Reservations: Restaurants Fight Back

Chefs are a wily bunch. Send them a heaving, towering opponent, and they’ll work a jujitsu move to bring that giant down.

Last week we discussed how the Internet changed and is changing restaurant reservations, for better or for worse for restaurant owners and chefs who have mostly stood at technology’s mercy.

Now some restaurants are scrapping the reservation system altogether in favor of first-come, first-served seating, encouraging block-long lines and people willing to spend high three figures on a meal queued up on a curb for hours. For lovers of such restaurants in New York City, there is Shout, an independent app that connects buyers with line standers. (In Washington, DC, line-standing is a well-established and time-honored profession, serving lobbyists who need seats for in-demand congressional hearings but can’t charge clients $650 an hour for sitting on their duffs.) You can even request someone to wait for the original cronuts.

But many of these restaurants are smaller and endeavor to be more populist (even with $40 entrees) so one would probably dine under the cloak of fellow guests’ angry stares after taking a place from a line stander in a no-reservation establishment.

My favorites in the genre are Little Serow and the year-old, James-Beard nominated Rose’s Luxury. In case you wonder if food writers get to line-skip, the answer is no, and I sometimes wonder if this is chefs’ way of getting back at writers for abolishing the longstanding gentlemen’s agreement of no reviews for a few months, to let a restaurant get on its feet.

I wouldn’t blame them; I am a fan of gentlemen’s agreements in any profession and watching a linestander fill in for an actual diner is a sort of breach of the gentlemen’s agreement among diners. Anyone who can afford to pay for the meal can pay someone (who by the way can’t afford the meal) $15 an hour to stand in line, but is this really where we want to go as a society? A server at one restaurant confided to me that congressmen often send their staffers and interns to wait in line and be seated, then text their bosses who are whisked into their seats with no waiting. (The poor staffers presumably go home to their Lean Cuisines.) Because, as we all know, Congress is busy getting lots and lots of stuff done.

In the virtual world, some have created algorithms that provide the equivalent of line-skipping. Websites automatically communicate with other sites to grab the best reservation times at the hottest restaurants the minute they are released on, say, OpenTable. The average Joe has no hope for that 8:00 Saturday table if an algorithm can grab it and, through new apps, that reservation is now an easily marketed and expensive commodity. Which, in the case of scalping reservations, the actual restaurant and chef get no financial piece of.

Dinematic, to be released this month and reported on by Fortune, has diners place a down payment for their in-demand reservation on the theory that if they make a commitment to a date two months in advance, they might be certain enough of their attendance to put money behind it.

Nick Kokonas wrote an excellent blog piece about selling online dinner tickets at Alinea, Next, and Aviary, the restaurants he co-owns that are also widely recognized as some of America’s best. He shows that ticketing decreases food waste, increases restaurant profits almost 40 percent, and allows restaurants to use staff to call diners individually to discuss expectations rather than spend time saying no to thousands of callers per day. Ticketing allows variable pricing, which shifts demand but doesn’t charge customers a premium for the service. Plus, it results in almost zero no-shows.

This is economic genius. Many parts of restaurants and cheffing are passionate art but they are also ways that individual people exchange their goods and services for money to satisfy their other needs in the world.

I was at the Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vermont last month and marveled at how the chef could possibly sustain a tiny restaurant with American-ancient stonework in a former mill over a waterfall. The answer came on its website in this sentence: “Our antiquated building has always been a challenge so just in case Waterbury should ever close we would hate to lose the name, hence Hen of the Wood—Burlington!” A second location, in a more economically feasible, if less romantic, location. We all want for the highest form to exist, but economics must support it. So for now, I’m sticking with reservation systems that support chefs and restaurants, even if it means that I won’t get my Oompa Loompa.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.

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