When Reservations Aren’t Enough
This originally appeared in the January 22, 2020 Expedite newsletter. Subscribe here.
This morning, Resy is announcing its 2020 event series lineup, which includes the return of Off Menu Week and Women of Food events, plus the addition of a few more: a dinner-and-a-movie series, and another that will pay homage to so-called iconic restaurants across the country.
Resy’s path to last year’s American Express acquisition was paved with change, but it was, ultimately, a reasonable exit that made sense. AmEx’s dedication to food and restaurants and hospitality has always been a thing. The credit card company totally got my number when it targeted me for a new card offer offering 20 percent back on restaurant purchases (“We’ll pick up the tip!” Clever.) In the same offer, AmEx used the Resy logo, promising to help me “Discover restaurants to love. And enjoy early access to all Resy events with your American Express membership.”
The reservations platform launched in 2014 as a way to pay a small fee for a hot reservation. Soon, the company dropped the booking fees and became more or less the Resy we know today, a direct competitor to OpenTable, and, quickly, the online hot spot for new, hot, hip restaurants in a growing list of cities across the country. The company moved quickly and seemed ready to shake things up.
But it’s more than a numbers game now. My former colleague Deanna Ting wrote a thoroughly solid explainer for Digiday about Resy’s revamped content strategy after the company hired former San Francisco Chronicle food editor Paolo Lucchesi to run its editorial strategy last year. Just this month, an EaterNY editor left the editorial property to work as a content manager at OpenTable.
When you talk to people at a company that handles reservations on behalf of restaurant customers, they give you some form of “We want to help our restaurants succeed,” which I completely believe to be true. A successful restaurant is a paying customer. But since these reservations services have become digital extensions of the restaurants themselves, it feels that by working with one reservations provider over another, a restaurant now has to choose between all the other perks, too — associations, credit card points, content strategies and actual product features. Maybe that’s the goal.
Back to Resy: there’s a breakfast in New York that I’m not attending this morning (hello from 30,000 feet above the U.S.) — though I’m sure there will be plenty of good coverage of what’s said. A few weeks ago, a Resy spokesperson told me, “Resy feels it can play a unique role in the dining space, as a medium between chefs and diners; one that can connect them — with tech and IRL — and be a platform for dialogue, out-of-the-box experiences, etc, in a way no other brand in dining can.”
In fact, when I edited a restaurant industry website a few people asked why I had such a “thing” for Resy — my team and I covered the company a lot. (I’ll cop to that, but hear me out.) It’s because, for the first time really, a new company was taking on OpenTable in a way that no one else had. There’s no argument that the incumbent’s size and scale are still an order of magnitude above Resy’s (OpenTable has 54,000 restaurants on its network to Resy’s 5,000), but a fast-moving, well-connected, startup that was building real brand loyalty in select cities full of willing diners did change the way that other companies do business — and it’s still keeping others on their toes. (And there are others, too.)
It’s been a while since any major reservations provider has launched a big update to its software. I think the last was OpenTable’s Premium Access feature, which allows Capital One credit cardholders to book hard-to-get tables. (The feature is supposedly rolling out to non-cardholders this month, but when I asked in November, an OpenTable spokesperson declined to share more details about the broader launch.)
We’re no longer in the early days of competition in the space, but it seems all the fuss is about everything besides actually booking a reservation. Instead on partnerships and big name chefs and Top 100 lists and events and content and branding. All of this is great. I love content, I love restaurants. I have made a career out of these two things. But some days I just want to book a table at the place down the street and enjoy my dinner without worrying about bells, whistles, points, networks, content, and whatever else comes with it. We can still do that, right?