The other day, I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize: “Hi! We’re texting to confirm your reservation at Oak at Fourteenth… Please text 1 to confirm, or 9 to cancel.” It was Reserve, the restaurant reservation system that officially arrived on the Denver scene today, with some of our best restaurants on board. As a diner, I was happy to get this text; it took just two taps to confirm the table, and then I moved on with my day. I’m not alone—restaurant operators are beginning to walk away from OpenTable, the OG reservation system, toward companies that are offering a different way of doing business.
“Our hosts would spend maybe an hour, on the conservative side, calling all of our guests to confirm reservations for the next day,” says Nikki Guard, Troy Guard’s wife and the beverage director for the TAG restaurant group, which left OpenTable three weeks ago in favor of Reserve. Since the switch, confirming reservations via text has reduced the time spent on that task to about 10 minutes a day. “There’s no need to pick up the phone,” Guard says, “or do any of that legwork.”
Efficiencies like text confirmations are a small part of what makes reservation systems such as Reserve, Resy, Yelp, and others attractive to restaurateurs. Other boons include the Ipad-friendly, cloud-based interfaces, more responsive customer support, and dynamic seating algorithms that help restaurants aggressively manage their dining rooms to fit in more guests when a confirmed reservation is a no-show. But the biggest factor for partnering with a new system is, of course, cost.
Booking a reservation through OpenTable feels natural to most people, whether you’re searching for a spot to eat within the next hour or so (in which case you’re probably using the OpenTable app, which shows you available tables nearby) or making a reservation ahead of time using the OpenTable widget on a restaurant’s website.
But it’s not so simple for restaurateurs who are charged different rates for both kinds of OpenTable reservations: one dollar per person (not per table) when booked through the OpenTable website or app, and about 25 cents per person when booked through a restaurant’s website.
Doesn’t sound like much? Bryan Dayton, co-owner of Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn, who recently made the move to Reserve, says working with OpenTable cost him about $26,000 per year. Guard anticipates an estimated savings of almost $50,000 across the TAG restaurant group concepts, and Dave Query, chef-owner of Big Red F Restaurant Group (which owns 11 restaurants that all use Yelp for reservations) says the group paid $120,000 to OpenTable in 2016. With ever-tightening profit margins and rising costs for food, labor, and rent, that kind of money has an enormous impact on a restaurant’s bottom line. “The busier you are, the more you pay,” Dayton says. “And we need to put money towards the things that actually make the restaurants go.”
For smaller scale owner-operators with a single restaurant to manage, paying per customer simply doesn’t add up. “We’ve used Resy since day one,” says Caroline Glover, chef-owner of Annette in the Stanley Marketplace. “I pay $89 a month, which just makes sense financially.”
So why don’t more restaurants sign on with these new service providers? Restaurant consultant John Imbergamo thinks it’s a big risk to take. “[OpenTable is] the system that everybody knows,” he says. Numbers back that up: OpenTable works with more than 40,000 restaurants, booking more than 21 million reservations every month. Imbergamo believes that it boils down to whether owners want their restaurants to show up on OpenTable when diners are looking for a place to eat. “The difficulty is that in this time when restaurant competition is at its peak, do you take away one of the ways people find you? And if you do, how much money do you actually save? How many people will go to OpenTable to look for a table tonight or next week and not find you there?” On top of those worries, it seems that as soon as a smaller reservation system develops a new feature or increased benefit for its restaurants, OpenTable adds the same to its system.
As of today, Reserve has scooped up Oak at Fourteenth, Acorn, the TAG restaurants, and the Cooper Lounge; Mercantile Dining & Provision, Fruition, Gozo, Lime Cantina, and Ambli are in the process of signing on. Resy works with Hillstone Denver, Concourse, Annette, Basta, Cafe Aion, and the Populist, among others. Yelp manages reservations for 50 local spots, including the Big Red F concepts, Hedge Row, and Stout Street Social.
The takeaway? Where and how you make your next reservation may just change the way our local restaurants do business.