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Last Saturday afternoon, I checked OpenTable for a reservation at Zaytinya that night. My only options: 5:15 or 10 p.m.
Instead, I showed up at 7:30 p.m. Normally, for a table at a prime time like this, I’d have to book a couple weeks in advance. I noticed a couple in front of me frown and turn away when the host told them how long the wait would be for walk-ins. But only minutes after I arrived, the host guided my party of two to a table on the upper mezzanine.
This is not the result of some special food writer privilege or old-school bill-slipping to the maitre d’. Rather, I’d paid a $20 fee earlier that afternoon to guarantee a same-day seat in the otherwise sold-out dining room through a new service called Table8. Launched in D.C. last week, the San Francisco-based website and app offers diners the option to book a limited number of reservations at popular restaurants at the last minute and during peak times—for a price. So far, 17 mostly high-end local restaurants are participating, includ-ing Estadio, Del Campo, Fiola, Birch & Barley, and Kapnos. If they’re not booked up, people can make reservations through Table8 for free. But if the places are full, a table for two between 7 and 8 p.m. commands a $20 fee, while a four-top goes for $25.
The idea was immediately controversial: Is charging for a reservation smarmy or smart business?
Table8 comes from two San Francisco-based tech types: Peter Goettner, a venture capitalist and CEO of an e-learning company called DigitalThink, and Santosh Jayaram, one of the first executives at Twitter. The service grew out of another project they were working on for Virgin Group in the U.K. to create a virtual concierge on phones, which required them to talk to hotel concierges around world. When Jayaram asked the concierges about the toughest part of their jobs, they’d often say how hard it was to get people into fine dining restaurants at the last minute. “They either don’t have the relationships or know very confidently that these restaurants are completely booked out,” Jayaram says.
Goettner and Jayaram realized it wasn’t just concierges who had this problem: They had it, too. When Jayaram and his wife had a last-minute date night, it wasn’t uncommon that the places where they’d want to eat were already booked.
But Table8’s target demographic is more corporate types with expense accounts than forgetful daters (although procrastinators are encouraged too). Table8 partners with Concur, which manages business travel and expenses for many big corporations, so its network of 25 million users can access last-minute reservations. “They came to us and said, ‘Santosh, we have about $35 billion that flows through our expense system, of which about $7 to $8 billion is dining, and we don’t have a horse in that race,’” Jayaram says.
A last-minute booking is ideal for business travelers, Jayaram says, because they don’t necessarily know what time they’re going to be free or who will be joining them. Plus, being able to book a table whenever you want at a sought-after restaurant has a certain social cachet.
“There’s a demographic that have a lot of money and have a lot of influence, but that don’t have a lot of access,” Jayaram says. “And we’re basically making that access possible.”
Restaurants are certainly happy to have them. When they were developing the service, Goettner and Jayaram talked to San Francisco restaurateurs, who told them the differ-ence for them between a “great week” and “fantastic week” was the percentage of business diners who tend to bring in big bucks. Jayaram also found from Concur’s data that business travelers are likely to return to the same places again and again.
Business travelers are the main demographic that ThinkFoodGroup hopes to attract by signing Zaytinya, Oyamel, and Jaleo on to Table8. “There’s certainly business travelers who, because there’s an expense account, may choose to spend more overall,” says ThinkFoodGroup CEO Kimberly Grant. “We want these travelers or business people to have access to tables that maybe in the past they wouldn’t have access to.” If they have a good experience at Jaleo or Zaytinya, Grant says, they may be more likely to visit one of José Andrés’ restaurants in another city.
Whether the boss is paying or not, the logic follows that someone who’s willing to pay for a table will also be willing to splurge on a bottle of wine or an extra dessert, too. “It’s a higher likelihood that you’re not just going to go in, order one entree, share it with your friend, and leave,” says Farmers Fishers Bakers partner Dan Simons, whose Georgetown eatery is participating in Table8.
Not only that, but Jayaram argues that it prevents no-shows. “The minute you make people pay for a reservation, they show up,” he claims.
While filling a seat with a big spender is certainly desirable, Max Kuller, a principal and wine director for Proof, Estadio, and Doi Moi, says for him, the appeal of Table8 is exposure. He hopes the highly curated list acts as a sort of guide to some of the city’s best restaurants and gains buzz in travel circles. Jayaram says Table8 is “very, very picky” about who participates, and there will never be more than 25 restaurants signed on in D.C.
Profit that restaurants receive from the reservation fee itself is mostly negligible, given that none of those involved are putting up more than a couple tables a night. (The restaurants split the fee 50-50 with Table8.) Neighborhood Restaurant Group and Farmers Fishers Bakers plan to donate their fees to charity.
“I would not do the Table8 thing if I was not able to tie an altruistic result,” says Farmers Fishers Bakers’ Simons. He says he was interested in the platform as a way to learn about his patrons and determine whether something like Table8 would help create a frequent loyal customer.
Ahmass Fakahany, the CEO of Altamarea Group, which operates Osteria Morini, is likewise interested in Table8 as a sort of consumer behavior experiment. He claims he doesn’t even know what the fees are—that’s how unconcerned he is with them. He says he’s more intrigued by the client database that Table8 links with through Concur and the evolving way that diners approach a restaurant. “This is research and development,” he says.
But that hasn’t stopped a social media backlash among critics who begrudge Table8 for taking tables away from the average diner. At the gut level, it feels unjust or wrong to pay for something that’s always been free. Jayaram claims that, for the most part, the tables they’re using wouldn’t otherwise be on OpenTable. Rather, he says they’re often VIP tables that restaurants would otherwise set aside in case an investor or a high-profile guest happened to pop in unannounced.
“In a kind of very ironic way, we’re democratizing what would otherwise be held for the Jay Zs, the Al Gores, the Madeleine Albrights of the world,” he says. “Now that regular Joe Schmo can get that same kind of access for a fee.”
That’s not always true, though. Proof, Estadio, and Doi Moi never set aside tables for VIPs. At Proof, the two Table8 tables per night would otherwise go to OpenTable. (If no one books the tables through Table8 by 4 p.m. the day of the reservation, they are returned to OpenTable.) Estadio and Doi Moi don’t take any reservations during prime times, so those tables would otherwise go to walk-ins.
But Simons doesn’t think the service will prevent anyone from getting into Farmers Fishers Bakers. “If you want to book a table, book a table. I’ve got 250 seats, so we’re not exclusionary,” he says. “That’s the same thing as being annoyed at the airlines for having four first-class seats and telling you economy is sold out.”
The other way to look at it: Table8 is the online equivalent of walking up to the host stand and slipping the maitre d’ a $20. Which, let’s be honest, is bribery. Is Table8 formalizing bribery in its own way?
Kuller doesn’t see it that way. Hosts who take cash from guests for a table would be disciplined at his restaurants, he says. “There’s no bribery going on here. It’s transparent. We’re saying we’re offering these tables,” he says.
Kuller, like other proponents, compares the model to Uber surge pricing or even StubHub. When tickets are released for a concert, people can plan ahead and buy their tickets at face value. And if they don’t, they can go to StubHub and pay extra at the last minute. (Although sometimes StubHub tickets can be less, too.) “It doesn’t seem like it’s out of line with the way things work in the rest of society,” he says.
At the same time, Kuller’s restaurants and others on Table8 are only offering a very small number of tables for a fee. Things could get more problematic on a larger scale: The concept loses its claims of exclusivity and hospitality if half the dining room is paying just to sit there.
Simons wonders what restaurants will do if or when someone else creates an app that allows them to buy up a large number of reservations at peak times and sell that inventory without the restaurant’s consent. (Scalping already exists on a limited scale in New York.) “Someone could book out the entire night of Valentine’s Day for every two- and four-top six weeks in advance and then create a whole aftermarket and charge for it,” he says. “I look at that, I’m thinking, ‘What would I do?’” By participating in Table8, he argues, he’ll be able to learn if there is a market for paid reservations and get ahead of the trend, if there is one.
Jayaram claims Table8 will never take more than 8 to 10 percent of a restaurant’s seating inventory. Right now, the restaurants involved only set aside between one and four tables per night. But if it turns out plenty of people are willing to pay, is the possibility of a hot restaurant charging a reservation fee for all its tables—through Table8 or some other service—far off?
“It’s an experiment, I guess, at this stage,” Kuller says. “It will be interesting to see to what degree people take to it.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery