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Avante garde restaurants find success in making guests pay in advance


A new set of restaurants are having guests pay for their meal in advance, like a movie ticket, which they say helps them – and guests – tremendously.

Nick Kokonas’ maverick streak brought him wide acclaim as a restaurateur. Alinea, his much-praised restaurant in Chicago, is one of only a handful in America to hold three Michelin stars.

But it’s not just his cooking that has won him plaudits. Since 2010, the unusual booking system at Alinea and its sister restaurants has flipped convention on its head. Rather than reserving a table and then paying for everything at the end, diners book tickets online in advance for a meal “experience” which costs between USD 210 and USD 295 for 12 to 14 courses. Prices vary according to the popularity of the booking time. Drinks and service are paid for at the end of the meal as usual. You can sell on the booking, or call to rearrange. For the restaurant it’s a no-brainer, saving on staff costs, waste and – crucially – no-shows, which can cost top restaurants thousands of pounds.

“Other people in the business thought it was the worst idea in the world,” Kokonas says. “But for us we were solving a problem with some of the transactional aspects of dining out. There are few people under the age of 40 who like to pick up the phone. It feels quaint, and not in a good way. Also, 85% of people ask for the same thing, which is a table at 20:00 hrs on a Friday or a Saturday. This way we can show people what the actual availability is.”

Rather than having four people answering the phones all the time, Kokonas’ staff are free to call diners before their meal to check any dietary requirements. The new system has also solved the issue of restaurants giving preferential treatment to certain special customers. “We’ve all had that feeling where the gatekeeper says there’s nothing available, but you know they could get you in if they chose. I never want someone to feel like we would accommodate them if they were more important. Everyone’s money spends the same.”


Nick Kokonas

The idea of ticketing has crossed the Atlantic. This summer, Heston Blumenthal announced that the re-opened Fat Duck would operate on a ticketed basis. “There’s evidence that thinking about the bill to come detracts from the experience so this gets it out of the way,” he said.

In London’s Shoreditch, meanwhile, the Michelin-starred Clove Club has been selling tickets through Tock, an evolution of the system Kokonas developed for Alinea, which he is hoping to sell around the world. It wasn’t a decision they took lightly. “We had a lot of debate about whether to introduce it,” says Daniel Willis, Clove Club’s general manager. “But in fine dining if your margins are 15%, then you are doing well. In a restaurant where you’re only serving 60 diners a night, it just takes one table not to show up and that’s your profit from the evening gone.

“Given that people are mainly booking online, before they get to the restaurant, then it is about e-commerce and your digital identity. It’s hard to get your head around, because it’s so different from the traditional system. But it’s foolish not to use those things.”

There are other apps that let you pay a premium for availability at top restaurants, but these are exclusive, rather than democratic. OpenTable is the USD 3 bn booking platform most restaurants use. But it charges a fee per diner and this means that few restaurants want to use it during their busiest times, so don’t make tables available online. This, in turn, means that the OpenTable booking isn’t always a reflection of what the restaurant actually has to offer. The new system charges a flat monthly rate, so there is no incentive to withhold your busiest times.

In Birmingham, Richard Turner, of Michelin-starred Turner’s, has also introduced a ticketing system, allowing him to offer meals cheaper at less busy times in the middle of the week. Guests book using the usual OpenTable system and get a discount code. “If we know exactly what we have for a certain service, we can remove waste. The kitchen is slicker and we can buy better, and we pass that discount on to the customer. Not everyone is going to like it because they don’t want to be tied down in advance, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”


Richard Turner

All these restaurants have an existing reputation, confirmed by thousands of happy diners. It’s one thing if you’re Heston, quite another if you are a new restaurant asking diners to take a punt. As well as these top restaurants, the other catering businesses that routinely charge in advance for tickets are supper clubs, beloved of trend-seeking “foodies” and often mixed in quality. But for a generation used to doing everything on their smartphone, a fully transparent tickets-in-advance system makes a kind of sense.

“Dining out is a cultural practice, not just a business practice, so when you mess with it people take it personally,” says Kokonas. “But our customers have been very positive. After all, restaurants are a form of entertainment, and every other form of entertainment has been booked this way for hundreds of years.”

Source: The Guardian

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