‘Super annoying’: The rise of the new ‘cancel culture’ in Melbourne dining

Publican Scott Connolly recalls with a shudder when, on Mother’s Day this year, 45 people didn’t show up to the venue he co-owns, the Orrong Hotel, for their lunch reservation, costing about $5000 in revenue.

There was a special menu that Sunday at the Armadale pub, and all the food had been ordered and staff rostered on specifically to cater to that day’s bookings.

Scott Connolly, co-owner of The Orrong Hotel, says no-shows and cancelled bookings have cost him thousands of dollars.Credit:Simon Schluter

“Suddenly, we had five or six extra staff we didn’t need to have … and we had significantly more food that we needed,” Connolly said.

Across Melbourne, restaurants are noticing a rise in last-minute cancellations and no-shows.

Since the pandemic, the city’s walk-in restaurant culture has declined as diners stick to their newly formed habit of making reservations in advance.

The number of bookings made on reservation service OpenTable has tripled between October 2019 and October 2022, and while restaurateurs say this helps them to plan staff and stock, the flip side is they are now also dealing with the more unwelcome “cancel culture” trend.

Connolly said while it wasn’t crippling, his team would start taking deposits for large bookings from this month through to the Christmas period.

“It’s not something we would naturally want to be doing [but] we feel we have to,” he said.

“It’s such a busy period so if we take a booking and have to turn someone else away, and they then suddenly cancel or decide they don’t want to turn up, it’s really going to hurt our bottom line.”

Connolly said he understood there could be any number of reasons why people needed to cancel.

“If you can just call and let us know, we’ll be fine with it,” he said. “The no-shows without an explanation are the ones we tend to feel a bit more.”

Jess Harker, general manager of The Prince in St Kilda, said she believed diners had developed a more lax attitude towards skipping reservations because bookings were now commonplace.

On one particularly bad July weekend, about five large groups of 15-20 people each didn’t show up for their reservations at the bar section and several tables of four failed to attend their dining room reservations.

After that, The Prince started requiring that groups of eight or more enter credit card information and commit to $50 per person in the case of a cancellation within 24 hours.

With a spate of cancellations, a restaurant could be stuck paying for extra staff it didn’t need, Harker said, and employees, who were already hard to come by amid worker shortages, got bored.

“If staff are met with the disappointment of polishing cutlery all night, it’s hard to keep them engaged,” she said.

Catching COVID is often the cited excuse but Harker felt a shift in mindset was also influencing a rise in change-of-mind cancellations.

“People have learnt to become content with being at home on the weekends – they think they want to go out for oysters and champagne; then they get to the day and say, ‘Actually, I can do this at home’,” she said.

She added that the higher costs of living caused by inflation, which was reflected on menus, would also be a factor.

Despite requiring credit card details for the booking process, Harker said her venue rarely charged people for late cancellations if they called.

“It’s better we hear from people than not,” she said. “We understand things change. We aren’t robots.”

Kristian Klein’s Windsor restaurant Mr Miyagi was a predominantly walk-in restaurant pre-pandemic but is now about two-thirds booking-based.

“[Cancellations are] a new thing we have to deal with but it’s not unexpected,” Klein said.

“The more warning we get, the more we can prepare and offer the table to someone else who might want to dine with us.”

Michael Woods, co-owner of Elwood’s Repeat Offender, said it was now normal to deal with about seven or eight cancelled tables on weekend nights.

He decided against requiring credit card details in the venue’s reservations process out of concern he would lose customers. Instead, the restaurant lets people alter or cancel bookings online.

“It’s super annoying,” Woods said. “It’s a huge thing, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

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