Search. Click. Chew. Repeat.
If you think today’s dining reservation apps are impressive, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Going from a San Francisco startup in 1999 to quickly becoming the restaurant industry’s leading online booking system by covering more than 30,000 restaurants in the United States alone, Open Table has been the game changer for both restaurant owners and the dining public alike.
When the Priceline Group acquired Open Table from its founder, Chuck Templeton, in 2014, it “forked” over 2.6-billion dollars in an all-cash deal.
The company’s model is as innovative as it is simple to utilize - there is no cost to the consumer and, unlike most of the rest of what’s on the web, there’s no reliance on banner ads and annoying pop-ups. The restaurants themselves are footing the bill by paying a buy-in fee to Open Table. And the actual booking process is a simple one and very easy to navigate: Just search for the type of place you’re interested in going-to, scan time availabilities, click to secure your preferred one, and you’re done.
Time to eat!
Well, almost. Don’t forget to share your likes and dislikes. Open Table’s strengths also lie in the profile system it has created, allowing restaurants the ability to know your dietary restrictions, if you’re celebrating any sort of special occasion, or if you or one of your guests has any sort of disability. The company even incentivizes the process so diners can earn points for each booking; accrue enough of them and you can potentially cash the dividends in as dining dollars toward future meals.
But you probably already knew all of this because you’re almost assuredly a user of the system yourself.
What most of the general public doesn’t know - if you happen to be an office admin or a concierge (someone tasked with continual restaurant bookings), you can sign-up with Open Table to receive double points on certain days and at certain times of the week.
This system allows my colleagues to plug in their guest at places they may not have otherwise recommended. Or, say a prolific restaurateur wants to fill a particular restaurant on a slower Sunday in wintertime, those extra point earning are the lure to assure extra business during slower time periods.
Pretty cool, huh?
It sure is - so cool, in fact, that myriad other similar platforms come online almost weekly, like Reserve, which is Open Table’s biggest competitor.
A big difference between the two systems is Reserve’s abilities to maximize seatings by shuffling the floor plan, so guests fill a restaurant without creating situations where chefs and servers are constantly compromised by being “in the weeds.” In other words, Reserve’s freestyle system supports the restaurants and their personnel as much as it helps all of us who want to be served in and by them.
But, wait -
American Express is launching a new Open Table-like feature for its Platinum cardholders that will allow them to book reservations at thousands of restaurants (including tables at Michelin-starred spots held exclusively for Amex customers) right from their mobile phones. Look for the app to initiate in the U.K. in the next few months, and then come across the pond to the U.S. in mid-2019.
These concepts are only the tip of the digital iceberg, and app developers are continually looking for more unique ways in which to placate both prospective diners and restaurants alike.
With this idea in mind, one of the newer applications that really piques my own interest is a new and brilliant concept called the Tasting Collective.
Brad Gelb from New York City founded the idea two years ago after he had formed his own collective circle of friends - a “modern dining club” as he calls it - where he began booking private rooms for his friends at local restaurants. The idea quickly morphed into two seatings or even entire buyouts, prompting Gelb to start this Tasting Collection.
Here’s how it works: For a yearly fee of $165, members receive invitations to dine at participating restaurants. Rather than simply filling seats, dining out for members becomes an actual dining event where independent chefs on select nights (usually Mondays or Tuesdays, when the restaurant is typically slower), craft a multi-course menu for the patrons while joining them to explain dishes, share stories and answer questions. It becomes a communal experience and a bit of performance art all at once. Then, in a truly karmic way, the guests are asked to fill out feedback cards to evaluate each course and share them with the chef.
As of now, the supper club is in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and at select venues in my own hometown of Philadelphia.
Did I mention this idea’s a brilliant one? I wish I had thought of it!
It’s been almost twenty years since Open Table pioneered online bookings, and it’s obvious the market is continuing to burgeon as technology grows while diners continue to grow up.
Sure, today’s marketing buzz word is and has been Millennials - companies and whole industries seeking to capture the 22- to 37-year old consumer segment - but by this time next year look for the next Madison Avenue catch-word to infiltrate our society...
Call it “Gen Z” or define them as post-Millennials, either way, my seventeen-year old daughter and her teenaged friends are about to become the new trend in target market consumerism. So, what does this mean for the restaurant industry and for online/app booking systems?
Here’s a peak: Future diners, like a growing segment of today’s patrons, will be seekers of experientials, and this is sure to continue within the realm of dining out - meaning the act of dining out will be more significant than simply booking a reservation and then going to the restaurant or, more precisely, they’ll search out places where more excitement is being offered than the simple act of masticating a meal.
Today’s escape rooms or dining rooms featuring bowling allies or ax throwing lounges or ping pong tables will become community showcases and agencies of change - dine at Restaurant Z and create a political movement or discuss social consciousness; form a coalition to help feed the poor (or any other chartable awareness), or a collective for literally any sort of interest.
I also see communal dining experiences to continue to uptick. According to Buzztime, trends are skewing more toward group dining, so tomorrow’s restaurateurs should consider adapting by creating seating situations which offer more than the typical four-top or small private room.
I haven’t yet touched on two other ever-growing segments of the dining strata - food trucks and food delivery - but I see their impact most every single day in the office buildings I work in as a concierge.
In fact, I’m constantly booking food trucks for my tenants who gobble up their fare with wild abandon, and I am amazed by the increase in food and beverage deliveries coming into these buildings on a daily basis. Thus, if my corporate clientele are arbiters of the food service industry, then it stands to reason they’ll crave more conveniences to hasten the whole quick-serve process.
Another trend within the corporate center - and at our homes, as well - is delivery service. I’ve never seen more Amazon deliveries before and, on that note, the shipping/retail/food service (via Whole Foods) behemoth is sure to continue to lead the way in what, where, when and how we received their goods. Expect Amazon to enhance point-to-point connections between us and them.
I joke how today we share an elevator with the Amazon courier, and how tomorrow we’ll be sharing the elevator with the Amazon drone.
But this futuristic idea will become a reality soon enough.
The Jetsons-like whirl of the sky copter bringing you your Big Mac is sure to affect us all.
The most significant growth I see (because I’m so excited by its prospects) is food adventurism: book your dinner here in Philly or over there in Bangladesh. Sure, this sort of foodie wayfaring is already in place. As digital connections link with advances in transportation (thank you Elon Musk and Richard Branson!), clicking your way to a culinary adventure will become much more common and more communal, meaning, the more people paying for an excursion, the more cost-effective it will become.
I see only one downside to this ever-increasing digitization to dining: it will continue to make a marked impact in the hospitality industry by negating that original booking service called the concierge.
From the profession’s beginnings in European hotels in the late-1920s to the advent of Open Table at the turn of the last century, my colleagues were always the point-people to gain that “in” when none existed, creating the special restaurant experience and helping to provide those added touches and enhancers at the restaurants they had supported.
The dining app certainly has changed much of this for hotel guests, and the concierge is quickly becoming obsolete. The guest’s rationale: “Why should I let someone else do it, when I can book it myself?”
I continue to encourage my colleagues to remain as old school as possible by doing what we’ve always done - create amazing relationships with key restaurant people, pick up the desk phone (remember the desk phone?) and call those fine folks and maintain human contact with the living, breathing staffers who run the restaurants instead of clicking a button on a computer or favoring a place simply because your points are being doubled.
At this moment, there are two distinct emails in my inbox: one is a request for the restaurant Prime at The Bellagio in Las Vegas (“Ken, I tried Open Table, but there’s nothing available this Saturday night at 7PM.”), and the other is a request for Zahav, considered one of the toughest tables in Philadelphia (“Ken, I tried Open Table, but there’s nothing available…”).
By going old-school, I was able to quickly get my clients into each one because I made the effort to bypass the app and go directly to the source.
Long as I keep doing so, I’ll hopefully remain secure in my job. When I start to kowtow to the computer alone, I’m done for.
But you won’t be, because the future is looking so very bright within the wonderful world of dining. We can click the app, sit at the table, and enjoy the meal.
Hopefully, though, the electronic reservationists of tomorrow will stop short of eating the actual food for us.
Ken Alan is a corporate concierge for CBRE. He is the founding member of the Philadelphia Area Concierge Association, and the restaurants editor for Main Line Today magazine.