Ticket to Dine
Tock—co-founded by a star chef, a financial wizard, and now a top Googler—claims that payment in advance will benefit eaters and restaurants
Brian Fitzpatrick thought he was a Googler for life. He worked out of the company’s Chicago office for over nine years, and gave up chances for promotion to keep working on products he loved, notably tools that allowed users to ditch Google and take their information with them. (“Fitz,” as he is widely known, dubbed the effort the “Data Liberation Front.”) While his business card read “engineering manager,” he referred to himself as a “data sommelier.” He thought his professional life was perfect.
But on June 4, 2014, he read a long blog post by a restaurateur about a different way of handling reservations — and instantly discarded his intention to remain at Google until retirement. “I read it twice,” he says. “It blew my mind.” Specifically, the post described the system under effect at Alinea and a few other high-end Chicago restaurants, where diners prepay for meals and are issued tickets for seatings. Fitz was bowled over by the way that the system benefited both customers and restaurants. He wanted to be part of it.
And now he is. As of this week, the former Googler is the new chief technology officer of Tock, a company hoping to spread the practice of selling tickets to restaurants — and, later, to just about any activity where people book time slots in advance.
In short, Tock wants to be the Uber of appointments. But for now it is just one of several contenders to be the great disruptor of the traditional means of booking a restaurant table — a time-honored practice that really doesn’t respect people’s time. But standing in Tock’s way is a savvy defender of the status quo called OpenTable — and a belief by many foodies that dismantling the current system would destroy restaurant culture.
Tock CEO and co-founder Nick Kokonas likes to say that the current system of reservations is based on two big lies. The restaurant, he says, lies to the customer when it says, “We’ll have your table ready.” And the customer lies by saying, “Great, we’ll be there.” Sometimes both sides really mean what they say. But all too often, the table isn’t ready because there’s no way that a 7:30 table will be cleared by the four-top that booked at 6 pm but showed up at 6:30. Or people reserve a table for four and only one couple shows up. Lies all around, leaving unhappy eaters and restaurants with unfillable last-minute vacancies.
The way to stop this, Kokonas says, is transparency. The restaurant shows the customer exactly which tables are open and when. And the customer assures good intentions by paying in advance. That’s the Tock business plan, one he’s been using successfully at restaurants he co-founded. It’s the plan he described, at great length, in the blog post that lured Fitzpatrick to the startup called Tock (tick-Tock—get it?).
Starting an Internet company is only the latest twist in Kokonas’ patchwork career. As a kid he was a computer nut, but studied philosophy and was barely out of college when he put together a $40,000 stake to trade in derivatives in 1992. He built his investment company to 18 employees — quants like himself—and merged with a big New York firm in 1998. He left the company in 2002 —he was then 34—and refined his palate while traveling the world with his wife. So when he met the budding superstar chef Grant Achatz—a wildly imaginative pioneer of molecular gastronomy—he was starstruck. “It was like meeting Miles Davis when he was twenty-eight,” he says. “I wanted to help build his stage.” In 2005, the duo opened Alinea, serving an adventuresome, and super expensive, prix fixe menu. It became a pillar of Chicago dining, anointed by Michelin with three precious stars.
But getting a reservation was only slightly more difficult than a World Series ticket at Wrigley Field. Kokonas came to work every day to hear his reservations people telling potential customers over and over that the place was full — three full-time employees whose job was saying no. He felt there was a better way. “If you look at every form of entertainment…theater, concerts… what do you see? You buy tickets!” he says. But when he’d mention it, staffers would humor him. He was a novice, they’d say. Didn’t he know that asking diners to pay in advance would be a disastrous culture gaffe?
In 2010, though, Kokonas and Achatz were opening a new place called Next. Every few months the restaurant would attack a totally different cuisine: the first theme was “Paris 1906.” All meals were prix fixe. Even before the launch, people were begging for reservations. Kokonas convinced his star chef and co-owner that the time was ripe to experiment with pay-up-front ticketing. All they had to do was figure out how to build the software. “I tried to avoid in every way doing it myself— it’s a pain in the ass,” he says. “I asked OpenTable — it was a non-conversation. I talked to ticketing companies, they had no interest in restaurants.” Finally he hired some programmers. The system was barely ready when Next opened — but it worked. Eventually, Kokonas extended the system to his other properties—Alinea and a cocktail palace called the Aviary. For the latter, the non-refundable prepaid fee acted as a deposit against the total bill.
It worked. Users see a grid of dates, times and available tables — booked ones in red, and available tables in green. Some of the reds are not booked, but being held for some reason—the chef’s guests, late-booking regulars, celebrities. The restaurant sees these as yellow. When Kokonas or another host releases a yellow table, it turns green — and is often snapped up in seconds, with customers paying the full prix fixe meal charge in advance. Everyone can see what happens, so mistrust is minimized. More important, no shows and “short tables” (bookings where the party is smaller than promised) have plummeted. With predictable seating times, customers arriving on time no longer have to wait at the bar. Knowing exactly how many people will be in the restaurant — and having the money in hand—Kokonas can afford to prepay his favorite suppliers. In turn, farms and fishmongers could give him their best products at best prices.
The system also allows for different kinds of tickets, allowing for variable pricing. (Most restaurants are not prix fixe and will sell tickets as down payments on a meal as opposed to a full prepay.) All restaurants have a much easier time booking prime slots—especially weekends between 7 and 9. Customers aren’t as plentiful on the slow weekdays and the “shoulder” times, before 6:30 and after 9. At a restaurant such as Alinea, the coveted times go first, and those who book shoulder times try to game a waitlist for a better slot. Ticketing allows a restaurant to charge a premium for Saturday night at 8 and give a discount for Tuesday at 6 pm. Kokonas invokes the theater analogy to justify this. “You can pay $30 to sit in the nosebleed section and $150 to sit in the orchestra; It’s your choice what to do,” he says. “And it seems to me like the choice in a restaurant isn’t sitting at this table or that table. It’s, ‘Do I come at 5 o’clock or do I come at 8 pm?’ It’s more like a theater.” He is careful to say that the premium prices won’t be all that much higher than they were when all was one price. The bigger changes, he says, will come from discounts at slow times. Maybe on weekdays, a $20 deposit might be worth a $30 credit on the bill.
And of course, restaurants using Tock can also sell tickets with a price of zero. In other words, a good old-fashioned reservation. The advantage of doing this, Tock believes, will be its superior cloud-based system at a lower charge than OpenTable.
From the start, Kokonas was thinking of building a company to sell a toolbox to implement these features to hundreds, maybe thousands, of restaurants fed up with no-shows. The blog post that lured Fitzpatrick in June was a manifesto in advance of that move. It’s a formidable task, but Tock launches with a formidable list of investors, both in the tech and dining worlds. Topping the list is Achatz’s mentor, the celebrated chef Thomas Keller, who plans to use the system for French Laundry and Per Se, the respective meccas of West and East Coast gastronomy. The tech world is represented as well, with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo (who once worked with Fitzpatrick at Google). An investor with a foothold in both worlds is Kimbal Musk, on the board of his brother’s companies SpaceX and Tesla, and a co-founder himself of a group of farm-to-table restaurants anchored by The Kitchen, in Boulder. Another promising sign: according to Kokonas, “a few hundred” restaurants have already contacted him for information.
Fitzpatrick — who first met Kokonas and Achatz when they visited Google Chicago— is now in charge of building the new system, set to launch sometime next year. (One of his first hires was one of his key tech leads at Google, JJ Lueck.) He says that, unlike OpenTable, customers will access Tock from the restaurant’s web site — they won’t even be aware that a third-party company is involved. Tock will charge restaurants a flat monthly fee, perhaps $695. “There shouldn’t be a success penalty,” he says. (OpenTable charges restaurants a dollar per seat, so the more you book, the more you pay—sometimes thousands of dollars.) And customers, he promises, will own their own data. “It’s my Data Liberation roots coming out,” he says.
Tock is not the first startup attempting to disrupt the system of restaurant bookings. (On the horizon, we may even see the entrance of giants — last year Apple filed for a patent involving booking tables and managing waitlists.) The current crop of apps, including newcomers like Resy, Table8 and Killer Rezzy, focus on selling and reselling reservations, usually for a separate charge.
“I liken the situation to 2005 in the airline industry,” says Sasha Tcherevkoff, CEO of Killer Rezzy, which sells bookings to popular eateries for $25 — some of them booked with restaurant partners who share the $25 fee, and some not. “When the first carrier started charging for bags, people said it was blasphemous. Now you can find only one or two airlines who don’t.”
Tock’s Kokonas believes that such systems won’t survive. “People who build that model almost never worked in restaurants,” he says. “It solves a consumer problem for people willing to pay more to get into a hot Manhattan restaurant.” He says that for restaurants the issue is not leaving a potential source of revenue on the table (so to speak.) “It about filling those times!” he says.
But the toughest competition isn’t other startups but the dominant San Francisco-based OpenTable. By skillfully automating the traditional approach — where diners choose an open time and book a table with only a promise to show up — the reservations giant now books 15 million meals a month, in 32,000 restaurants. For much of the public, it’s the starting point and finish line in securing a table. Last June, Priceline paid $2.6 billion to acquire the company.
OpenTable’s Senior VP of Marketing, Scott Jampol, says his company has been studying pay-for-reservation systems, but still believes the traditional methods will persist. “In our conversations, many [restaurants] indicate they’re not interested— It doesn’t feel like it’s aligned with their brand experience,” he says “And if you talk to diners, no indication they want to buy a ticket, and show in advance.” But Jampol is not willing to rule out the possibility that OpenTable might indeed implement such a scheme, if Tock or anyone else proves successful. “If it’s interesting we’re going to act on that,” he says. “You’ll always see us introduce new features, new technologies and ideas.” In fact, he says that in some cases, his company is already helping restaurants sell tickets. One example is a place that combines a music performance with a meal. As for payments, says Jampol, OpenTable is already on it. “The diner can pay through the OpenTable app, much like you use Uber,” he says. The company is even experimenting with pay through iPhone. “We’ve built a great business and a lot of people want a piece of it,” he says. “So we’ve got to be innovative.”
So if Tock is successful, it may have to take on an industry giant adopting its own techniques. But by that time, says Kokonas, his company might be conquering other sectors. “My goal really is time-slotted businesses — all the places that have seating problems. I’ve got a gastroenterologist who emailed me: ‘You have no idea how no-shows kill me.’ I’ve known a guy with three hair salons—same problem. And why should a man coming in for a haircut have the same booking as a woman with a higher cost? There should be a way for that guy to use our toolbox.”
The bigger uncertainly is whether this new way of distributing bookings—in restaurants and everything else, from colonoscopies to the DMV— will generate unintended consequences. Will Mother’s Day brunch become synonymous with surge pricing? Will a ticket system generate a secondary market of StubHub-style resellers? If you can’t make a booking because your uncle died, can you get a refund by showing the death certificate? Is the last-minute walk-in — even those willing to “wait at the bar” for an indeterminate time — destined for the fate of the woolly mammoth?
Fitzpatrick, still as smitten as he was when he read that blog item, is convinced the ticket paradigm is a win-win. He can’t wait to start building it. The rest of us? Maybe we’ll wait in the bar.
All photos by Alyssa Schukar