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Pssst: Wanna buy a restaurant reservation?

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Ever get frustrated about not being able to get a restaurant reservation when you actually want one?

Happens to me a fair amount. My go-to restos tend to be in Oakland, since that’s where I live: Ozumo, Pican, Bocanova, Lungomare, among others. But so popular are these places that you really need to make your reservations far in advance—unless you’re willing to dine before 6 or after 9, which for the most part I am not. I like eating dinner at the normal hours of 7-8 p.m., but so does everyone else: hence, the difficulty. (The problem is worse in San Francisco. Try getting a 7:30 table at Boulevard. Good luck!)

Of course, I can always go to a non-reservation restaurant. We have some nice ones in my neighborhood: Boot & Shoe Service, the new Captain & Corset, and Hawker Fare. But that presents its own problems, namely, lines! I pretty much have a firm policy of not standing in line waiting for a table to open up.

Dining should be a pleasant experience; we should be able to eat where and when we want to. But that’s not reality. So some entrepreneurial types have discovered a new way to make money in the San Francisco Bay Area: they get reservations at in-demand restaurants, and then sell them online.

I first heard about this practice a while ago, when I read this article about reservationhop.com, a startup that makes reservations at San Francisco’s most popular restaurants and then sells them back to the public ‘for as little as $5’”, according to the S.F. Chronicle. But reservationhop is hardly the only new business trying its hand at the reservation-selling game. Table8 also is doing it: when I went to their website yesterday, they were selling reservations for such ultrachic places as Acquerello, Foreign Cinema, Waterbar, The Slanted Door and, yes, Boulevard (for up to $25 a shot!). The online S.F. site, Eater, quotes Table8’s founders as claiming “their offering actually levels the playing field for ‘normal’ people, allowing them the chance to get into a hot restaurant without advance planning.” That is true, I suppose; but you have to be a fairly well-to-do “normal person” to be able to afford to eat at one of these places plus pay a double-digit fee! (I don’t suppose you have to factor the reservation fee into the tip, do you?)

As you’d expect in a contentious town like San Francisco, there’s been some blowback against the reservation sellers that’s reminiscent of the complaints about Uber and Airbnb. One person who’s not so happy with the situation is a restaurant owner himself: Ryan Cole, whose Stones Throw is on Russian Hill. “I feel sick to my stomach to think that restaurants of such high pedigree and prestige would agree to participate in something so fundamentally against the principles of hospitality,” he wrote recently, in an open letter published in the Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online edition. He likened it to the old practice of slipping the doorman a $100 bill and skipping the wait for your table.” (Actually, it’s also rather the way StubHub works.) Ryan feels there’s something vaguely immoral about selling reservations. “Just because you can charge the premium doesn’t mean you should.”

I myself am neutral on all this. “It is what it is,” goes the current slogan, and besides, even if reservation selling is a horrible degradation of traditional restauranting, it’s here to stay. People want to be able to eat at top restaurants at their preferred times, and if they have to pay an extra $25 for the privilege, so be it! (I just hope they don’t make up for it by skimping on the wine.) But I personally won’t indulge in any of it. For every nice restaurant that’s next to impossible to book a table, there are dozens that aren’t. Let’s not forget that.

  1. It is an interesting debate. I was waiting for you to draw the connection to wine, but assume you are waiting for your tormentors, I mean commenters, to do so.

    Should wineries make consumers wait via allocation lists? What about charging $150+ per bottle when only a few years ago they charged $75? Wine is also an experience, but it is also a capitalistic business. As a consumer I am disappointed when price increases cause me to stop buying wine I enjoy drinking.

    But for every restaurant that has reservations being auctioned, you have dozens giving away things to get people just to come in the door.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    You might find that restaurants “work” harder to please you at 5:30 PM or 6 PM than at 7:30 PM.

    It’s all about “shaping” the demand curve. (A form of “de-marketing.”)

    See this recent Wall Street Journal article:

    “Restaurants Offer Discounts, Special Menus to Attract 5:30 Dinner Reservations;
    BlackSalt, Recette, Marea court early diners with red carpet, while Alinea and Next sell tickets, vary prices”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/articles/restaurants-offer-discounts-special-menus-to-attract-5-30-reservations-1402526918

    Excerpts:

    “Restaurateurs are trying to fill the pesky 5:30 dinner hour with a combination of sophisticated early menus and online booking specials. And fine restaurants are fine-tuning their service approach to make early diners feel they are getting more than the ‘early bird special.’

    “Reservation websites steer diners to 5 or 5:30 p.m. bookings. Groupon’s Reserve website, launched last year, lets users book off-peak reservations at high-end restaurants, including at the 5:30 slot, for discounts of as much as 30% off the total bill.

    “Starting this summer, Le Cirque, the fancy 40-year-old New York restaurant, is offering patrons who eat before 6 p.m. a $55 “early dinner” menu, featuring “heritage dishes” like Dover sole and wild Burgundy escargots. More restaurants see 5:30 as an opportunity, says Marco Maccioni, director of Le Cirque in midtown and part-owner of parent company LC International.

    “Participation in Groupon’s Reserve website has helped Le Cirque fill tables at 5:30, Mr. Maccioni says, but there are drawbacks to discounting. Regular patrons don’t like to find out that early diners get a discount on the same meal, he says, and in the long run discounts can dilute the brand. “You have to balance your exposure [because] we’re being criticized for participating in these discount websites,” Mr. Maccioni says.

    “Restaurateurs say they depend on 5:30 seatings not just for revenue but also for smooth operations. Early dinners help the wait staff and kitchen ease into the rhythm of the evening service. Otherwise, a quiet kitchen can get slammed with a mob of 7 p.m. reservations. . . .”

    ~~ Bob

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