Tuesday 6 August 2013

The exception proves the rule

There’s an interesting report here from customer experience expert Ian Golding about how a pub refused to break its established policy of not accepting table reservations and thus lost a substantial amount of business. Now, I’m certainly a strong believer in the principle that “rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools” and have seen many cases, both in the pub trade and in the wider world, where the narrow-minded application of petty regulations benefits nobody.

However, a distinction needs to be made between rules that genuinely are trivial, and those that lie at the core of the operational principles of a business. He doesn’t name the pub in question, so I can’t comment on the specifics here, although if it is in the Chester area it may well be one I have visited over the years.

With pubs, which tend to have regular customers, there is always the risk of setting an unwelcome precedent, so the customers will say “well, you made an exception for them, so why can’t I reserve a table for granny’s birthday?” And then the licensee either appears churlish, or opens up the thin end of the wedge. He says the pub in question will have lost their business in future, but that can work both ways. For example, on two occasions in the past few years I have visited two different pubs that had set aside a large part of their normal public area for a private party. They may well have gained business in the short term, but that experience has made me less inclined to visit those pubs in the future, or to recommend them to others.

Although it’s a different issue, some years ago I was in a pub at lunchtime on a hot day when a couple of lads came in not wearing shirts. The licensee refused to serve them, and they left saying “you’ve just lost about six pints worth there, mate”. In the short term, obviously he had, but in the long term he doesn’t want to be known as the kind of pub that serves shirtless yobs.

And surely the classic example of the desirability of applying rules strictly is the sign that used to be common above the bar in pubs, “Please do not ask for credit as a smack in the mouth often offends”. However deserving the case, if you do it for one person then others will inevitably demand it too, and then feel aggrieved when it is refused.

Consistency of offer is something that is very desirable in pubs. It may well be that this particular pub sees an open to all comers, first come first served approach as a key part of its proposition and thus is entirely justified in refusing to bend the rule, even if they alienate some potential customers by doing so. On the other hand, if they just can’t be bothered, then they deserve what is coming to them.

The point must also be made that there are plenty of establishments around that do offer table reservations, so in this case the detriment to the customer was not very great. If it was the only place serving meals for twenty miles around then the refusal to take a booking would seem more churlish. And, turning the situation around, if there was a restaurant with a policy of only accepting prior bookings, and a party turned up without a booking, it would be self-defeating to turn them away even if there were plenty of empty tables and people standing idle in the kitchen.


  1. The landlord of my local, a no nonsense yorkshireman, says "bums reserve seats". If the establishment is a pub first and restaurant second, I think he's dead right.

  2. It's difficult to comment without knowing the specifics, but presumably the landlord knows what he is doing. Perhaps they don't get asked too often for reservations and so he feels able to decline the offer. After all, although he is turning away potential business, it may be at the expense of local goodwill.

    On the other hand, I remember organising a CAMRA coach trip to Cheshire. I enquired beforehand if we could have lunch in a Brunning & Price pub as I was aware that they had a "no coach parties" sign. The landlord refused, which i thought was harsh, particularly as it paraded its GBG credentials.

    As you know, B&P are large food-led operations. If we were only coming for drinks, I could have understood it, but to turn down hundreds of pounds of lunchtime business seemed arrogant. We ended up in a much smaller, very nice, Robinsons pub up the road which, despite the very same sign, was happy to accomodate us.

  3. As I say, I don't know the specifics, so all I'm pointing out is that there may be method in apparent madness.

    In the case of the B&P pub, if he can fill or nearly fill his pub with small groups he may well prefer not to admit large and possibly a bit, er, boisterous parties ;-)

  4. It was an interesting article in that it was yet another example of people not getting their own way and then whingeing about it.

    Firstly, I note that the pub was small to the extent that they feared a party of seven couldn't fit in. Is it reasonable to reserve seats in a small pub while the whole family gets ready to go out? If the pub filled up between the booking and the party's arrival, I can see regulars getting quite annoyed if they were forbidden to take an empty seat. Then there's your own suggestion about setting an unwelcome precedent.

    Secondly, rules: we don't know whether they were speaking to an employee, who may have had no discretion to break the rule, or the boss, who didn't think it was in his best interest to make an exception (perhaps for the reasons previously suggested). In many lines of work, rules exist to be obeyed, not interpreted or broken. For example breaking rules could be a disciplinary offence in my job, whatever members of the public demanded - aphorisms about wise men and fools would cut no ice with management.

    In my opinion, Ian Golding is a typical middle class whinger who hasn't considered that there may be good reasons for the refusal to book tables, and instead just goes pontificating pompously on line.

  5. Doesn't happen so much these days, but one of the things that used to chafe my balls was the sucking through teeth and the "You can't sit there, that's old Teds seat".
    It used to be worse if there was several empty seats, and the next one you sat on was old Joes seat and neither Ted nor Joe were on the premises.

    I've never minded being asked "Hey lads, would you mind letting old Ted sit down?". Old Ted is usually grateful, and you end up having a bit of a yarn with him.

  6. Nowt wrong with being a middle class whinger, Nev. For 40 years a bunch of middle class whingers have been demanding something the pub industry would prefer not to offer and keeping it available for said middle class whingers to get tanked up on more respectably than 8 pints of Stella.

  7. Whingers don't actually do anything; they certainly would never get round to starting and maintaining a campaign for 40 years.

  8. its difficult I can see both sides, and equally I know landlords often say the same that by doing one thing theyll lose some custom, but equally they know if they bended to those customers will, theyd just lose others instead, its about a balance at the end of the day.

    I dont have a problem if the pub is small enough a table of 7 might be difficult to get, in not allowing people to reserve tables for food, despite the only pub I know of similar small size that had the same rule, no longer being in business :) I dont think that had anything to do with it, the place was always full, and people could drink whilst they waited for a table to be free, or they could go elsewhere.

    and the place that does allow table reservations, to the point it excludes regular pub custom and might as well be a private party outfit, you end up sitting in an empty pub surrounded by tables with reserved notices,yeah I dont go there to eat anymore. (rarely drink there for that matter either now)

  9. Martin, Cambridge7 August 2013 at 11:14

    I find table reservations outside of restaurant areas off-putting, (I notice increasing numbers of North London Beer Guide pubs reserving tables for drinkers).

    A polite note on the table welcoming use of the table before the booking time isn't difficult.

    For some restaurant chains, NOT taking any bookings is a positive point, as you know you'll get in if you queue, and the queues outside can be a selling point.


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