Welcome to Expedite, a (mostly) weekly newsletter by Kristen Hawley covering what’s important in restaurant technology.
I’m pretty sure that people have been clamoring for special access to hot places and spaces since the dawn of our social society, but it feels like the internet age has ushered in a particular urgency around “getting in” to the right spots. Pair that with the points and perks offered by airlines, hotels, restaurants, and credit cards, add a little bit of Instagram-induced FOMO, and you have a whole lot of highly conditioned consumers hungry for access.
On Tuesday, OpenTable and Capital One announced a partnership that offers “access to hard-to-get reservations at prime dining times” to Capital One credit cardholders. Register your Capital One card in the OpenTable app, and you can unlock premium reservation times. At least, so says the associated video explainer, I don’t actually have a Capital One card.
In January OpenTable will open up its premium tables feature to the masses — that is, the masses that maintain OpenTable reward point balances. The company hasn’t said how many points it’ll take to snag a premium table, though when it tested the feature in Boston — three whole years ago — it cost a diner 750 points to book the table. (That’s eight 100-point reservations. 100 points is a reservation’s standard value, though a restaurant can pay to offer special 1,000-point tables.)
Historically, OpenTable’s loyalty system has been a tricky sell to consumers who haven’t always understood its value. For an embarrassingly long time, the company mailed paper checks to redeem points for money off a restaurant tab. (I’m talking well into the 2010s.) Eventually, it switched to digital gift cards, though the redemption process remained clunky. Later, it added an option to redeem points for Amazon gift cards. You can also redeem them for yearly magazine subscriptions. (There’s irony there, but as a twice laid-off magazine editor, I don’t have the energy for a joke.) As of last year, points do expire — though not for three years. Also of note: a diner only earns points for reservations booked through OpenTable channels like its website and app, not those booked directly with a restaurant. Oh, and if you book one of these premium tables using your Capital One card or, starting in January, your points, you don’t get more reward points for the reservation.
Wait! There are more rules: premium access tables are only available for parties of two or four, and the reservations have to be made at least 24 hours in advance. (This is probably so the restaurant can release its tables to the larger pool of diners if it goes unclaimed by a Capital One cardholder.) If you happen to tick all these boxes, congratulations, a 7:30pm Saturday Republique reservation in LA can be yours. (To be fair, that is a pretty great reservation, I’d take it.)
Credit cards and restaurants have been linked for basically ever. Diners Club was the first, inspired by — as the story goes — a restaurant patron who forgot his wallet. Today, plenty of credit cards carry benefits for restaurant-goers. The Points Guy, among others, maintains rankings of top choices for consumers. American Express maintains a cache of exclusive restaurant reservations for cardholders. And, don’t forget, American Express acquired Resy, which has built its business around an air of hot-hip-and-exclusive, earlier this year.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily think “exclusive” when I think Capital One. The company literally helped usher in the era of mass marketing credit card offers to consumers. It gave me a $500 line of credit as an undergrad in the early ‘00s when I had no income and my net worth was at negative $XX,XXX (actual numbers redacted to not completely embarrass myself, thanks private university.)
The other thing that makes the whole experience feel less exclusive is the way premium access options are jammed into the OpenTable mobile app. Any user in a participating city can see a collection of restaurants that offer premium tables. Right now (4:30pm on a Tuesday in San Francisco), I see nine restaurants in the category displaying real-time availability. All of them have decent availability tonight on short notice.
If I change my search to 7:00pm on Saturday, a premium evening, a similar set of restaurant options are offered, all of which have some reservations open to me, a non-Capital One cardholder. None of these are in what I would define as peak 7-8pm range.
According to an OpenTable spokesperson, prime dining times are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday dinners and Sunday brunches. To participate in the program, restaurants must commit to a minimum number of tables on Friday, Saturday and another busy day, and the minimum number of tables varies by city.
It’s not a bad program, and certainly useful to Capital One cardholders for now, and frequent diners come January. It does seem to be missing a layer of exclusivity that I’d expect from a “premium access” program, though. Maybe that’s not what he company’s going for, but as it’s focused this product on 15 major cities — cities where OpenTable is not the only reservations game in town — hyping up “premium” and “access” might be a better way to play.
What else is happening?
No cash, no cards at a new NYC coffee spot. You need an app, a profile, and a smartphone. Of course this was started by an ex-Uber employee. Of course it was.
Google Maps is pushing its guides, and testing a new feature that gives people the ability to "follow" them a la social media. It's another step in Google Maps-as-discovery platform, but really I just want to check the traffic, please.
Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based journalist with over six years of experience covering the restaurant technology industry. Previous iterations of this content were available via Chefs+Tech and Skift Table. Thanks for reading.
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