No More No Shows – An Interview with Owen Morgan, Bar 44 Group
Owen Morgan founded Bar 44 with his brother Tom in 2002. It’s a family affair, with sister Natalie also heavily involved in the day to day running of the group.
Deeply in love with the food of Spain, they have three ‘tapas y copas’ bars in South Wales and opened Wales’ first Asador in 2017. Their signature is a commitment to quality, showcasing impeccable ingredients, whether it’s sharing their passion for sherry, Andalusian seafood or Galician beef. As a leading figure in Welsh hospitality, and with Bar 44 group earning an enviable reputation across the UK, we knew he’d have insights into the No More No Shows issue.
It’s always been a problem for businesses: now, when rapid recovery is essential, the message is paramount.
Find My Dine: Why don’t we start with how this has been an issue historically for you? You know, ‘Before’…
Owen: As a group, we’ve really been experiencing problems with no shows for the last 5 years or so.
I can’t tell you what a huge impact it has had on the business. Financially obviously, which in this industry- whether the public realises it or not- over the last 15 years has been on a knife edge anyway, as turning any kind of profit has become incredibly difficult.
But emotionally also, for us and our teams. This side of things people definitely don’t stop to think about. It’s pretty demoralising when people seem not to care, when you put your heart and soul, all your passion and teamwork into producing something you are proud of- for people to not give a shit and no show ‘just because’.
Our guys may have been preparing ingredients for dishes for a certain number on a certain night. It takes many hours (which means money), and no little skill, preparing world class produce. Something that may look very simple on a plate can be very challenging to make or prepare.
That’s the beauty of it though, isn’t it? Of working with that level of ingredients. And then to have to throw it in the bin because someone on their smartphone who decided to book 4 places in the same town at the same time, nonchalantly decides with their mates to go to the pizza joint instead…. It hurts the team and morale.
It hurts them. A lot. They don’t understand why people would do that after they’ve worked so hard to create a great evening for them with a lot of pride.
Our teams are built on people who want to work with us because of our passion and knowledge of what we do. They could go and work in what I call a ‘ping and ding’ place [a kitchen that microwaves frozen pre-packed food], but they don’t.
We also teach staff- both front and back of house- about the ingredients we use and the people behind it, in many cases a small family in the 6th generation producing a unique, incredible piece of produce. We also teach the staff about the economics of the hospitality industry, as they need to understand. That’s imperative: a napkin, a glass, a plate, the waste contract, the pest control contract, the laundry, the maintenance, the utilities… all the costs on top of a simple labour/rent/rates/ingredients model that some might not think about.
Find My Dine: You’re painting a picture where every no show hits hard. Can you break that down for our readers? Quantify a typical scenario?
Owen: So out of every £100 a table may spend (or not spend when they don’t show), this is roughly how it breaks down.
£30-£35 on labour (staff costs)
Up to £30-£35 on ingredient costs
£20 to the VAT man (don’t forget we are only collecting and processing that money to Boris for you)
£15 rent, business rates, utilities
So you do the maths, what’s left?
That’s not accounting for waste, or mistakes, or dishes that a well-run team should not let out of the kitchen if they are operating to high standards.
Find My Dine: So how many failures to turn up are we actually talking about here?
Owen: We experience- on average- over 120 covers not arriving. Every Friday and Saturday across our 4 sites, and it’s crippling.
Find My Dine: 120? Each weekend?
Owen: 120. Every weekend, across our four sites. Around 500 a month. Every month. If people want nowhere to eat out except fast food joints or those ‘ping and ding’ brands, the no show culture will achieve this among all of us who are trying to offer higher quality. And it’ll do it soon.
Find My Dine: Those are shocking figures. Many will be appalled, I’m sure, at the impact this kind of thing is having on their favourite restaurants. Are there any particular ‘lowlights’ for this kind of behaviour?
Owen: Last year, for example. Valentine’s Day, Bar 44 on Westgate Street. It’s one of the most popular venues in the whole city and would normally be booked out for a night like this by the beginning of January. In a venue that has 140 seats (although you wouldn’t know it as it feels intimate), it takes quite some running. On Valentine’s night you are reorganising the restaurant to set it up for tables of 2, even the tables that normally seat up to 8. You are already reducing your normal capacity by half, and we don’t insist on high priced set menus to cover this, we want people to enjoy what they would normally like to order, as well as putting on some beautiful specials to choose from. So at half capacity (which will be the maximum of the new norm when we reopen under distancing regulations), you still need the same number of chefs in the kitchen and front of house staff, to give a great experience.
Find My Dine: This isn’t going to end happily is it?
Owen: And 16 tables of 2… ‘no showed’! It completely killed the night. In the city centre on another night you may- may -be able to refill those tables with some walk-ins, but certainly not on a night like that.
Equally on normal nights, up the road in Asador 44, just 2 groups not showing wipes out the night for us. It’s not the type of venue that would get many ‘off the cuff’ customers. People book. In Bar 44 walk-ins are regular as people want to pop in for a drink and some nibbles.
Find My Dine: Surely, by now, you’re seeing a pattern. An attitude which is, sadly, widespread? What’s at the heart of this?
Owen: Modern society, I’m convinced, is to blame. Old-fashioned values don’t apply throughout society as they used to. There’s a culture thanks to technology also, of instant gratification. You can have anything you want, when you want, at the push of a button. This in turn breeds impatience, and petulance, a toddler mentality if someone is told they can’t have exactly what they want when they want it.
Across the U.K., this is what we really believe to be the problem. I speak to so many incredible operators in London, Bristol, Manchester & beyond, and they all say the same. It’s really sad.
Of course us restaurateurs are the first to use technology as our friend, and to market our venues, and it’s been amazing to connect directly with customers of like mind on social media, and to share their love of Spanish food.
But this is the downside. And something has to stop it, now, because the alternative is painfully clear.
Find My Dine: We have spoken to some prominent local businesses recently who feel trapped by this and unsure how to move on. One described the resentment his customers feel when they are asked to give their card details on booking, or to pay a deposit, and feels it could be counterproductive. What’s your take?
Owen: We use credit cards to secure bookings, which alleviates the problem to an extent, and have charged people within our terms and conditions who have not turned up.
But of course you have to have humanity and good faith, as we are in hospitality. We are warm and giving people, feeders! Sometimes, something terrible may have happened of way more importance than remembering to ring and cancel your booking. So it’s a fine line. We understand.
But these examples are few and far between. There are also occasions when people just turn off their phone when you are trying to contact them while holding their table. And we’ve had times when that’s happened and they’ve turned up an hour late demanding their table, but they were too busy in the pub to turn up at the right time. The list goes on.
We don’t want to take deposits, but it may come soon. We’ll see what happens when we reopen. We’d like to think we’d be full of regulars and people that love what we do and want to support local businesses.
Find My Dine: And in the meantime..?
Owen: We will however be increasing the ‘no show for no good reason’ charge to £25 per person. £5 or £10 just isn’t enough of a deterrent . Genuine customers wouldn’t be bothered about this, because they have genuine intentions. For example, when I’m not at work, I want to be out eating and drinking in great places. If I book a place, it’s because I bloody want to go there! I want to have a great time and for someone else to cook for me. I want a lovely glass (read ‘bottle’) of wine. Why on earth wouldn’t I turn up?
Anyway. Suffice to say it’s a problem. I don’t know how many more chefs, restaurateurs and the like need to shout about it before there’s any change. Some of the best in the country and the world have pleaded about it, but the message hasn’t sunk in yet.
As a sector and a trade, we just want to feed people great food and great drink in a great atmosphere, one with warm, friendly service. We also want to support our fellow restaurants. No one is making a fortune, absolutely no one, no matter what you think you should be paying for your pint or your pizza or steak or bottle of wine.
Find My Dine: Let’s close on a positive note, if we can. You’ve built an enviable reputation over the years, despite this trend. I suppose it makes you appreciate those who ‘do the right thing’ even more.
Owen: Yes! Please remember- we love our customers and have incredible customers, many of whom we now call friends. Without them we wouldn’t have been in business for nearly two decades- or had the confidence and courage to grow our 44 family to where it is. All we ask is that people let us know if they can’t make it when they have booked.
It’s that simple, really: just let us know! It gives us a chance to fit someone else in and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time. It’s always the small minority that ruin it for all, a saying that I guess goes in many parts of life: but we are hugely excited and positive about the reopenings everywhere, us and colleagues everywhere- so let’s hope we see some positive change too.
The #nomorenoshows campaign will run throughout August in Wales, please click on the image below to find out more, and support and share this important message.