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Want to Eat at the French Laundry? Buy a Ticket

Thomas Keller's Napa restaurant switches to ticketed reservations, but are diners ready for the shift?
Photo by: Jeff Singer
Chef Thomas Keller not only uses Tock, he's an investor in the project.

Gillian Sciaretta
Posted: March 23, 2017

This story was updated on March 31.

Purchasing a ticket for an event like the theater, a baseball game or a music concert is standard procedure. But what about for a restaurant? An increasing number of restaurateurs believe that pre-purchasing a ticket for a meal in lieu of a reservation is the future. But does the system serve diners as well as it serves chefs?

The most recent convert is the French Laundry, which switched its reservation system to the software Tock on March 20. Diners can now find three months' worth of reservation slots for Thomas Keller’s Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning restaurant in Napa Valley.

Tock is the brainchild of Nick Kokonas, the Chicago-based restaurateur whose outposts include Alinea, Next and the Aviary. He introduced the ticketing system platform in 2015. Charging restaurants a monthly fee of $99 for limited features or $695 monthly for unlimited use, Tock offers clients tools to help manage the guest experience, including the ability to sell pre-paid tickets to hold a table, which is then deducted from the final bill.

Several of the country’s best restaurants, including notable Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners, are implementing Tock. Keller is a stakeholder in the software. He says the decision was primarily made to eliminate the frustration of guests trying to make reservations by phone and getting a busy signal.

“We find that this enhanced platform retains the finest elements of our guest services program while eliminating the frustrations of wait times on the phone," Keller said in an email. "Guests will still be able to speak with our concierge who will reach out after an online reservation has been made. Although we cannot always guarantee a table, we can guarantee a more streamlined experience.” Keller added that he has not decided whether to convert his other flagship restaurant, New York’s Per Se, over to Tock to manage reservations.

Grand Award winner Eleven Madison Park in New York is already using Tock exclusively, requiring guests to purchase tickets for either the Dining Room tasting menu or Bar Tasting menu, which go for $295 and $145 per person, respectively. Best of Award of Excellence winner Atelier Crenn in San Francisco is offering its grand tasting menu for $325 per person on Tock starting April 17.

Others, such as Best of Award of Excellence winner Rebelle in New York, use Tock partially. At Rebelle, guests purchase tickets through Tock for the Chef’s Counter experience. The rest of the restaurant, however, is supported with a traditional reservation platform as well as phone-call reservations. “We [implemented Tock] because we wanted to make the dinner more of an event,” explained Branden McRill, founder and CEO of Rebelle. “We thought that Tock would help make that connection for people.”

The prime motivation for restaurateurs to adopt a system like Tock is to fight the cost of no-show diners. Industry members estimate that customers fail to show for roughly 10 percent of reservations at fine dining restaurants. The industry’s leading reservation system, Open Table, bans some customers who repeatedly don’t show up for reservations. By selling tickets in advance, a restaurant using Tock has already charged diners for the cost of some or all of the meal, protecting them if diners fail to cancel.

“The cost or expense [of] a vacant seat can be, for a lot of restaurants and operations that run on small margins, a really challenging thing,” said McRill. And profit margins for restaurants are continuously getting smaller, especially in areas like Manhattan.

Like Open Table, the system also allows restaurants to better track their business. It also allows them to create guest profiles, so they can offer repeat customers more customized service.

McRill, who implemented Tock a year ago, reports that guest feedback on the Tock experience is “almost exclusively positive.” Guests who use Tock create a profile and can update it with information such as allergies, dietary restrictions, etc., which can help restaurants create a better experience. “[Tock developers] have been upgrading it and tweaking it to make it even more user friendly, more guest-oriented, so the guests have an easier time,” notes McRill.

The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, which won a Grand Award last year, recently switched to Tock as well. “Hospitality begins when we believe in each other and we work toward the same common goal,” said Nathaniel Dorn, the restaurant's general manager. "We can provide a better service to our guests if we understand their daily routines and adapt our best practices to accommodate. I strongly believe that this ticketing system will allow our guests a more convenient way to secure, confirm and communicate their reservations and requests with us; allowing us to focus on bettering their experiences while with us and thereafter.”

The impact on a restaurant's reservation inventory has yet to be determined. It’s also unclear if the ticketing idea will work for more casual restaurants, especially those not offering a set tasting menu price. But with the restaurant business facing uncertain times even as the overall economy has been growing, owners are experimenting with everything from using data to offer better service to eliminating tipping. Tock's advocates believe restaurants can offer better hospitality if they know their customers.

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