The term “paradigm shift” is much abused, but Chicago chef Grant Achatz has an idea that just might qualify. As the Times reported this week, at Achatz’s next restaurant, he’s actually going to sell tickets to dinner.
He’ll charge more money for popular times, just as airlines and theaters do. Each ticket will include everything—food, beverage pairings, service, and tax—meaning that you arrive at the restaurant with your evening entirely pre-paid, as it would be at a show or a concert. “When you’re done, you just get up and leave,” he told the Times.
You can certainly see how this benefits Achatz. He gets the use of your money when you reserve, which could be months in advance. It’s what bankers call “float.” With tickets sold on the Internet, he no longer needs to pay reservationists, no need to have cash on the premises, no need to worry about no-shows.
He also gets complete control of the tip pool. As the Times noted, by law tips can be pooled only among employees who actually serve customers. But a service charge embedded in the price can be distributed however management chooses—to cooks, for instance.
In New York, only Per Se includes service in the price, and only Momofuku Ko takes all its reservations over the Internet, but both restaurants settle the bill in the traditional way, at the end of the meal.
Achatz isn’t the first to have thought of this idea. A couple of years ago, a prominent New York manager asked me how I thought it would go over, if he charged more money for a 7:30 p.m. reservation than at other times. He noted that a 7:30 reservation basically locks up a table for the entire evening: it’s too early to squeeze in another booking ahead of it, but too late to get one in afterwards. A 6:00 reservation, on the other hand, is less in demand, and the restaurant can get a second turn at the same table, say at 9:00 or 9:30. The manager hasn’t implemented the idea, so apparently he wasn’t sure it would work—and that’s for a hit restaurant that is practically always full.
So why does Grant Achatz think he can do this? It’s because his first restaurant is the perpetually packed Alinea, ranked #7 on S. Pellegrino’s 2010 top-fifty list. He can safely figure that the next one (coincidentally called “Next Restaurant”) will be in demand, just as David Chang could when he set up Momofuku Ko’s baroque Internet reservation system.
Of course, Achatz tries to put a “value” spin on it: by stripping away “hidden costs”—reservationists, for instance—he says he can give customers a better deal. But he is also asking customers to cede control they are accustomed to, such as the ability to cancel without penalty. And he is asking them to decide, potentially months in advance, how much alcohol they’ll want to drink.
I suspect that, on the whole, the restaurant gets the better end of the deal, and that there are only a handful of places in the country that could get away with it. Next Restaurant is probably one of them. I’ll bet Momofuku Ko could too. Any others?