Photograph by Heidi Geldhauser
Click on that “Reservations” button at the top of most restaurant websites, and there’s a good chance you’ll be punted to OpenTable. But while OpenTable may have created the online restaurant reservations market in July 1998, some Atlanta restaurant operators are pulling away, seeking the advantages of newer companies that have tweaked the model.
OpenTable’s fees seem to be the biggest pain point. “It’s gotten really expensive to operate a busy restaurant since OpenTable charges by reservations,” says Canoe general manager Vincent Palermo. Castellucci Hospitality Group’s (CHG) Fred Castellucci says that using OpenTable costs him anywhere between $2,000 and $3,000 per month per restaurant. The latter gets to those high pricing levels by charging a dollar per cover if booked through OpenTable and 25 cents per cover if booked through CHG’s websites. “The issue I have is that over the past few years, as diners use mobile and the Google widgets more frequently to book reservations, they bypass the 25 cent cost and it ends up costing us a dollar per cover even if they searched directly for our restaurant.”
OpenTable also keeps a tight grip on web traffic data to a restaurant’s reservation page, a problem recognized beyond Atlanta. “They don’t tell you if people are coming there from Google or from your own website or from Facebook,” says Aaron Hoskins, who along wife Sarah Simmons used to run Birds & Bubbles in New York City and will soon open a larger location of their Rise bake shop in Columbia, South Carolina. That data would have helped Hoskins better understand what his customers were looking for—and where they were looking for it—which in turn helps inform marketing and advertising strategies. “If we’re putting ad money into Facebook and seeing no clickthroughs for reservations, we can judge if that money is worth it.”
Hoskins and Simmons ended up switching to Reserve, which shares a multitude of web traffic reports with its clients. “So we can see that, say, if we get a lot of online visits but no online reservations, maybe we should change how we book reservations,” Hoskins says.
Reserve, which costs restaurants a flat fee of $249 per month, makes its Atlanta debut on Monday with a gang of heavy hitters: Aria, Noble Fin, Bocado Burger, Canoe, BoccaLupo, and Kevin Rathbun’s restaurants. “We’ve not seen another reservation platform come into Atlanta and take this sort of market share,” says Julia Baker, vice president of public relations firm Phase 3, which represents Reserve in Atlanta. The highly anticipated C. Ellet’s steakhouse will use Reserve when it opens soon at the Battery at SunTrust Park.
Castelluci is testing the service at one CHG property, Double Zero, before he commits to moving away from OpenTable completely. It’s a big change to his business model and he’s cautious about it. “It’s going to take a seismic shift by diners and restaurants in order to change behavior,” he says. “This is why a number of restaurants in the city are talking about making a coordinated shift.”
Resy, a New York-based service that launched in 2014, nabbed Bacchanalia, Cakes and Ale, Empire State South, and Houston’s. “OpenTable was a great tool for us to keep track of guests’ notes and preferences, and it was also a very intuitive seating and dining room manager,” says Bacchanalia owner Anne Quatrano, who used the service for about 17 years. “But the economics are a no-brainer: We spent about $1,000 per month on OpenTable (a flat rate plus a charge per reservation) compared to an $89 flat fee per month with Resy. The floor management is not quite as efficient, but we have learned to work around it.”
Even though these new services provide certain benefits, OpenTable remains the online reservation standard. Ford Fry’s team tested Rezku, Eveve, and City Eats, but returned to OpenTable within a week each time. Fry’s COO, Toby Franklin, says it all comes down to the stability of the software. “Almost every other program is cloud-based. When you don’t have an incredibly high level of Internet connectivity, which most restaurants don’t, and you’re communicating through the cloud, you risk prolonged wait times, which restaurants just can’t afford during peak service hours. OpenTable’s resident software is able to function even when the Internet is down, and it only utilizes the cloud for small packets of guest information.” Franklin says he will continue to test other systems “as we don’t necessarily agree with OpenTable’s business model,” but the other platforms haven’t been able to produce software that works quickly enough for Fry’s high-volume environments.
“OpenTable’s reach and installed client and user base is huge,” says Alvin Diec, a graphic designer who has worked with a number of Atlanta restaurants, including some of Fry’s. “A huge customer base means that a lot of bookings can come through simply browsing OpenTable. Imagine selling some item through Etsy versus through flyers on the street or Craigslist. Etsy offers a much larger reach, and you’re automatically part of their directory.” Things change fast, though: “Resy and Reserve certainly look pretty slick now—and I would not be surprised if alternatives keep getting better—but perhaps it will drive OpenTable to improve and innovate as well.”
Out of Atlanta magazine’s 50 best restaurants, 17 use OpenTable; seven use either Resy or Reserve (four and three, respectively); and six use other, smaller services such as Tock, SeatMe, or their own individual platforms. The majority of our favorite restaurants are still kickin’ it old school: Twenty either don’t take reservations or do so by phone only.
So why should we care about all of this? As restaurant lovers, it’s nice to know that our favorite service people aren’t being charged more than they should when we book tables online. That said, it’s kind of annoying to manage three different accounts (and remember all of their unique passwords). Perhaps the best restaurant reservation system is simple: Just pick up the phone.