Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Open the pod bay doors, Hal..."--2001: A Space Odyssey

"there have always been ghosts in the machine..."--I,Robot

What shall we say about Open Table. Virtually unheard of a few years ago outside of Manhattan, this computerized reservation system and a few others like it have had a huge impact on the way that restaurants run their front doors.

As for the system itself, I have warmed considerably to the database and paper-free aspect of it. I like the fact that notes, reservations, and volume numbers from any day since the system's inception are avilable at a moment's notice. I like the fact that guests and their preferences can be tracked by something other than my aging memory and a three-ring binder.

Where I fall out of love with Open Table is at the phone jack--I do not like the fact that the system is open to the internet for reservations. I do not like the often endless comments that come along with many of these reservations, announcing everything from ethnicity to music preferences [including not one but two demands that guests' iPods be connected to our music system so that they might dine while listening to their favorite tunes] and requesting everything from balloons to violinists to specific liquors, all while rarely supplying correct contact information. I do not like it when a reservation is made on Open Table for four people at 6pm but the comments say something along the lines of, "we are really coming with ten people at 8pm, but this slot was the only one available on-line--you should fix that!!! See you then!!" I further do not like it when hotel [and idiot credit card] concierges use the system to make reservations just so they can score cash bonuses, leading them to make reservations at the wrong time for the wrong number of people [because that was all that was available on-line] and relying on the restaurant to "find room" and honor the reservation so they can get their points. I also do not like green eggs and ham, but that is a subject for another post.

I understand that this flow of guests is an initial selling point of the system--it is touted as a gateway to an "untapped" guest resource. More importantly, I understand that many if not most restaurants using the system welcome guests no matter what their source, and that those restaurants always have tables to sell. We, however, get along just fine on our own. I know this may sound elitist or arrogant, but the simple fact of the matter is that we have worked like animals for ten years to build our business, and we are very protective of each and every aspect of it. If I won't let the coffee company come in and do their own pars and ordering and if I won't let the beer companies come behind my bar to "inspect" their product, it is a sure bet I won't want to give away part of my restaurant each night to some company making $1 every time someone uses them to go out to dinner.

It took us over a year to decide to use Open Table. In the end, the allure of the hardware and its in-house benefits won us over. After a great deal of pondering, we decided to start out with the system fairly wide open, track its users and their habits closely, and see what we could learn about the average Open Table user. We established a three-month trial period during which time we opened at least a few slots to the internet on every half hour seven days a week.

What we discovered was the following: Nearly half of the reservations made did not have usable contact information. 35% of the reservations were no-shows. Of those that did arrive, nearly half did not arrive at the designated time, and nearly a third did not arrive with the designated number of people. The average Open Table check average during this time was $58/pp, perfectly respectable until compared to our normal $79/pp check average. There were also a number of recognizable names among those reservations--Ivana Tinkle, Dick Hertz, Amanda Huginkiss, Anita Shower, Adolf Hitler [who actually made reservations three nights in a row], Judge Smales, Billy Ray Valentine, and Richard Nixon just to name a few.

In the end, we decided that we loved the equipment, but had to protect ourselves from the losses associated with many [though not by any means all] of the system's users. We open slots to the internet through the week up until 6:30pm and then after 9pm and on the weekends up until 6pm and then again after 9:30pm.

We still track the Open Table guests, however. We make sure to greet them in the restaurant and we make sure they are enjoying themselves, and we always make sure they have business cards before they leave. We don't come right out and say so, but we try to make sure everyone understands that better reservations options are, usually, just a phone call away. We don't want to exclude anyone, we just want the inclusion to be on our terms.


Blogger Janejill said...

Such a clever, biting (!) and funny post on the winetasters. (I have just come across your blog so have catching up to do) It brought back memories of when I stupidly opened a restaurant and Bed and Breakfast. I lasted less than three years and came out of it a would be recluse, hating mostly everyone. How can you stick it?

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome GM. Thanks for the great blogs. I have tried to comment 4 or 5 times. Nothing seems to work. Just know that are out avidly reading & waiting.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your sruff man. I had the fire suppression foam shit blow all over the fryers and grill areas for no reason on a Friday about 4:00. Whoa. Nightmare. Terrible thing to live through. Plus , what a mess. That stuff really does go EVERYWHERE, Crazy.

Anyway, keep writing, we love this stuff, since we have seen the same thing. Bob

8:26 PM  
Blogger me said...

an interesting blog subject, but your writing makes it so readable, and funny, and poignant.
I promise i will be impeccably behaved next time i eat out...
Congrats on POTW

11:57 PM  

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