If you’ve tried to book a table for two in the South End recently, you may have noticed it requires a bit of scrambling.
Search OpenTable, and you’ll find seats at buzzy spots like the Beehive, Frenchie, Aquitaine, and Whaling in Oklahoma. But Myers + Chang, Burro Bar, and the boisterous tapas joint Toro do their bookings on the website Resy. And if you want an exclusive seat in the underground sushi joint No Relation — and to pay in advance for the privilege — you’ve got to use Tock.
After enjoying a near-monopolistic hold on the restaurant industry for two decades, OpenTable is facing stiffer competition. New reservation and management systems like Resy and Tock are promising cheaper solutions for restaurateurs staring down increasingly tight margins. And there’s a battle for diner data heating up that’s forcing OpenTable to aggressively challenge its competitors and scoop up consumer-data-driven startups that promise to make the restaurant experience more personal.
For diners, the result is a fractured, often more complicated process for booking tables. But some restaurateurs, fed up with OpenTable’s hefty fees, are thrilled with their new options.
John Kessen, the owner of Mamaleh’s, State Park, and Café du Pays in Cambridge, said he’s loathed OpenTable’s monopoly over the industry since he opened his former restaurant, Hungry Mother and was eager to move his restaurants off the platform when a viable alternative became available.
He said the startups are more intuitive for both restaurateurs and consumers, who no longer need OpenTable to steer them to a static list of cuisines when they can follow restaurants on social media to keep up with menu changes or events in real time.
“The company says that people go to OpenTable to pick their restaurants, and maybe at one point that was true, but it’s certainly not the case now,” said Kessen, whose restaurants are now on Resy. “There’s Yelp, Eater, Google — there are so many ways to find restaurant, and I don’t think people are going to OpenTable to pick the restaurants they go to.”
The chaos in the booking game has grown over the past several months. In November, Resy acquired its competitor Reserve, which had established a toehold in Boston by luring some 50 area restaurants to its site. Those restaurants must decide by June 1 whether to move to Resy.
Then, this month, Resy was acquired by American Express, which will provide an influx of cash for Resy and new perks for AmEx’s well-heeled cardholders. Ben Leventhal, Resy’s cofounder, said via e-mail that the acquisition would allow the company to “deliver world-class hospitality software” with “far greater scale and resources.” Resy says it currently has about 4,000 restaurants on its site.
But that number is challenged by Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas, the founder of Tock, which has been scooping up bookings at such experiential local restaurants as Juliet and Tanám in Somerville and Falmouth’s Buffalo Jump. He said Resy actually has just over 3,200 restaurants, 400 of which are cross-listed on other sites.
Kokonas has been taking on both competitors. At the recent National Restaurant Association Show, he had an employee wander the trade show floor in a life-sized velociraptor costume. Around its neck was a sign directing attendees to a site called dinotable.com, which panned OpenTable as the “small-brained, slow moving dinosaur” of the industry.
Tock allows restaurants to require diners to pre-pay or pay a reservation fee before they arrive at their table. They argue it's better for restaurants: It limits no-shows, cuts down on food waste, and makes for a frictionless dining experience. Kokonas said the company does $1 million in bookings each day and it has around 1,000 dining experiences on the site.
“When I started doing this in 2014, everyone thought I was nuts, saying there’s no way you can compete with OpenTable,” Kokonas said by phone. “Now everyone is going, ‘Holy cow.’ ”
Online reservations have long been synonymous with OpenTable, which has amassed a list of over 51,000 restaurants globally since its 1998 launch.
Instead of diners using the the old-school route of calling around to find a table, the site became the Internet’s de facto search engine for restaurant seats, anchored by its ownership of key search phrases that steer would-be diners to its pages. It’s also a customer management system for restaurateurs to handle seatings. The site, which declined to comment for this story, says 28 million diners make online bookings each month.
But many restaurants are sick of paying for the service. They spend several hundred dollars in monthly fees to use OpenTable and then pay up to $1.50 per seat booked directly on the site (restaurants pay 25 cents a seat when a guest makes a booking by linking out to an OpenTable landing page from their own website). It can add up to five-figure fees each year for restaurants.
So in 2014, Reserve and Resy emerged, offering restaurants a flat monthly fee and technological improvements such as text message alerts to let customers know when their tables are ready (OpenTable has since adopted text alerts as well).
With an emphasis on data aggregation, Resy helps restaurants track customers’ preference for medium rare steaks or dry martinis, tendencies that a detail-oriented staff can use to help drive revenue, said Christopher Muller, a professor in Boston University’s school of hospitality administration. “They have a curated group of restaurants for exclusive high-end markets,” he said. And when you know what those diners like, and serve them well, they spend more.
OpenTable, for its part, has been going on the offensive. After it was acquired for $2.6 billion in 2014 by Booking Holdings, which owns Booking.com, Kayak.com, and Priceline, its operations were integrated into Kayak last year. It has recently tightened its hold on the data it possesses, and now charges restaurants to share that information with third-party guest management platforms like SevenRooms, which is used at such restaurants as Pabu and Yvonne’s to help share customer data across restaurant groups.
Nick Belsito, the Boston-based founder of OpenCity, an artificial intelligence-assisted chat service that integrates into both the OpenTable and Resy sites, said that diners increasingly look to restaurants to cater directly to their needs, be it dietary restrictions or a penchant for pinot noir. So the data contained within these booking systems have become a hot commodity.
“You want to feel like you’re having a unique experience whether you’re spending $10 or $1,000,” he said.
To better anticipate diners’ desires, OpenTable acquired the restaurant management startup Venga this month, which will allow OpenTable to incorporate users’ preferences and social media profiles into the site.
For restaurateurs, having more options means new-found flexibility. Many are now tinkering with the formula, moving on and off platforms and hoping not to confuse their customers in the process.
But they’ve found the exercise can also pose existential questions: Is your restaurant a destination, or just convenient? Even in the restaurant-dense South End, the answers vary.
Cameron Lewin, the general manager at Toro, said the restaurant was happy to part with OpenTable.
“It was quite expensive, and for a business like us that doesn’t really rely on reservations, it has a limited return on investment,” he said.
He uses Resy for lunch and brunch bookings, and for special chef’s tasting dinners, and since switching to the new platform, they’ve seen the number of bookings increase.
In an effort to save money on fees, Jefferson Macklin tried to open his South End restaurant Bar Mezzana without OpenTable. But after experimenting with Reserve, he began using both sites and eventually moved over to OpenTable for good. For a 112-seat restaurant, he just didn’t see the density of bookings through the upstart.
Yet when he opened his subterranean tiki bar Shore Leave across the street, with the backroom sushi bar No Relation tucked inside, he decided to go with Tock instead, since it offers the option to take a deposit from guests for bookings.
“It’s a big deal to get paid up front,” Macklin said. “We can’t take the chance to having a large party bail on you.”