Reservations please

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So Yusho went with a startup system called RestaurantConnect that doesn't have a per-reservation charge and operates in the cloud, thus eliminating the need to lease hardware. Merges said he's been happy with the service, though he acknowledged that staying away from Open Table might hurt the restaurant's visibility.

Phillips said her company has explored Open Table alternatives as well and is confident that Blackbird and the Publican attract guests on their own merits — but she's reluctant to abandon that network and its dedicated followers, who are rewarded for using the service with a program that gives them 100 points per regular reservation, with 2,000 points meriting a $20 dining check to be used at any Open Table restaurant. (A restaurant also can pay Open Table to award 1,000 points for a reservation, giving the diner more incentive to eat there.)

Ian Goldberg, vice president of the Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, Balena and Perennial Virant), expressed similar concerns.

"I don't know how many restaurants would want to gamble not to use the service because I think a lot of people are going online and checking it out, and if they don't see your restaurant, they might not go," Goldberg said, estimating that Open Table accounts for 50 to 60 percent of his restaurants' reservations. "It definitely costs the business money, but we think it's money well spent."

Shepherd said the average bill per diner at an Open Table restaurant is $42.50, so the businesses are seeing a return on their investment. For a typical restaurant, she added, if the service results in a 5 percent increase in business, it pays for itself.

"Every incremental seat that we can help a restaurant fill helps increase their profitability," Shepherd said, also noting that diners can make or change Open Table reservations at any time of the day, adding convenience and enabling restaurants to invest less labor in staffing the phones.

More and more of those seats are being filled online as people grow increasingly reliant on their computers, tablets and smartphones. Stegner's restaurant has an older demographic than many in the city, so she estimates that 20-25 percent of Prairie Grass's reservations are being made via Open Table, but she's still paying more for the service each year because that percentage (and thus the number of reservations charges) keeps rising.

Phillips said about 60 percent of Blackbird and Publican customers are now booking online.

"Less and less people are phoning the restaurant and making a reservation," she said. "It's all about convenience. I think that 60 percent could grow into 70 percent or down the road 80 percent."

As that online business increases, Phillips and other restaurateurs would like their reservations-system options to do the same.

"I think competition is always good, and I'm interested to see where these companies can go to challenge Open Table and whether loyal diners will break out and follow these other companies," Phillips said.

Open Table founder Templeton, who left the company in 2004 and now is managing director of the socially conscious startup incubator Impact Engine in Chicago, acknowledged that Open Table will have to keep evolving to stave off new players in the crowded restaurant field.

"At some point their current product is going to run out of runway," Templeton said.

In the meantime, for old times' — and bottom lines' — sake, restaurants would love for you to pick up the phone every once in a while.

"I love the personal touch of answering the phone and talking to someone and giving that hospitality that you can never do over the Internet," Merges said. "I think it's important to have that really great human interaction. But one cannot deny the Internet."

mcaro@tribune.com

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