November 15, 2012
Alinea, Chicago's most acclaimed restaurant, has used Open Table in the past to manage — though not take — reservations, but co-owner Nick Kokonas isn't shy about anticipating and working toward the service's demise.
Kokonas, partners with Chef Grant Achatz on Alinea, Next and The Aviary, says Open Table has become outdated in its technology (running on touch-screen PCs that must be leased) and its marketing approach.
"We don't need the Open Table network," Kokonas said. "I would contend nobody needs it anymore because the social network is much greater than the Open Table network. I think it's much more powerful to be able to sell tickets through Facebook or Twitter than through Open Table."
Kokonas helped develop the tickets system that Next has used since it opened in April 2011 and to which Alinea moved this year. Instead of making reservations, diners buy tickets for specific times and dates, with the prices varying depending on time and day of the week. This strategy eliminates the cost of no-shows (the meals, including tax and service, are prepaid with no refunds, though you can resell tickets), the possibility that your table won't be ready when you show up (because the restaurants don't have to overbook to compensate for possible no-shows) as well as "that dance with the check" at the end of the meal, Kokonas said.
Next and Alinea routinely sell out quickly, but then again those are the Rolling Stones tickets of the restaurant world. Still, Kokonas says more restaurants should adopt the tickets system, which he said he plans to roll out commercially over the next six months.
One restaurant using it in Chicago is Iliana Regan's foraging-oriented Lincoln Square restaurant Elizabeth, which seats just 24 guests at three tables for three distinct tasting menus each night. Regan, who worked with Achatz at Trio and Alinea, said she was initially resistant to the Next ticket system because she'd personally found it hard to operate, but after talking to Kokonas, she became convinced that it could be customized to fit her vision.
"Because of what we were planning on executing with the multiple menus in such a small atmosphere, we knew we were going to have to have some strict boundaries around reservations," Regan said. "We were going to need to know exactly what we were making, and being so small we needed to know that the people who reserved were actually going to show up."
The ticket system, she added, addressed all of her concerns.
"Once we saw it, there was no way to say no because it seemed so perfect and so easy," Regan said.
The Elizabeth website requires you to register, after which you can click on dates on a calendar to see which tickets are available for parties of two or four that night. You pay, and you're all set — and the restaurant has the money in advance.
But larger restaurateurs have yet to jump aboard the bandwagon, generally taking a great-for-them, not-for-us stance.
"I think it's innovative and super creative," said Kimberly Phillips, director of operations for One Off Hospitality (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican, Big Star, the Violet Hour). "As a restaurateur it's great to know what to expect before you start your service. I think for us and our style of reservations, it would not be a fit, because we do love walk-ins, and we do want to be accessible, and we do want to be able to welcome someone who just got into town."
Ian Goldberg, vice president of the Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster, Girl & the Goat, Perennial Virant, Balena), called the tickets system "a genius concept. At this time we haven't really entertained using that system, but I'll never rule anything out."
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