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Waiting Room

Why so many restaurants have reservations about reservations.

No restaurant is happy about no-shows, but the smaller the place, the harder it's hit when people make reservations and then fail to cancel them -- much less show up.

The Beehive avoids this problem altogether by taking reservations only for groups of five or more. "We stopped taking reservations when it finally got to the point where I was irritated with customers coming through the door," says Beehive co-owner Tim Elenteny. "Not only do people not show up, they also walk in well over fifteen minutes late for their reservation, and then they act like it's your fault that there are no tables left."

What would-be diners don't understand is that restaurants make many of their staffing and buying decisions based on the number of reservations for any given night. So if a manager anticipates a full dining room, the entire crew is called in and plenty of food is ordered -- and that means that for every no-show, a server is left without tips and the walk-in is left with extra food. In places like New York and San Francisco, where some choice-hungry diners make six or seven reservations a night and then choose which one to use depending on their mood, restaurants have fought back by forcing all diners to use credit cards to make reservations -- and then charging the no-shows $25 as punishment.

"This is an industry-wide problem," says Aubergine Cafe chef/owner Sean Kelly. "At a place like the French Laundry, for instance, they have three women who do nothing but take reservations and credit-card numbers, and then those women call everyone back the day they're supposed to eat there and reconfirm. Very few restaurants in Denver have that kind of manpower, and fortunately, Denver remains more friendly and casual, but I still think the bottom line is that reservations work in this city if you have follow-through."

Kelly, whose cafe at 225 East Seventh Avenue has the same number of tables as the nearby Beehive, says that when he opened Aubergine, he never dreamed he'd someday take reservations. "I thought we were too small to have to worry about that," he explains. "But I find that the convenience it offers the customers makes so much more sense, and now that we're established, people really need to call a week ahead to get in on the following weekend. But to cut down on the number of no-shows, I have a human being answering the phone every day, which sometimes means that I have to stop what I'm doing in the kitchen and answer the phone in the mornings. But I found out quickly that just leaving an answering machine to take care of your reservations is asking for trouble."

Restaurants that rely on their answering machines to take reservations until two or three in the afternoon on a Saturday are also doing their customers a disservice, according to Kelly. "Say they call in the morning and you don't call them back until four o'clock," he points out. "That means you're giving them the ultimate bad news: Not only can they not get into your place, but now they're going to have a tough time getting into another place. And so that sets up the whole situation where people make multiple reservations, and then other restaurants get screwed when they don't cancel. It's just a vicious circle."

By having a person take the reservation over the phone and call back to confirm on the day of the reservation, Kelly says he's cut Aubergine's no-shows down to two or three a month. "Us smaller places, we don't have the luxury of doing what the bigger ones do, which is to take reservations for 75 percent of the place and then hold 25 percent for walk-ins," he adds. "So people come to realize that the little guys are harder to get into as walk-ins. That means that no-shows can really cost us, because very few people are going to try to walk in -- and if we had known that table wasn't going to make it, we wouldn't have turned someone else away."

And being able to accommodate walk-in traffic is critical if you want to attract repeat customers. "If they're sitting there waiting for a while to eat, I don't care how good your food is," Kelly says. "They're going to get cranky, and that's just not good business sense. You can't be pissing people off and then expect to take their money."

Kelly will soon have a new restaurant where seating people won't be a problem. He's taking over what had been the French deli Petit Louis,at 719 East 17th Avenue (former chef/owner Louis Constantino finally threw in the kitchen towel after tax problems got him down), and plans to put in a big mahogany bar so that diners can eat standing, Paris-style. And what will they be eating? European-inspired dishes such as salade NiÇoise and panini, antipasto plates and scones, promises Kelly.

Although he has yet to name the place, Kelly expects it to be open within two months. "I'd like to sort of turn it over to some longtime employees, if they want it," he says. "I don't foresee that I'd spend much time there, but since the place has no kitchen per se, we'd be sending things like soups and breads and desserts over from here."

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