I could have been imagining things, but during the Food & Wine Classic this summer in Aspen, Colo., it appeared as if Danny Meyer, chief executive officer of Union Square Hospitality Group, was sitting a little taller.
Perhaps it was because his pockets were feeling a little fatter? Just seven days prior, OpenTable, the digital-reservations service, in which Meyer invested 15 years ago and still serves on the board, was acquired by online travel bookie Priceline for a cool $2.6 billion (click here for more on the deal and similar acquisitions in the online-reservations space).
There was some playful ribbing about Meyer’s potential windfall by fellow panelists at a “Meet the Masters” discussion at the event. But the conversation turned more serious when the topic shifted to the other kind of outfits flaring up like wildfires in the industry: reservation sellers.
Opinions among operators and consumers about these apps—including TableSavvy in Chicago, Table8 and ReservationHop in San Francisco and Killer Rezzy and Resy in New York City—have been mixed. Meyer counterpart Keith McNally, the New York City restaurateur behind Balthazar, Minetta Tavern and more, is “pro.” His were among the first restaurants to sign up with Resy, a new app birthed by Eater.com c0-founder Ben Leventhal and others. Chef Alex Stupak of Empellón also is partnering with Resy, whose creators, he says, are friends and supporters. “If people are willing to pay for a reservation, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” wrote Stupak in a New York Times op-ed. “No one is making them do it. They could certainly get into that restaurant at 5:30 on a Tuesday ... If anyone knows anything about the economics of restaurants, they would know that a few tables are the difference between profit and deficit.”
Others differ. Said Barbuto’s Jonathan Waxman on the Aspen panel, “It’s a scary new world. I’m flummoxed by the whole thing.” Meyer agreed. “We’re in the business of rewarding loyalty, not rewarding a greased palm,” he said. “I don’t like the way it feels when some guy with really bad cologne and gold bracelets puts a $20 bill in the hand of our maître d’ and expects to get a great table. It doesn’t feel right to everybody else who played by the rules. Whether that money goes to charity or whether it goes to me or whether it goes to that company or some combination of the three, there’s just something that feels a bit off.”
Of course, the folks behind these virtual “palm-greasing” apps aren’t gold bracelet-wearing hacks. They’re entrepreneurs, some of whom have invented the stuff we wish we’d though of—and made millions doing it. And it’s worth remembering that Meyer shunned OpenTable at first. Fast Company reports, in the early days, he told OpenTable’s CEO, “Look, I don’t need more business. We’re full every night.” The snub led OpenTable to add guest-management tools, a value for restaurants, and the rest is history. So, maybe a truce is in the cards? We could discuss it over dinner at Rao’s. I’ll make the reservation.