Grant Achatz, the revolutionary chef at Alinea in Chicago, has hit on an equally revolutionary solution for the age-old restaurant dilemma of cancellations and no-shows.
Achatz, a disciple of Ferran Adria (for whom he once worked), garnered three Michelin stars and numerous other accolades at Alinea. Along with his partner, Nick Kokonas, he recently opened a new Chicago restaurant called Next, which serves dinners organized around various culinary themes (Paris 1906, Hong Kong 2036, etc). To procure a reservation at Next, diners log on to the establishment’s website and purchase a ticket. The price varies according to day of the week and time of the evening, but all sales are non-refundable; like theater tickets, if you find yourself unable to go you must also find someone to take your place.
The benefits to the restaurant are enormous in terms of guaranteed cash flow, but there are significant benefits for the consumer as well. They receive a better product, since the house knows how many customers are coming and can thus buy ingredients more sensibly. They also receive better service, since staffing for the number of expected diners is much more precise. On top of that, the price of a meal is actually lower, since the restaurant doesn’t need to pay teams of reservationists to answer the phone and call customers to reconfirm bookings.
Has it worked? When I operated restaurants in Washington, D.C., we used to figure on a cancellation/no-show rate of 12%; in South Florida it was as high as 25%. Next has been open for six months, and Kononas reports that precisely two tables have failed to show up during that time.
On the surface, it seems eminently fair. If you buy tickets for a Marlins game and can’t go, you don’t expect to get your money back. On the other hand, you have to be a chef of Achatz’s stature to get away with this, and it’s interesting to note that he hasn’t instituted the ticket system at Alinea. Obviously it would only work in situations where the demand far exceeds the supply, but it will be a fascinating experiment to follow.