America's Fanciest Restaurants Want You To Pay Before You Eat

I have a friend who doesn’t live in New York, but went to grad school here and visits often. When he plans a trip, he regularly books two dinner reservations at hard-to-get-into restaurants on the OpenTable app. An hour or two before dinner, he chooses one and cancels the other.

It’s a great system for him, less so for the restaurants who are all of the sudden out a spot. They will probably be able to fit in a walk-in, but maybe not. This is what Nick Kokonas’s new reservation, deposit, and payment system, Tock, is attempting to cut down on when it launches in 2015 — at least for the highest-end restaurants.

There are a couple of different ways that restaurants can use the system: simple reservations, pre-paid meal reservations (generally excluding wine and anything extra you might want to order at the table), and dynamically priced meals. Dynamic reservations allow restaurants to charge more during peak periods, and to offer discounts to people who are willing to eat at 5:30 or 10:30 pm.

Some of the most high-profile, most expensive restaurants in the US are experimenting with the pre-paid option. Eater reports that two of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, The French Laundry in California, and Per Se in New York, will start asking customers to pay ahead of time next year. A beta version of the system is already in place at the two restaurants that Kokonas owns with Grant Achatz in Chicago, as well at Coi in San Francisco, LA’s Trois Mec, and WD~50 in New York (it used the system in its final weeks, before closing for good on November 30).

Ticketing systems in the past haven’t worked very well. Volver, a restaurant in Philadelphia, experimented with a similar system earlier this year before abandoning it in September. Ryan Sutton wrote back in July, “I spent 30 Sisyphean minutes navigating through various pitfalls in the system, gave up, took a hot shower, regrouped, then called the restaurant and purchased my reservations over the phone in 120 seconds.”

If the functionality of Tock is right, there isn’t any reason it can’t work, particularly if it offers a simple reservation system for lower end, a la carte restaurants. OpenTable’s free restaurant reservation system is nearly ubiquitous in US metro areas. bought it for $US2.6 billion earlier this year.

And the pre-paid part of the system could be really great for high-end, set-menu restaurants that have very high up-front costs. It not only would help them manage their cash flow, but would help protect them from last-minute cancellations. Pre-paid dinners probably won’t work for 95% of restaurants in New York (or any other city).

But a tasting menu at Per Se or the French Laundry is not a meal. It’s an event.

For this reason, it’s easier to imagine that people would be willing to buy a ticket in a way that they won’t for a nice, two-stars-from-the-Times kind of place on a regular Friday night. People pay for lots of other high-end entertainment well in advance, why not food?

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