Maitre D'igital Part I
April 15, 2006
Once upon a time, you had to be a very patient person if you wanted to guarantee a table for two at a Denver restaurant.
First, you had to find one of the few places that actually took reservations. During this ancient era, most dining establishments didn't take them except for special occasions.
Then, you had to call the restaurant when it was open. (Younger readers take note: There actually was a time before everyone had voice mail, cell phones, call waiting and computers.) If the line was busy, you had to hang up and call again. Once you got a person on the phone, you gave them the information and hoped they spelled your name right.
That was then. Now you can make a restaurant reservation online at 2 a.m. while sitting in your underwear at home. As a result of this and other technological breakthroughs, the dining experience will never be the same for the customer or the restaurant.
When it comes to online reservations, San Francisco-based OpenTable.com is the king. More than 1 million reservations a month are made at the eight-year-old OpenTable or through the Web sites of its 4,500 participating eateries. That includes 120 Colorado eateries - 89 of those in Denver, its suburbs and Boulder. The list includes big-name establishments such as Restaurant Kevin Taylor, Palace Arms, Flagstaff House, Frasca and Mizuna.
Other online reservation services include www.Dinnerbroker.com (with 24 Colorado restaurants) and www.restaurantrow.com. (The latter charges consumers a fee to make online reservations.)
Restaurant owners say OpenTable hasn't just made reservations easier, it has changed the way they do business for the better. Beth Gruitch, co-owner and general manager of Rioja, is what the techies call an "early adopter." She became an OpenTable believer six years ago while managing at Panzano restaurant.
"Before that, it was a completely manual system. People called in reservations and you wrote them in a daybook with a pencil. Otherwise, you needed a lot of White-Out. You had to call everybody back to confirm. There were lost reservations that got scribbled on paper but never put in the book and lots of illegible handwriting," Gruitch said.
"Every day you sat down with the book and worked out a floor plan - which reservation was at which table - on a plastic sheet with a grease pencil. You erased and changed it a lot. Usually you weren't planning ahead more than a day."
Times changed to such an extent that when Gruitch and co-owner (and chef) Jennifer Jasinski opened Rioja in 2004, they cut out decorations and pieces of equipment to make sure they could afford OpenTable.
"Reservations are much more prominent now and not just for special evenings like birthdays and anniversaries. People dine out much more frequently and reservations are more of a necessity, especially on weekends," Gruitch said. "They want to make them when they have personal time available."
The virtual maitre d'
OpenTable provides both hardware and software. To demonstrate, Gruitch sat down recently at the touch-screen computer at Rioja's hostess station. She starts by pointing out that customers can make reservations a month or even years ahead. Speeding through the calendar she noted wryly: "7 p.m. reservations are available at Rioja on April 9, 2010."
One of the biggest benefits of the system is that it allows diners to leave information on their preferences with the reservation. For example, they may want a table, not a booth; or it's a 40th birthday, or "I'm going to propose during dessert."
If you dine at the same restaurants repeatedly, the system also functions as a sort of virtual maitre d', retaining information that allows for a more personalized experience.
Gruitch calls up a reservation for a "regular" and points out detailed information about the diner's previous meals. "This person has eaten here 36 times, canceled five reservations, and wasn't ever a no-show. It shows where she sat, what she drank, who her server was and even how much she tipped," Gruitch said.
Gruitch points out one marked "V.I.P." that notes: "Style her out and tell the waiter. Great friend of Beth and Jen." The notation "Amuse" doesn't mean "tell the VIP jokes" but rather that they get an amuse bouche, a special little taste from the chef served before the appetizers. Those details can be printed out and handed to the server.
Gruitch reviews the day's reservations when she arrives at the restaurant. "I look for big groups and special occasions. I'm always looking ahead so I can plan scheduling for the staff."
Every evening includes two or three "manager's slot" tables reserved for hotel concierge reservations and last-minute changes. Then Gruitch uses the handy table-mapping function to assign tables to particular servers and reservations.
"Look, no grease pencil," she said.
However, the human factor still rules any system. Gruitch said that two people typically dine for one hour and 45 minutes, four people take two hours, and eight will probably eat for 2 hours and 45 minutes. If any of them linger a lot longer, some fast table shuffling is required.
At the end of the day, Gruitch touches a few buttons to print out detailed reports on virtually every aspect of the business.
Diners are not charged to use OpenTable, at least not directly. Restaurants pay a monthly fee to the company, plus $1 for every reservation made through OpenTable.com and 25 cents if made through the restaurant's Web site. For Rioja, OpenTable costs an average of $600 a month, Gruitch said.
For those worried about the Big Brother implications of all this information collection, Gruitch said that access to credit card numbers and other financial details can be obtained by only a few managers who have a special password.
"Is it worth it? Definitely. It really helps you take care of customers and keep track of the business. It makes it easier to avoid mistakes that make customers mad."
A technology convert
Call Josh Wolkon a late, but now enthusiastic, adopter of reservations technology. His 9-year-old Vesta Dipping Grill is consistently listed as the No. 1-booked Colorado restaurant at OpenTable.com. "Our clientele base is Internet savvy, I'd guess," he said.
Part II click here.
Back to OpenTable News