Go online to dine
Making reservations on the Web takes the stress out of finding a place to eat
It's 7 a.m. and you realize that you need to take out-of-town clients to dinner. You don't have a reservation, and you can't call at this hour -- no one will answer! You can leave a message, but then you might not discover until the afternoon that your restaurant of choice is completely booked. What to do?
There's a solution that sounds new, but actually has been around since 1999. The difference is that it's catching on like wildfire now. It's called OpenTable.com, a Web site that allows you to discover immediately which restaurants are available at the right time, make a reservation online and get confirmation within seconds.
The service began in gourmet-conscious San Francisco, with a rapid migration to New York City. According to a recent New York Times article, it took three years for the online reservations company to seat its millionth customer. Now it reserves tables at restaurants for 2 million people each month.
Ann Shepherd, senior director of consumer marketing for OpenTable.com, said that 800 eateries are registered in New York, and customers can choose from 600 in San Francisco. Hawaii has 41 online (23 on Oahu), which is "double where were at this time last year," said Shepherd.
"We're really anxious to grow our base of restaurants there," she said. "It's a unique market, with so many travelers. Visitors have the convenience of booking reservations online before they even hop on the plane."
The Open Table Web site allows diners to book tables nationwide. CLICK FOR LARGE
Web reservations get rave reviews from restaurants
When you go online to make a dining reservation at OpenTable.com, you can specify the city and time, or even search for a certain type of cuisine. The site will display all restaurants (registered with the company, of course) with seating available.
The site also asks for personal information, which the restaurants keep on record to better serve you when you arrive. Within seconds, your reservation is confirmed -- at any time of the day or night. No wasted minutes on hold, no multiple calls when your first choice is unavailable.
"When I decided to subscribe to OpenTable it was mostly because I liked the history of the customer," said chef George Mavrothalassitis, whose restaurant, Chef Mavro, was the fifth in Hawaii to enroll with OpenTable.com. (His new restaurant, Cassis, also is on board.)
"We know that it's your anniversary. Or that you don't like white wine. Or you are allergic to nuts. To me it's a win-win situation."
Mavrothalassitis believes the site tends to attract more upscale, sophisticated diners, and his statistics indicate a 25 percent increase in out-of-state visitors making reservations online.
When a restaurant signs on with OpenTable.com, a representative comes and sets up the computer system at the restaurant, and trains the staff in how to use it. The company charges restaurants $1 per person for every reservation made through the Web site.
"It's worth every penny," Mavrothalassitis said.
Patrons also benefit, through the site's Dining Rewards Program, which allows restaurant-goers to earn points each time they dine out using OpenTable.com. When they accumulate 2,000 points, those points can be redeemed for an OpenTable Dining Cheque worth $20, as good as cash at any member restaurant.
Another benefit for both sides is that cancellations are completed with a simple click -- processed in real time for the restaurant.
Town in Kaimuki has used the system for about six months. "Most of our customers call us directly, but we do get a few Web reservations every night," said assistant manager Jemma Spillner. Most of those are people from the mainland -- primarily San Francisco, where OpenTable.com is already a way of life. "They plan their vacation and book online so they know where they're eating on those nights," she said.
"So far, I do believe it's been worth it," Spillner said of the $1 charge per person. "It's an entire organizational system, as well as a referral system from their Web page."
A previous handwritten system made it difficult to track details for customers. But more information -- especially about prized regular customers -- allows management to "judge where you would want to place them, and which servers they've been happy with." Those sorts of nuances, she said, are usually "lost in communication."
Spillner noted only one drawback. This occurs when a concierge makes a reservation for hotel guests. Because the reservation comes up in the concierge's name, confusion results when guests arrive and the reservation can't be located because the guests don't remember the concierge's name.
Why isn't the reservation made in the guests' names? This would be the case in a phone reservation, but on OpenTable.com, making a reservation requires an account that includes personal information, which the concierge can't set up for the hotel guest.
"So far, that part hasn't been very efficient," noted Spillner. "It can be confusing for the restaurant and the guests."
Ann Shepherd, senior director of consumer marketing for OpenTable.com, noted that the company is still a work in progress on some levels. "Our service continues to evolve based on the valuable feedback from restaurants."
Yet Spillner gave the company high marks for technical support after the system was installed at Town. "It's been really good; they're able to walk you through any questions you have."
Mavrothalassitis can barely recall the old system, when he and his staff had to peruse hundreds of pages to recall when a guest had last visited and what he or she preferred. Now, that data is at his fingertips. "We know everything about your life!" he chuckled. And what about pen, paper and bulky reservation books? "We couldn't go back to that!"