Time to pay: the revolution in restaurant reservations

With the arrival in the UK of the American-developed Tock restaurant reservation system, buying a ticket in advance to eat in a restaurant could become as normal as paying up front for a flight. Will diners benefit from the change or is the restaurant industry putting it's own operational considerations above customer service? Andy Lynes investigates

Eating out in the UK, and London in particular is a very different experience from even five years ago. On the plus side, there is more quality, value and choice than ever before and at all price points. Dining has become more democratised and affordable with numerous casual restaurants that offer great quality food and service.

But there's also been a shift towards making things more convenient for the restaurateur rather than the customer. You're more likely to find yourself waiting in a queue for a table, and when you do sit down, your choice might be limited to a few dishes. Those dishes might be delivered to your table as and when the kitchen has prepared them rather than the order you might like to eat them in
You could find yourself in a very expensive fine dining restaurant with no choice at all but to eat an extended tasting menu of whatever the chef has deigned to cook that day.  And now you might have to pay for it all in advance.

The Clove Club in Hackney, currently rated number 55 in the extended World's 50 Best list is the first British restaurant to adopt the Tock booking system developed by Chicago based restaurateur Nick Kokonas. If you want to eat chef Isaac McHale's acclaimed £65 and £95 tasting menus for dinner that might include raw Orkney scallop, hazelnut, clementine and Perigord truffle you'll have to buy a ticket in advance.

'Increasingly we buy products and services and experiences through e-commerce and restaurants are no different,' says Daniel Willis, co-owner of The Clove Club. 'The real benefit for us, and the guest, is we stop a minority of people from cancelling last minute or not turning up with the numbers that they booked for which in turn allows us to keep costs down and re-invest resources into trying to improve the food and service'.

Kokonas began developing the Tock system since 2010 in order to try and mitigate the loss of over a quarter of a million dollars per year in cancellations and tables with partial no-shows. With $3million worth of tickets sold in 24 hours for Alinea's sister Chicago restaurant Next and a drop out rate down from 10-15 percent to just 2 per cent across the group (which also includes high end cocktail bar The Aviary), it appears the system is working.

'We've had just shy of 200,000 people create an account for Next/Aviary/Alinea, and many more on the pilot program restaurants which include The French Laundry and only a handful of people, just 1 or 2 per month, who email or call requesting to reserve a table over the phone. The analogy I use is like a travel agent, they used to be the gatekeeper for airline bookings. Now it just is much more pleasant, fast, and simple to book online.'

The Clove Club, who still take reservations for lunch and their bar menu over the phone and welcome walk-ins, also say their customers are happy with the change. 'We've had very few complaints and a tiny proportion of our mailing list came back saying they weren't happy. Most people have found the new system really simple and efficient'.

But not everyone is convinced that payment in advance is the way for the restaurant industry to go. 'Maybe it's me being French and old fashioned but I can't understand why some people are doing it,' says Claude Bosi of two-Michelin starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. 'I don't think it's customer orientated.  I went to Brooklyn Fare in New York and had to pay in advance. I was a bit angry, I wanted to hate it. I thought to myself, "what the hell is that restaurant about?". I absolutely loved it, one of the best meals I had in the states, but paying in advance puts you on the defensive and the meal has to be good. Our job is to be consistent everyday but sometimes shit happens. We're not robots, we're only human. People book because they've heard about you but they don't necessarily know about the food and maybe the style isn't going to please everybody. If they don't enjoy it they may think "I've paid in advance for this I can't even argue for a discount".  

Fred Siriex, general manager of Galvin at Windows in Park Lane agrees. 'A restaurant has to be run for customers The historical and accepted practice is you book and then you pay and personally I don't see that changing in the near future. I wouldn't like to be an early adopter of this and alienate people as a result'.

Duck and Waffle head chef Dan Doherty believes a ticketing system wouldn't suit his restaurant's 24 hour operation. 'The type of restaurants that have committed so far are once in a lifetime places. It's like going to a great exhibition or a play, you buy tickets for that, why not commit to the art that these chefs produce which takes time and money and a huge team? So I respect their decision to use it, but it just wouldn't fit for us'.

While many chefs and restaurateurs accept a proportion of no shows as inevitable, they don't see payment in advance as the only way of trying to deal with the issue. At Hibiscus, Bosi says that the simple expediency of taking credit card details and levying a £50 per head cancellation fee has reduced no shows to a handful per year while Siriex sees the solution in staff training and communicating with the customer.   

'You have to have standards and discipline to enforce those standards, and you have to do it with heart and hospitality. We have a double confirmation policy which works very well. If we can't contact a customer the first time we leave a message then follow up the next day. We also stagger our bookings so that if someone walks in at 8pm we find a way to accommodate them always. You will always have no shows, but the thing is the extent of them,' says Siriex.

At Duck and Waffle, Doherty tackles the issue from a different angle. 'We analyse our no-shows for each day of the week, then take into consideration seasons and festivities, then overbook by that amount. There is naturally a risk with that method, but if you need to hold someone at the bar for 20 minutes you buy them a drink and they are generally ok with that. It's all about good management'.

But according to Kokonas, restaurateurs could be missing a trick if they focus solely on the pre-payment aspect of the system. Tock allows for ordinary reservations too with booking at a zero price or small deposit (which Kokonas claims virtually eliminates no-shows and therefore the need to overbook tables) and the system can also encourage customers to book less popular time slots by offering them at a discounted price, similar to airline pricing models.

'Just like a sporting event or theatre, the less desirable seats at Alinea, say Wednesday at 9:30pm are less expensive than a prime seat on Saturday at 8pm. We have a range from $210 to $295 for our prix fixe menu. However, our cheque average remains the same in the middle but our revenue is much better since we book those 'shoulder' times and less desirable days far more frequently due to the lower price. Absolute revenue goes up and that's a win-win for restaurants and consumers,' says Kokonas.

'Tock is just another tool by which to reserve a table, it can be used in a number of different ways,' says Willis. 'In Chicago they use it at three different restaurants for bar reservations, a la carte menus and tasting menus, so it’s not limited in that sense. Tasting Menus inherently limit choice but we love eating that way and people have always responded to it well at The Clove Club. If you go to a restaurant and want to try the food it’s a great thing to place your trust in the Chef and the team behind it and see what happens'.

Although Tock is unquestionably an evolutionarily step for restaurants, diners in the UK have become increasingly used to paying in advance for their dinner. The supper club and pop up scene is now more established than ever and organisers working on very tight budgets usually require payment up front, often via online systems like Brighton-based Tabl.com. Dining vouchers, purchased direct from restaurants or via online reservation services like the nearly two decade-old OpenTable.com are another well established way to pay before you eat.

'Tock is in place at every kind of restaurant in the US and it’s only a matter of time before more people in the UK start using it,' says Willis. 'I think we’ll see it adopted in restaurants who serve tasting menus first as it’s more obvious and logical but then it’s only a matter of time before others follow suit'. 

This article was originally published in Seasoned by Chefs magazine in 2015


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