Selling Seats

At The Aviary in Chicago, where checks average $48, orders for the prix-fixe menu tripled after the restaurant began selling tickets.
At The Aviary in Chicago, where checks average $48, orders for the prix-fixe menu tripled after the restaurant began selling tickets. Christian Seel

Pay to play takes on new meaning as tickets replace reservations, improving guest satisfaction and restaurant performance.

In Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood, host to some of the Windy City’s prime culinary hotspots, restaurateur Nick Kokonas ascends a steep flight of some 20-plus stairs before arriving at the second-floor offices of the celebrated restaurant enterprise he’s built alongside Chef Grant Achatz.

Kokonas, a driving force behind groundbreaking concepts Alinea and Next, leans into a room where a trio of men glare at multiple computer screens. This is the nerve center of Kokonas’ latest venture, a restaurant ticketing startup called Tock.

“Anybody grabbing lunch?” Kokonas asks.

If Tock is to emerge a disruptive force in the restaurant industry—as some industry observers have suggested it can be—the company looks remarkably unassuming on this January morning. Calm and routine reign, right down to Kokonas’ lunch order of “what I had last time.”

Of course, what’s happening on those computer screens—and even in Kokonas’ own mind—is anything but standard. Kokonas, in fact, is betting that consumers will accept buying a ticket for a meal just as they would for a baseball game or concert.

If it seems like a strange, implausible idea, Kokonas understands. Years ago when he first suggested the idea of ticketing at Alinea, staff fired back with quizzical, even combative looks.

But Kokonas, a former derivatives trader not born and bred in the kitchen, has a habit of asking “Why not?” far more often than any of his industry colleagues, with Tock serving as a single, shiny example of that curious spirit.

“Our own restaurants have shown that ticketing can work and transform restaurant operations,” Kokonas says, confident that Tock, which boasts an investor list that includes famed Chef Thomas Keller and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, can become an industry home run.

For those questioning restaurant ticketing’s viability, Kokonas bared all on the Alinea blog last June, where his intensive, detailed post on the merits of ticketing captured millions of page views and sparked deep dialogue.

Prior to implementing the ticketing system at Alinea, which ran for more than seven years using a traditional reservations system, Kokonas was spending about $140,000 per year on payroll simply to answer phones, input customer information, and manage the waitlist. The restaurant also lost more than $260,000 per year on no-shows alone. Ticketing virtually erased those bottom-line drains, Kokonas says, highlighted by a no-show rate of merely 1.5 percent.

“When someone has invested in something, they are more apt to follow through,” he reminds.

At The Aviary, a Chicago cocktail lounge Kokonas’ team opened in 2011, Kokonas cited the dramatic rise in prix-fixe menu orders. While only 8 percent of diners ordered prix-fixe menus before ticketing’s installation in November 2013, the numbers skyrocketed with ticket sales. In May 2013, for example, Aviary sold 426 three-course menus; in May 2014, with ticketing, that tally nearly doubled to 839. Five-course menus in May, meanwhile, tripled from 78 in 2013 to 256 in 2014.

“People appreciate that they can look the menu over,” Kokonas says.

Ticketing, Kokonas contends, has spurred improved planning, affording his restaurants more control over their service, labor, and purchasing. And when a restaurant runs at greater capacity with less waste, the bottom line benefits. To wit, Kokonas reported that Alinea’s “bottom line EBITDA profits [jumped] 38 percent from previous average years” thanks to ticketing.

Furthermore, Kokonas continues, ticketing delivers heightened transparency and injects greater trust into the restaurant-diner relationship, providing choice and eliminating the gatekeeper syndrome. Customers have the option of paying a bit more for a primetime table or saving a bit for an off-prime table, he says. Either way, it’s the customer’s call—and they don’t have to slip the maître d' $20 simply to land a table.


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