Thursday, January 25, 2007

PrimeTime Tables


Yesterday, the fine gentlemen of Urbandaddy wrote about a shady operation known as PrimeTimeTables, which is, essentially, the first-ever online reservation scalping service.(You didn't think of it first, friend. We've all had the notion, butnot been crazy enough to try it.) The membership service requires noinitial fee at sign-up, for the base level membership, at least, andcharges $40 a reservation, give or take, depending on how far out youbook your tables. It is a seemingly Utopian service for the high-endeater, but also one that is immediately sketchy, if you've spent anytime at all trying to book tables in New York.
Basically, they call restaurants far in advance, book up prime time tables, then sell them for a fee to their members. The tables aren't available after noon the day of the reservation, which is when restaurants usually make their confirmation calls and unclaimed table are released back to the general inventory.

PrimeTime Tables is - of course - presenting this as an excellent service that restaurants should be grateful for, since:
The PrimeTimeTable client is well-heeled. It's the type of client restaurants should want. These are tables that are going to be ordering expensive wine and not worrying about the bill; real diners, business executives with real income.
And obviously, if you're someone who likes to book at the last minute and can afford to pay $40 on top of your regular dining bill, then this is a great boon to you. It's a problem for someone like me, who plans restaurant trips far in advance and may find that there are now less prime time tables available to be booked because PrimeTime has gotten there first.

And it just feels shady. Diners have to eat under an assumed name and mentioning PrimeTime Tables to the restaurant is absolutely verboten. Which would seem to put the lie to this quote from Karine Bakhoum, wife of PrimeTime Tables owner Pascal Riffaud: "The bottom line is that the restaurateurs he's spoken to don't mind at all."

You can read the rest of the interview with Karine Bakhoum (who is a frequent guest judge on Iron Chef and owner of restaurant public relations firm KB Network News) here. For more backstory, a summary of the posts so far is at the bottom of that page.

Unsurprisingly, there's lots of commentary - both positive and negative - on eGullet. Fat Guy sees this as the final straw that will get restaurants to change their unworkable reservation policies:
What I think it does do is expose, in a more obvious way than the no-show problem, the idiocy of the current system high-end restaurants use for offering reservations. It's just unsustainable to offer reservations with a cost-free cancellation policy, a weak confirmation policy and no means of policing. It's no way to run a business. Hotels, airlines and many other services have all come up with superior models. Because hotels are part of the hospitality industry, they probably provide the best models. If restaurants don't improve the system, they'll just leave open opportunities for others to benefit from their foolishness.
While Nathan insists that this may be a boon for those who like to make really last minute decisions:
If anything, this service will increase the number of last-minute tables. As I noted above, its no secret that the best method of garnering a good table at an in-demand restaurant is to call the afternoon of the day you want to dine. This service may well increase the number of such tables available.
Definitely lots of interesting discussion happening. It's all pretty abstract to me, as I can count the number of NYC restaurant reservations I've made with 2 fingers. I do get to Chicago a little more frequently, and should such a service spring up there I might have to start caring more.

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