Photograph by Werner Kunz/Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Werner Kunz/Creative Commons 2.0

The Dark Underbelly of Restaurant Reservation Tech

“The time is 9:59 a.m. Please call back in one minute.” Click.

When I phone at 10 the line is busy and remains so until 10:07, when the same voice informs me, “I’m so sorry, all of our reservations for two months from today are gone. Please try back tomorrow.”

It has occurred to most restaurant-goers, but particularly food writers who dine out for a living, that the competition that results from accepting calls only at an exact time rivals that for the Paul McCartney Farewell Tour. And perhaps as restaurant-reservation competition becomes the Iron Chef of the dining set, the whole system should be reconsidered. Where there is demand, shortage, and people with more money than time to hit redial, there is innovation.

It used to be so easy. Dial a number, talk to a person, put your name on a table. OpenTable, the 15-year-old company being acquired by Priceline for $2.6 billion, created a revolution by providing online availability for many restaurants on one site. With more than half of North America’s share of online restaurant reservations, OpenTable mastered the formula early and stayed on top.

But OpenTable hasn’t changed with the changing restaurant industry. Even in the past 15 years, dining has gone from spectator sport to bragging-rights contest, with chefs dominating cocktail conversations. ‘Where did you eat last night?’ is the ‘Who are you wearing?’ of the culinary cognoscenti. But restaurants don’t release the best tables and times to OpenTable users, nor last-minute reservations—those they save for repeat customers and VIPs.

Reservations are at the beginning of another seismic change. New apps like ZurvuResy in New York, and Table8 in San Francisco partner with restaurants to charge for reservations at high volume times, like 8 p.m. Saturday, up to an hour in advance.

Starting at $5 per person and going up—way up (one service charges about 10 percent of the average check)—from there, the apps’ reach is limited by the relatively few restaurants that are willing to partner with companies that put a price tag on something that has historically been free. It would be unseemly for restaurants to sell reservations themselves so why not let a third party do it, and then collect a share of the profits? (In contrast, about half of OpenTable’s revenue comes from fees it collects from restaurants.)

I have similar reservation reservations, and not just about optics. These apps bank on the first-world few who will pay for a coveted restaurant reservation at a hot restaurant and the hot restaurant’s willingness to partner with the app (and the app chasing after what is a hot restaurant, which can change weekly). And optics is still a problem—some chefs have pledged to donate all of their reservation profits to charity because of public distaste for the practice.

Then there is the dark underbelly of restaurant reservation technology. It’s an underworld in which you may show up in a yarmulke insisting that the reservation is under “Christian,” because KillerRezzy sells non-partner reservations by providing buyers last names under which tables are held for the evening. By the way, selling a free service for a price is scalping. But there aren’t many hungry moralists when you need an after-work-Friday table at Per Se for 6.

I’m still a fan of the low-tech method, but it requires talking to people, which makes some itchy. Many restaurants—even the best and busiest ones—will grant a reservation to those who simply show up in person a few days in advance, because it exhibits personal investment. Years ago I snagged my first French Laundry reservation, which usually must be made two months in advance, by walking in on a Wednesday inquiring about a Friday table (and acknowledging that it was probably impossible). The maitre d’ asked me to sit in the garden and enjoy a drink while she looked and, like a love struck suitor, I did. She appeared minutes later with a reservation card for the next day. No payment required.

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