One of our favorite restaurants, the Bistro at the Bijou, does not take reservations. Another of our favorites, Citico’s, ONLY takes customers by reservations. And a third, Knox Mason, used to not take reservations, but now they do! Same with Tupelo Honey.
What the heck is going on?
Matt Gallaher, chef owner of the newly opened Knox Mason in the Embassy Suites on Gay Street and Emilia on Market Square, another fave of ours, explained it this way. “When we first opened Knox Mason on the 100 block of Gay Street, we were so small and unsure of what the business would be like,” he said recently. “So I talked to other chef owners and they said they lost 15 percent on no-shows when they took reservations. So we didn’t do it.” That was in 2012.
When Gallaher opened Emilia on Market Square in 2016, it was quite a bit larger and accepted reservations through the OpenTable app. Soon, Knox Mason began taking reservations, too.
“I live downtown,” Gallaher said. “But I realized that some folks drive in from Farragut. They need to have a guaranteed spot when they get here. We decided it’s an amenity that our guests really deserve.” Still, he said, “every night we get cancellations and no-shows.”
Over at J.C. Holdway, another fantastic eatery run by another award-winning former Blackberry Farm chef, Joseph Lenn says he feels the same pain — especially on holidays like Valentine’s Day and on days of University of Tennessee home football games. “People make reservations at multiple restaurants and then they pick the one they want and don’t cancel the other reservations,” he said.
But, overall, he thinks the benefits of taking reservations outweigh the negatives. “I’d love it if everybody made a reservation,” he said. “It helps me know what to order and how to staff. And it ensures people will have a table when they get here.” J.C. Holdway uses the Resy app to manage its reservations.
On the other hand, Martha Boggs, who has managed the Bistro at the Bijou since 1993 and has owned it since 2009, says she has had awful experiences with taking reservations. The Bistro is located on Gay Street right next door to the Bijou Theatre and the restaurant is packed prior to shows there.
“We took reservations for a while,” she said. “It was a disaster. No matter what time customers had a reservation, if it was a show night, they’d come at 6:30. When they called, we’d say, ‘We can’t take you at 6:30. Can you come at 6:15 or 6:45?’ They’d say yes. And then they’d show up at 6:30!”
And then, like Lenn, Boggs said her “biggest beef” was with customers who make reservations but don’t cancel them when they change their minds. “We only have 90 seats,” she noted. “If 10 people don’t show up and the seats go unused because we’ve turned away other people, that’s a big part of our profit margin.”
Over in Loudon County, at Citico’s, reservations are necessary because the restaurant is located inside a gated community, WindRiver. The guards at the entrance need to have names of expected guests so they can admit them at the gate.
Interestingly, although Gallaher uses the OpenTable app for reservations at Emilia, he says nothing beats having an experienced real live human on the front desk, with the authority to override the digital product.
“My door manager, Emily Aver, has taken over our reservations and has established a flawless system,” he said. “Computers are good at predicting table times, etcetera, but the human element is the most important. Emily knows guests that linger, guests that show up late and guests that just like to come in for a quick meal.”
He added, “If there’s a show at the Tennessee Theatre, she knows that our early tables will turn quickly. All those human habits that a computer reservation system can’t predict allow us to stay busy without compromising our guest experience.”
The newly opened location of Knox Mason is not yet on OpenTable. “We’re taking it a little slowly until we are confident in our systems, but we’ll get there,” Gallaher said. You can make a reservation by calling the restaurant at (865) 770-5988.
There’s another option for customers when restaurants don’t accept reservations — an app that lets you virtually “get in line” at a “call ahead” restaurant and then notifies you when your table is almost ready. Called Yelp Waitlist (formerly NoWait), it has not been particularly effective for me.
Case in point: Recently, four of us wanted to eat at the super popular Stock & Barrel on Market Square, which does not take reservations. It was slammed when we arrived, and the folks at check-in recommended we use the Yelp Waitlist app. So we “got in line” on the app and went across Market Square to have a drink while we waited our turn. After nearly an hour, the app told us to head back to the Stock & Barrel. Guess what. When we got there, the front desk told us it would be another 70 minutes until our table was ready! Goodbye.
I think the bottom line is this. If a restaurant is so crowded that it does not have to take reservations, it may decide not to do it. But reservations are very important to many guests — especially when they have an event to get to or are having a business meeting.
I think restaurants who choose not to take reservations should keep in mind that Knoxville loves a new restaurant but that they may not always be as busy as they are in the beginning. And once customers forgo dining there due to a lack of reservations, it might be hard to get them back. That was the case for us with Tupelo Honey. Because they were so busy when they first opened, they didn’t accept reservations. Although I liked the restaurant and its food, I decided I couldn’t go there when I was having a business meeting because I couldn’t count on getting in.
Now that things have calmed down for them, they take reservations. I’m glad they do, but because I got out of the habit of going there, I rarely think of them when I’m trying to pick a spot for a business meal.
As much as I wish that all my favorite eateries took reservations, we customers have to remember that we have a responsibility, as well. If you make a reservation, you have an obligation to show up. If you must cancel, you should do it as much in advance as possible so the eatery has a chance to fill your table.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this typing has made me hungry … What’s your opinion about reservations?