every restaurant is going to have to look at their space and determine what works for them. But the industry as a whole is going to have to adapt.”

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