Guess Who Hates Open Table

Chefs. Not all, but many. Why? Cost, last-minute cancellations, no-shows. Who could make things better? You!

Illustration by Chris Gash

Let’s say you plan to dine out with three friends this Sunday. On Wednesday, each of you make a 6 pm reservation on Open Table at a different restaurant. You figure you’ll decide Sunday which place everyone feels like going to and cancel the others. No harm, no foul, right?

Not quite. As Kevin Kohler, chef/owner of Café Panache in Ramsey, puts it, “The wheels are already spinning.” Based on those bookings, plus phone reservations, all four restaurants are lining up staff and buying sufficient “product,” as chefs say. You think your party canceling three of the four at the last minute, or just not showing up, makes no difference? You’re wrong.

Ask Jersey chefs how they feel about Open Table, which dominates online reservations, and you get an earful. When people cancel at the last minute or just fail to show up, the restaurant takes the hit. The extra cook or server has to be paid, and unsold perishables like fish have to be thrown out. Chefs don’t know for certain whether the situation described above accounts for late cancellations, but the ones we spoke with describe some version of that scenario. Kohler says it was not unusual for him to lose 20 of 50 Sunday reservations to late cancellations.

In December, he began requiring a credit card to reserve a table for Friday through Sunday. Since then, he says, his Open Table cancellations have dropped from 40 percent to 10 percent.

While that’s nice, “some people may feel insulted that we ask for a credit card and go, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ Either way, you upset the apple cart.”

Open Table, which launched in 1998, is free for diners. Most restaurants pay $249 for a multifunction software package, plus $1 per reservation made on the Open Table app and 25 cents per rez made on the restaurant’s website. It adds up, costing from around $750 to well over $1,000 a month. (The fee is waived for cancellations and no-shows.)

Anthony Ferrando, chef/owner of Dish in Red Bank, was miffed about the 20 late cancellations he got on New Year’s Eve, one of the biggest nights of the year. But, he says, “we are stuck having to use [Open Table]. You really want to have a presence on the Internet.”

Some are unwilling to pay the price. Andrew Araneo, of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport, takes reservations only by phone. “I guess I’m old-fashioned,” he says. “I’d rather offer a friendly voice on the phone.” Open Table is just extra expense. “Inevitably,” he says with a laugh, “we’re all a bunch of cheapskates in this business.”

Similarly, Rodolfo “Rodgee” Cao, owner of Spice Thai in Bloomfield, takes reservations only by phone. “They call and say, ‘Hi, Rodgee.’ I feel that’s a plus, because we make a connection.”

Restaurants that thrive on quick meals like breakfast, lunch and brunch can do fine taking no reservations at all. Open Table tends to space out reservations. Eateries like Amy Russo’s Toast (Montclair, Red Bank and Asbury Park) turn tables quickly. People gladly wait in line 15 minutes, and up to 90 minutes on summer weekends, but it’s all part of the social experience. Russo says she loves Yelp’s NoWait app, which updates people on her wait list on when they’ll be seated.

Mario Allegro, general manager of Arturo’s in Midland Park, likes Yelp’s less ubiquitous reservation system, for which he pays a flat fee of $99 a month. Yes, he gets no-shows, but says, “I don’t know how long I’m going to be on Earth. So it doesn’t pay to be upset.”

A phone reservation is still the most foolproof. In January, a group of six showed up at Arturo’s expecting to be seated, but Allegro looked through his system and found nothing. When a woman in the group grew agitated, insisting she’d made the reservation two weeks earlier, he asked to see her phone.

After examining it, he said, “Yes, you do have a reservation for Arturo’s for six people at 7:30. But it’s in Massachusetts.”

He seated her party anyway.

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  1. Mark Silber

    Now I know why New York restaurants call you to confirm Open Table reservations. It must fill the gap between can’t live with and can’t live without Open Table.

  2. Jim DeGeorge

    I think you made some valid points and I can appreciate the issues facing chefs due to last-minute cancellations, but I do not agree with you comment about Open Table allowing a user to book multiple reservations for different restaurants. I rely on OT to keep me honest by blocking such reservations and alerting me of my other reservation when i attempt to make another reservation elsewhere for the same/similar time.