OpenTable Has Its Own CEO Again
Kayak veteran Debby Soo is named OpenTable's chief executive, taking charge from Kayak CEO Steve Hafner who ran both companies for over a year.
Last week, OpenTable quietly announced it had recently appointed a new CEO. Debby Soo is a veteran of OpenTable sister company Kayak, where, a company spokesperson noted, she started as an intern. Soo takes over from Kayak CEO Steve Hafner, who was tasked with the top job nearly two years ago — though chief operating officer and longtime OpenTable exec Andrea Johnston seemed to handle much of the day-to-day company leadership at its San Francisco HQ. (Johnston remains as COO.)
This move is just the latest change at the top. In June 2018, OpenTable shuffled its leadership structure, placing then-CEO Christa Quarles under Hafner in the org chart in a move characterized as a directional change in a memo to OpenTable staff. Other high-level positions, including the chief financial officer role and senior marketing and product positions, were eliminated at the time, too. A few months later, Quarles announced she would leave the company at the end of the year without replacement.
Since its 2014 acquisition by the Priceline Group (later renamed Booking Holdings), OpenTable and its sister companies have pushed, with varying intensity, that travel and dining are inextricably linked. Booking’s CEO repeatedly told reporters and investors that the company had yet to recognize the deal’s full potential. When I reported on Quarles’ departure at my old job in 2018, Hafner told me he understood OpenTable’s value and wouldn’t dream of supporting an OpenTable sale. The line was: “If someone came along and offered me $4 billion for OpenTable, I wouldn’t sell it. I think it’s worth far more.” (It’s been a few years, but I’m fairly certain this was a response to my question of whether or not it was smart to structure one of the country’s oldest and most visible restaurant technology companies under a travel brand and whether or not that would be a disservice to its restaurant customers. Guess we have our answer!)
Though Booking Holdings’ travel-plus-dining narrative mostly worked, the pieces never quite fit together. Now, Hafner admits in the face of a global pandemic, travel and dining are different, and OpenTable deserves a dedicated CEO and leadership team to confront the unprecedented crisis facing the restaurant industry. Since March, the company has offered its year-over-year reservations data as a kind of industry yardstick chronicling the painful effects of Covid on restaurants’ ability to seat and serve guests around the world. OpenTable has also adjusted its offerings to diners — adding reservations for grocery stores and bars, plus a new takeout feature — and cut prices for restaurants that sign on to the service through the end of 2021.
In my 2018 interview, Hafner also teased the idea of continued international expansion, which is probably still on OpenTable’s roadmap. According to an OpenTable spokesperson, Soo was dubbed the “czar of new locales” at in her previous role for quickly launching Kayak in 30 new countries. From the looks of OpenTable’s State of the Industry dashboard today and the constant stream of terrible Covid news coming from the U.S., focusing on other countries might be a better way forward.
What else is happening?
Uber Eats service in California won’t be paused.
Last week, I shared thoughts on Uber’s future, notably, it seemed, limited by a new law in California that Uber and other gig economy companies have spent the better part of this year trying to circumvent. The law, Assembly Bill 5, or AB5, would require the companies to classify drivers on its platform as employees, not independent contractors. While Uber’s leadership has said it may need to pause its ridesharing operations in California, Uber also says that it doesn’t believe delivery drivers for Uber Eats are impacted and that the food delivery service will continue to operate even if the ride-hailing service is forced to shut down. The company also just launched a nationwide Uber Pass unlimited service that includes Eats — though it’s notably not available in embattled California.
Just Eat plans to stop using gig workers in Europe.
Instead, it will consider its drivers employees, something that Takeaway.com, the food delivery company that merged with Just Eat earlier this year, has done. Just Eat Takeaway is the soon-to-be parent company of U.S.-based Grubhub, and the company says it has no plans (yet) to implement the employer model stateside. Have to admit, though, that would be an interesting plot twist!
Seated raises $30 million and acquires VenueBook for private events.
You know what’s going to be a real thing for a long time? Private dinners, whether a personal chef cooks and caters from the comfort of your own home or you visit a restaurant that has a dedicated and sanitized private dining room where you can share a meal with a few of your closest friends and family. As such: Seated, a rewards platform for restaurants, announced a new round of funding and an acquisition of VenueBook, a platform used by event planners to book space for private events.
And a programming note:
I’m giving a presentation this Thursday as part of the Texas Restaurant Association Marketplace virtual event series. It’s called Scream Inside Your Heart: Restaurants and Third Party Delivery. I can’t take full credit for the title, but I will take full credit for the presentation, which is free to watch (with registration) for restaurateurs. No big surprises for regular readers of this newsletter, but I’ll cover what’s happening in Big Delivery, why, what’s changed, and where I think things are headed. Register here.