From a customer’s perspective, OpenTable might seem like the perfect dovetailing of the Internet and dining: restaurant reservations are made and confirmed instantly. There’s no favouritism, waiting for a return e-mail or negotiating with front-of-house staffers. Lots of restaurants use it (290 in Toronto alone), and, perhaps best of all, it’s free. For all that convenience, restaurant owners foot the bill.
That’s where the problem comes in for Mark Pastore. He’s the chef at San Fransisco’s famous Incanto restaurant. In an eloquent, if long-winded, indictment of the service posted on his eatery’s Web site last month, Pastore notes that OpenTable’s fees are exorbitant. “OpenTable is out for itself, the worst business partner I have ever worked with in all my years in restaurants,” one anonymous restaurateur from NYC told him. “If I could find a way to eliminate it from my restaurants, I would.”
Pastore makes using OpenTable seem like the culinary equivalent of taking up a smoking habit: after relying on the service to attract customers, “restaurants find that they themselves no longer own the customer relationship.” OpenTable, apparently, becomes a costly dependence.
But is he right? We spoke to a few restaurants around town and had trouble confirming Pastore’s alarmism. La Palette’s Shamez Amlani doesn’t use the service, but it’s more out of an aversion to the coldness of a computer than anything. It’s tough to mediate the needs of large groups via the Internet, he says. “I prefer human contact.” And he also happens to be a bit of a Luddite: “We write things by hand. It’s kind of low-tech, no-tech where we are.”
Joe Alberti, co-owner of Vertical, doesn’t hesitate to express his satisfaction with the service. “It’s not cheap, but it’s a good system,” he says. “We’re an extremely busy lunch restaurant. In the two-hour span that people come in, we need something that’s quite organized and tight.”
Nota Bene, which also uses the service, reflects a similar opinion. “It’s a fantastic tool,” says co-owner Yannick Bigourdan. “It’s definitely a costly system, but I’ve been pleased to go through that expense so far.”
Still, it probably couldn’t hurt to pick up the phone from time to time, if only to humanize the experience. As Pastore writes, “Consider picking up that 19th-century device, the telephone, and calling. I know I speak for many restaurateurs when I say that we’d love to hear your voice.”