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Episode 122: Space — the final business frontier

Jul 16, 2019

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Restaurants say diners are bad at making reservations

Kai Ryssdal and Josie Fan Apr 17, 2018
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Restaurants have mixed feelings on how reservation platforms work.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When you try to reserve a table at a restaurant, you make a call or click a button online. But on the restaurant side, things could get messy and complicated. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke to journalist Marissa Conrad about her story  on why diners are bad at making restaurant reservations and how restaurants are trying to change that. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So here’s something I didn’t quite realize until I read this article that these reservations services: We, the diner, we are not the actual customers of these things.

Marissa Conrad: That’s 100 percent true. So as a diner, you’re opening a restaurant reservation platform like Open Table or one of the newer ones, Resy or Reserve, and you are booking. But on the restaurant side, they’re looking for a restaurant reservation platform that can also help them manage their dining room — shuffle people if someone cancels at the last second or doesn’t show up. There’s all this behind-the-scenes technology on their back end that helps them shuffle. So they’re looking for the platform that can do that the best for them.

Ryssdal: Yeah. And going out to eat for us is relatively simple, made easier now by these platforms. It is immensely challenging for these restaurants managing all of us, you know, lousy diners and reservation people.

Conrad: It’s insane. So to report this story, I shadowed Saturday night at a few popular restaurants in New York. They start the night with a very careful plan of they know who’s coming in, they know exactly where everyone is going to sit. And then they watch it all unravel as someone doesn’t show up, or someone comes with an extra friend thinking, “Oh, I can squeeze my friend in.”

Ryssdal: Which goes to the sort of the actual title of this article, which is “We Suck at Reservations.” That “we” being you and me and the dining public, right? We’re just terrible at these restaurants.

Conrad: Yes, we really are. And I think it’s an interesting field that people don’t realize. You book a ticket to the theater and you’ve prepaid for that ticket, and that incentivizes you to show up at that theater. But restaurants we somehow treat as this field of entertainment where we can just be casual and blow them off.

Ryssdal: So talk to me for a second before we get into the machinations of this. Talk to me about — it’s basically a tech competition now. You’ve got Open Table, which is kind of the granddaddy — it’s been around for, like, 20-something years. But there’s a whole new stream of — what was your phrase? — “restaurant reservation platforms” that are now coming online.

Conrad: Yes. Open Table was founded in 1998, and it has just been you book a restaurant online, you’re doing it on Open Table. And that was how it went until about 2015, when a few newcomers came onto the stage. And right now, we’re hitting the peak point where they’re not startups anymore, they’re on the field. There’s Resy, there’s Reserve. And then there’s one called Tock, which I think actually is the most interesting of them all because it asks you to prepay for your meal, or at least put down some kind of deposit. So you might put down $20 to reserve your seat. And then that’s taken off your check at the end of the meal. But if you don’t show up, you lose that $20.

Ryssdal: Which makes sense, right? You don’t show up at the theater for a Broadway show, you’re losing your theater, right? You’re losing your seat.

Conrad: Exactly.

Ryssdal: Do these platforms, do they work for restaurants? Are the restaurants basically happy with the service they’re getting from whichever platform they’re on?

Conrad: When you talk to restaurants, you hear a wide range of feelings and opinions on all of these platforms. Some restaurants were frustrated with the fee structure of Open Table and did not like paying the $1 per diner. But other restaurants said they still thought that cost was worth it because it’s advertising dollars essentially. But then other restaurants that perhaps are a little new, hotter, they don’t necessarily need that discovery element that Open Table gives. So they can go on to Resy or Reserve and trust that the consumers will follow.

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