No-show diners are the bane---and sometimes the death---of high-end restaurants. The revenue from every seat in a small, exclusive establishment can be crucial to the bottom line; when those seats go unfilled, for whatever reason, profit margins tend to dry up and disappear.
Some operators have hit on a solution to this perennial problem: the reservation ticketing system. The idea is simple. At certain restaurants, making a reservation is now no different than purchasing a concert ticket. The diner books his or her table online, paying in full with a credit card. Should some last-minute problem arise, it is the ticket holder’s responsibility to dispose of the prepaid reservation.
The system was pioneered in Chicago by Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea, the Michelin three-star restaurant operated by Chef Grant Achatz. His moment of clarity occurred one day as he listened to Alinea’s reservation agents tell prospective diners that the restaurant was full. Kononas realized he was paying three people to do nothing but say “No” over and over again. When he and Achatz opened their second restaurant, Next, they implemented the ticketing system. Prices vary according to the day and time---an 8:30 booking on Saturday is roughly 20% higher than 6:30 on Tuesday.
There are practical drawbacks, of course. This concept only works if the restaurant serves nothing but a fixed-price, set menu; the idea isn’t feasible for a la carte establishments, which still comprise the bulk of the fine dining universe. On top of that, the only restaurants that can get away with ticketed reservations are the ones that are so insanely popular that they are full every moment of every meal service.
Although the ticket concept is spreading from Chicago to New York, San Francisco and other cities, some food purists are outraged. They see the practice as a violation of the age-old code of hospitality. This may well be the case, but the results are impressive: according to industry analysts, the no-show rate at Alinea is now less than 2%, and revenue has increased by 38% since the system was implemented. With those figures, restaurant tickets may be here to stay.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons press, 2012); his second book, Moonshine Nation, has just been repleased by Lyons Press. For more information, go to amazon.com