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Restaurants: reservations vs. walk ins
March 12, 2013 5:46 AM   Subscribe

Are you, or have you been, a host/ess at a restaurant? If so, can you tell me what was going on with the reservations vs. walk ins at a restaurant we went to over the weekend? Just out of curiosity.

On Saturday, after having attended a theater matinee, we decided to join friends for dinner at a convenient, fairly popular sit down chain dining establishment. We've all eaten there before, and usually lean on having reservations, especiall on a Saturday at 5:00 pm. However, since we didn't know when the play would end, we decided to chance it without resevations.

The first member of our (four person) party approached the hostess and was told an hour wait. We had already paid to park our cars, so decided to wait it out. As we sat there, I remembered seeing the OpenTable sticker on the door when we walked in, so checked out the app on my phone. I was able to sign up for a 5:30 reservation. I went up to the hostess and canceled our friend's name on the list, and we were seated immediately.

When we were leaving, as we put our coats on in the lobby, we heard one hostess tell a walk in that the wait was then close to two hours (at 7 pm). Just because I'm nosy, I checked the OpenTable app quickly, and sure enough, there were tables available for 7:30.

So I'm just curious - how does the reservation vs. walk in system work at a standard restaurant? Are establishments that use OpenTable required to leave a certain number of tables open for their users? Or is it something else, like that particular place really wants to discourage walk ins? I've never worked at a restaurant, so I'd really love to learn more. (I've googled, and while I've read some on the OpenTable business model, nothing to the first hand explainations I'd like to hear.) Thank you very much!
posted by librarianamy to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
The restaurants I worked in (as a server, but we knew how to host) did not use OpenTable, and would never have operated like that. The reservations were filled in at the beginning of the night (or as they were added), but if anyone called in for a reservation when the restaurant was on a wait, they were just added to the list.

The only thing even similar I saw was on Thanksgiving -- and it was the opposite. The restaurant was booked full for reservations, but deliberately kept a section un-booked to handle the walk-in traffic and any other surprises.

I would suspect something in the OpenTable agreement.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:52 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't rule out incompetence!
posted by Jahaza at 6:41 AM on March 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


This is pretty much certainly due to incompetence. There are certain things you have to be "in the know" to understand about restaurant bookings (like how a place can look empty when you are a walk-in at 7:00 but that doesn't mean you can have any table you like, since the maître d' knows what the books are like at 8:00) but this is not one of them.

Either they had their OpenTable slots programmed incorrectly (e.g. they shouldn't have had open slots for 7:30 based on the maître d's reading of the room—in which case s/he should have closed out the slots) or they don't know how to manage a wait list properly.

I say this as a former restaurant event manager in NYC who was trained by OT and managed the booking system for a place with 200 seats. Oh, and while I can't speak for every restaurant, FWIW there was nothing about anything like this in our OpenTable agreement. Restaurants would not be interested in an agreement that requires leaving tables empty for hypothetical OT users. Hypothetical regulars or VIPs the manager might be expecting, sure—but not hypothetical OT users.
posted by bcwinters at 7:02 AM on March 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


I had the opposite experience this weekend. OpenTable showed that it was not possible to get a reservation for six for lunch at all that day, so I called the restaurant, at around 10 a.m., and asked for a spot. I was given several times to choose from.

This particular scenario makes more sense to me -- i.e. that the restaurant would have more control than OpenTable would. Your scenario is truly bizarre, but I'll be sure to remember it if I'm given a long wait time in the future.
posted by Capri at 10:10 AM on March 12, 2013


This particular scenario makes more sense to me -- i.e. that the restaurant would have more control than OpenTable would.

Yup, OpenTable-as-a-central-entity does not manage any of this—the restaurant does it all. OpenTable is just a system that the restaurant leases (or whatever); as the restaurant manager, you have to manage a terminal in the office (or a web login) so you can change the available table layouts, table sizes and time slots. The OpenTable system will tell you things like "20 people asked for bookings at 7:30 on Friday and you didn't have anything available!" which would allow you to think about how to allocate your slots in a smarter manner. The slots are supposed to be managed on the fly to some degree but a lot of restaurants set them up once and then don't think about them again until a holiday.

There's a newer OT system that can handle "smart" table groupings (like maybe allowing a booking for 6 if there are three 2-tops next to each other that the restaurant has marked as joinable, and then blocking those 2-top slots for the next X amount of time) but I don't think most restaurants actually use it.
posted by bcwinters at 10:42 AM on March 12, 2013


Capri, I've had that same problem which came down to a particular restaurant not allowing larger parties to be booked via OpenTable. Now six people sounds not too large to me but you never know with some places.

On preview, I think bcwinters said what I wanted to but more throughly and with an insiders knowledge.
posted by mmascolino at 10:45 AM on March 12, 2013


What happened in the restaurant while you were there? Was it jammed full?

What I imagine is happening, having worked in one restaurant with OpenTable for a short while, is that they were more or less fully booked (as in, if you called on the phone you would get the same hour or two hour wait) but if the OpenTable system accepted a reservation (as in, they were not updating the availability on the fly), they honoured it and bumped/moved other things around within the restaurant. In a busy restaurant, the hostess doesn't always have time to update the inventory, and the online system might show availability when they actually have none.

Somewhere in the agreement I believe there is a penalty for not honouring reservations made on OpenTable, which might be a hack for anyone who can't get a table walking in - go online, book a reservation and if they haven't updated their inventory, you might be able to squeeze in, even if it means the restaurant ending up overbooked.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


All my restaurant work took place in the days before there was an Open Table, but no matter how you do it, handling reservations is a complicated system. I made this long comment attemtping to shed some light on the topic in this thread about a similar (minus Open Table) situation.

six people sounds not too large to me but you never know with some places.

Six is definitely the dividing line between "not a big deal to seat this party" and "kind of a big deal to seat this party" for most places. That's because your table combinations by default are usually 2s and 4s with a few maybe 6s or 8s around. Often you need to make up a table to accommodate 6 by putting a 2 and 4 together, and sometimes one of the component tables isn't available when and where you need it. Six is also often the number that "mandatory gratuity" kicks in. Most restaurants that aren't big chains or diner-style things work on a base assumption that a "party" is 2 or 4.
posted by Miko at 10:58 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The previous comment that Miko linked to is great and really accurate. OT will do the shifting and slot-managing for you to some degree (and it more accurately tracks turnover times, which used to be guesstimated) if you use it correctly but it's still like a game of Tetris as she mentioned.

OpenTable showed that it was not possible to get a reservation for six for lunch at all that day, so I called the restaurant, at around 10 a.m., and asked for a spot. I was given several times to choose from.

Another thing about OT is that you set a range of party sizes that your tables will accommodate. So for instance you might set up a bunch of slots that say "we have these medium-sized square table, allow X parties of 2-4 to book these slots" and a bunch that say "oh we have these big tables, they can take parties of 7-10" and forget entirely to have enough slots for a party of 5 or 6. So the computer responds "nope, no sixes!" whereas the person on the phone would be like "Sure, a party of 6 can sit at that big table, no problem."

It should be obvious to the management after a few days if something is wrong with their slots but that's not always the case. It depends on how closely they check the missed bookings and how well they communicate with their hosts/reservationists.

There are lots of variables, and it always seems strange to me that in a business with such tight margins a lot of places don't pay that much attention to this. It's something that's hard or impossible to do on paper (especially after a busy shift) but much easier to track and correct with the benefit of hindsight that the computer tracking gives you.

Somewhere in the agreement I believe there is a penalty for not honouring reservations made on OpenTable

Yeah, I'm pretty sure this is true.
posted by bcwinters at 11:47 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most restaurants where I live have a same-day cutoff for OpenTable reservations (a few hours in advance).

Another wrinkle: the fees that OpenTable charges:

For online reservations, we charge a pay-for-performance fee of $1.00 per seated diner booked on OpenTable.com or $0.25 per seated diner booked via the restaurant’s website. And for the typical restaurant, it takes only three incremental reservations to break even on the complete monthly OpenTable cost.

It's in a restaurant's best interest to shut down same-day OpenTable reservations at some point before service, and not leave themselves open to additional fees. It's also in a restaurant's best interest to book huge parties over the phone due to the fees.
posted by kathryn at 1:00 PM on March 12, 2013


It's in a restaurant's best interest to shut down same-day OpenTable reservations at some point before service, and not leave themselves open to additional fees.

I do think OT is expensive for restaurant owners (there are other fees besides the per-diner charge, like equipment rental) and I wish there were competitve alternatives. But as your quote even states, "for the typical restaurant, it takes only three incremental reservations to break even on the complete monthly OpenTable cost", so it doesn't really make sense to close the books early due to OT's booking fee.

It's also in a restaurant's best interest to book huge parties over the phone due to the fees.

I don't know about that. I would never book large parties through OT for a myriad of reasons, but the fee wouldn't be one of them. A $50 finder's fee for a party of 50 (where the gross could be thousands) is peanuts.
posted by bcwinters at 1:30 PM on March 12, 2013


It's also possible that the hostess is overestimating the time of the possible wait. She told you an hour, but Open Table got one for you in a half hour - it's possible that if you had just waited, the waitress would have called you in a half hour. Either she's not very good at her job, or they do it on purpose because people are more pleasantly surprised when the wait is shorter than expected.
posted by CathyG at 1:02 PM on March 13, 2013


And sometimes you actually just get taken by surprise - people end their meal early, a cancellation happens, someone's late.
posted by Miko at 2:10 PM on March 13, 2013


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