It took just two nights for Poly to experience its first no-show. Two people had made a reservation at the Surry Hills wine bar for dinner on Saturday following its reopening the previous evening, May 15, after the NSW government gave restaurants and cafes the green light to seat up to 10 diners at once.
It prompted owner Mat Lindsay to write an Instagram post (which he subsequently deleted). Unsurprisingly, the post generated a number of ferocious comments from Poly fans and members of Sydney’s dining community who have been waiting months for the opportunity to dine out.
“I decide to take it down because people were getting really wound up,” Lindsay tells Broadsheet. “They were just really angry and couldn’t believe it. I thought it was better to just remove [the post] ... But at least it got people talking, so they’re aware of the impact a no-show can have on a place like ours.”
“Hi Aimee,” the post begins. “We thank you for making a booking at Low for four people. Right now that is 40 per cent of our entire capacity.
“The thing is Aimee, you didn’t show up for your booking. You didn’t have the common courtesy to call us up and cancel. We had people on a waiting list who would have been happy to take your reservation.
“Maybe you have no idea the financial impact this has on a restaurant right now. Maybe you don’t care. You have single-handedly set the worst of precedence [sic] for our entire industry at this most difficult time. Furthermore you have put us in the position of having to now ask other bookings to pay a deposit when booking. Something we really wanted to avoid having to do.
“Aimee, there is a special place for you to burn in hospo hell.”
It garnered 28 comments, all tinged with the same exasperated disappointment of Poly’s followers. Aref acknowledges there could have been many legitimate reasons for Aimee’s no-show, but all he’s asking is for customers to let venues know when their plans change.
“The reason I posted that on Facebook is I want to tell people please don’t do this if possible. It’s impacting the venue and diners ... Please treat us with a little respect,” he says. “We aren’t opening to make money, it’s not financially sensible, we’re doing it because we want to have our community back and reconnect with our regulars.”
Aref says the last thing he wants to do is ask for credit card details when taking bookings, but if it happens again, he’ll be left with no other alternative.
Lindsay agrees. “I think [that’s essential] now because we can only serve 10 people at a time. We’re not making money at the moment, but every little bit helps,” he says. “If two out of 10 people don’t turn up, it’s really making it hard.”
How hard, you might ask? “It's kinda hard to tell [what the no-show of two people at Poly means for the bottom line at the moment], but it equates to about seven per cent of possible takings,” says Lindsay. “That’s more than most restaurant profit margins, though at this time [there’s other costs we have] such as wastage, utilities, online bookings.”
In other words, a no-show of those two people means Poly will be in minus figures that night.
And it’s not just a negative for the venues – it also impacts the dining community more broadly. “That night when it happened to us it was 5pm – we had a whole bunch of people we had to say ‘Sorry, the space is taken’ to, and they left disappointed,” says Lindsay. “They were excited – they could finally go out and have dinner and a glass of wine and we said we couldn’t fit them in. Then those seats sat vacant. That was the more upsetting thing about it – turning people away.”
O Tama Carey, of Darlinghurst eatery Lankan Filling Station, got in touch with Broadsheet over the weekend to let us know she’s reintroducing dine-in for guests (from Thursday May 21).
“We are going to open up (kind of…) [this] week,” she wrote in an email. “I’ve put the details on our website and will be sending a newsletter and announcing on social media on Monday … There are rules for people, which is bound to upset some of them, but we kind of have to.”
Carey says diners will need to make a booking if they want to come in for dinner. There’ll be specific seating times, a set $65 banquet and pre-payment will be required. “I know this may sound like a lot of rules, but for the time being it’s what we must do. And, as the restrictions loosen, we’ll keep you updated with our offerings,” she says.
“With the small amount of people we’re serving, the percentage of two diners is actually quite a lot in terms of money taken. And opening like this still isn’t something that will actually net much profit anyway – at this stage it’s more about keeping the restaurant afloat and the staff paid. The other thing about not turning up for a booking is being unfair on other people we may have turned away.”
While there are some Sydney venues accommodating walk-in guests (see our live list of reopenings here), it looks as if we’re entering a period where bookings and prepayment will predominate. Lindsay is hopeful the trend won’t be permanent, though.
“I don’t want that to happen. I know that makes sense at the higher-end places, as there’s a lot of money to be lost there. Not showing at, say, Sixpenny, would be really bad for those guys. But I would hate it to happen at everyday places. I want to be able to walk into places and for people to be spontaneous,” he says.
Another thing that looks to be part of the new norm for dining out in Sydney: the end of the much-loved 7pm or 7.30pm time slot. Lankan Filling Station will be doing three sittings (5pm, 7pm and 9pm); Dear Sainte Eloise two (6pm and 8.30pm); Macleay Street Bistro also two (6pm and 8pm) – the list goes on.