Beware the 'goodbye table'
Tablz will sell you the best restaurant table for any occasion — including a breakup.
On Tuesday, I established that it’s the wrong time to declare a winner in the so-called reservations wars. The industry — and diner preferences — are changing too quickly to declare we’ve reached the top. A Wall Street Journal article published the day after I wrote this essentially confirmed my thesis. It said the best social plans are the ones you don’t actually plan, and quoted several business owners who are starting to notice a drop in bookings and a rise in walk-ins. We are fickle social creatures.
That doesn’t mean reservations are going away, and it doesn’t mean that Resy and OpenTable won’t keep duking it out for supremacy. But this evolution leaves room for new ideas, and Frazer Nagy has one. His startup approaches reservations differently, putting diners in control of where they sit, and hopefully, putting extra cash in restaurants’ pockets.
Nagy is the CEO of Tablz, a startup that uses extremely detailed 3D images of restaurant dining rooms in order to sell access to specific tables. Is the best seat in the house worth an extra $20 to you? You’re in luck!
The company is young; it’s raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding, and is live in about 100 restaurants in the US and Canada. It takes a 30 percent cut of sales, and doesn’t require — though it does encourage — restaurants to charge guests to book a certain spot.
In an interview, Nagy makes a comparison I’ve heard before, usually when people talk about restaurants lagging behind other industries: “Think about the airline industry,” he said. “You can upgrade to first class, comfort plus for extra legroom, and they dynamically price their flights. Restaurants just give away our best real estate for free.” (Nagy has worked in the industry for close to two decades.)
I can’t help but think about unintended consequences, especially given the airline analogy. Commercial flying isn’t exactly a hospitable experience, but buying an upgrade gets you more than a good seat. There’s free food or drinks, early boarding, and, potentially, better service. At the very least, passengers sitting up front board the plane with heightened expectations.
I gut-checked this with Brian Sumers, aviation industry expert and editor of The Airline Observer, who reminded me that airlines give away the best seats to loyal customers for free — kind of like how restaurants seat regulars. Why? It keeps them happy and coming back. “The airlines realize it makes no sense to nickel and dime their best customers,” Sumers said.
Nagy said that selling access isn’t his company’s goal. “We’re not trying to get you to pay more than another person to get ahead of them, that’s not really how we see this,” he said.
A couple of weeks ago he talked me through how he’s thinking about the future of reservations. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.