The Future of Restaurant Reservations: Literal Meal Tickets

Tickets are ubiquitous at sporting events and on Broadway but lately restaurants have started to adopt ticketing systems instead of reservations in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Read on to learn how restaurateurs are changing the way they do business for the benefit of their restaurants and their diners.

September 2, 2014 ● 2 min read

There are a lot of companies popping up that want to sell you a seat at your favorite restaurant. They promise access to the hottest restaurants, but it’s gonna cost you—in some cases up to $50 a table—and they’re taking a cut.

At least four such companies have hit the market since early 2011, mostly in New York and San Francisco. Some partner directly with restaurants and share a portion of the fees with them; others don’t and have been likened to scalpers. One of them (Food for All) has already folded but these new mobile-forward companies are generating a lot of media buzz, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.

They’ve also generated a lot of controversy.

“This is a perfect example of tech trying to ‘disrupt’ something without thinking of the consequences. I hate this idea. It's awful and selfish,” chef Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen in San Francisco told tech blog Valley Wag in July.

Now there’s a growing movement within the restaurant industry itself to revolutionize this space and take control over reservation systems in a way that actually benefits both restaurants and their guests.

The idea is simple: to sell “tickets” for seats at a meal, just like you might expect at a baseball game or an opera. Pioneered by Nick Kononas of Alinea, Next and The Aviary in Chicago, it creates more predictability, cuts down on no-shows, reduces costs and eliminates the hassle (and cost) that often comes with dealing with a middleman.

The traditional way of taking staff off of the floor to take phone calls and check voice messages—only to say ‘no’ to 70 percent of all requests—seemed “antiquated” and absurd and had “no transparency” for diners, who often “felt like they were being lied to,” Kokonas wrote in a June post on Alinea’s website.

In his ticketing system, the full cost of each ticket—whether it’s as little as $20 or upwards of hundreds—is applied to the diner's final bill. It’s effectively a deposit and not an additional expense for the guest, unlike the fees charged by competing “access” apps which make a profit off of the reservation.

Since unveiling his proprietary system at Next in 2011, he has subsequently implemented it at Alinea and The Aviary. Sales at Alinea have gone up as much as 38 percent and no-shows—which previously hovered around 12 percent at The Aviary—are nearly non-existent now, according to his June post.

But it’s not just for high-end dining experiences. More casual spots are starting to adopt Kokonas’ system, too, like Tuck Shop in Phoenix, Ariz.

And that’s the beauty of his system: it’s adaptable to the needs of any restaurant.

Chef Jon Shook uses Kokonas’ software at Trois Mec in Los Angeles, and he’s hooked.

“Once you experience it, you don’t wanna go back,” Shook says. “Tickets give you an exact number to work with before the night even starts. At our other restaurants, we use a pen and paper (to take reservations) but we get a lot of no shows, so we over book.”

And just as in Chicago at Kokonas's restaurants, tickets have reduced no-shows to less than one percent for Shook. The biggest complaint he's gotten so far? Not having more tickets to sell.

Guests “have a hard time buying tickets because they sell out fast,” Shook says, which inspired him and his business partner Vinny Dotolo to open a more casual walk-in right next door called Petit Trois. No reservations needed there.

Other early adopters of ticketed reservations include Volver in Philadelphia, Elizabeth in Chicago, Atera in New York and Coi in San Francisco.

So whether you’re planning for a 10-course meal at a Michelin-star restaurant or just looking for a casual adventure at the corner gastropub, soon you might be getting a ticket instead of making a reservation.