Welcome to Suttonomics, where each week Eater Data Lead Ryan Sutton looks at facts, figures, and interesting data across the restaurant industry.
Can't make dinner tonight? Per Se in New York charges no shows $175 per person while Masa levies a $200 fine. And if you think that's tough, Meadowood in Napa Valley reserves the right to charge truant diners who booked the chef's counter $500 apiece.
Cancellation fees are increasingly a fact of life at America's most expensive culinary establishments. And the well-fed who frequent these venues are, for the most part, growing accustomed to sharing the financial risk of fine dining with the restaurateurs who might lose a thousand dollars or more for every table that backs out in an untimely fashion.
Much of the discourse around this issue so far has centered on Tickets by Nick Kokonas, an online reservation system where guests, at the time of booking, either put down a non-refundable deposit or pay the full price of dinner, including tax, tip, and wine pairings. But a number of non-ticketed restaurants have begun to adopt increasingly strict policies as well, raising the question of what constitutes a fair cancellation fee, and how much notice a diner should have to give.
Earlier this spring, Saison in San Francisco, one of America's most expensive restaurants, pushed back its cancellation deadline from three days prior to seven, and Atera in New York did the same, with both venues charging full price to guests backing out a week before the reservation.
"It made sense that we received confirmations/cancellations at around the same time the team sets out to purchase/order ingredients for the week." said Patrick Ellis, Saison's general manager. "With such a small restaurant with narrow margins, a table downsizing by one person could mean the difference between just surviving or the restaurant turning a profit."
Saison and Atera aren't the only ones shifting the power of the purse strings away from the diner and toward the restaurant. Eleven Madison Park didn't charge cancellation fees until 2012, when, in an effort to combat the rising number of no-shows, it started levying a $75 fine to those who backed out of dinner within 48 hours. That charge is now $125 for cancellations within 72 hours. That may seem hefty, but it's a reasonably affordable fee by national standards.
Eater Data show that at least sixteen American tasting menu restaurants are charging full price for late cancellations, with seven of those venues asking for at least a week's notice. Those seven restaurants, including Atera and Saison, are Minibar in Washington ($250), Naoe in Miami ($200), Blanca in Bushwick ($195), e by Jose Andres in Las Vegas ($195) and The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare ($255).
"I completely understand cancellation policies at high-end restaurants, but man, does it make travel that much more stressful," Dan Saltzstein of The New York Times tweeted on Tuesday. Indeed, re-booking a trip to New York seven days out can result in a $666 loss on reservation for two at Brooklyn Fare, which asks for eight days notice, and which charges the credit cards of all guests (plus tax and tip) a week before dinner.
E by Jose Andres, meanwhile, requires 14 days notice to avoid a 50 percent charge, or a full day's notice to avoid a 100 percent charge. It's an oddly fitting policy for Vegas, a city whose economy thrives on last-minute, irrational decisions that can't be taken back. Still, it sucks for the non-gambling consumer who ends up canceling a business trip 10 days out.
To be fair, restaurants with the steepest re-booking fees are mostly small venues with twenty or fewer seats and whose finances can ultimately depend on every table showing up. Perhaps that's why Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns, with 75 seats, might have the laxest booking policy of any tasting menu-only restaurant in the country, charging just $50 for cancellations within 48 hours for the twenty course, $198 menu. The full tasting is also served to walk-ins at the 11-seat bar, which can help dampen the negative impact of no-shows.
And then of course there's the 37-table Daniel on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which charges no cancellation fees. With three-course menus at $125 and a longer tasting at $220, Daniel is the only* three-Michelin starred restaurant in America to not require a credit card, or threaten a cancellation fee, to make a booking (*Update: the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin also doesn't require credit cards or levy cancellation fines for smaller parties). Daniel (along with Le Bernardin) is a member of a dying breed, most definitely.
So are America's increasingly pricey cancellation fees unfair to the diner, or are they a necessary part of doing business at lean, chef's table venues? Check out the charts and add any thoughts in the comment section below.