What the Top Restaurant in US Can Teach About the Digital Economy

Stephanie Overby

Celebrity chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas have been shaking up the fine-dining scene in Chicago since launching Alinea in 2005. There, they combined art and science to molecularly deconstruct classic dishes, serving them in unconventional ways. Now they aim to disrupt the decades-old dining reservations process with a cloud-based platform that enables restaurants to sell seats the way theaters and sports teams do: with tiered pricing and same-day discounts to shift demand.

By charging customers ahead of time, the system also transfers the risk of costly no-shows to the customer and enables restaurants to better manage food and labor costs. Their company, Tock, boasts investors such as former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and restaurateurs Thomas Keller and Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla Motors CEO Elon).

Recipe for a new revenue model

Kokonas, a derivatives trader and investor in more than a dozen companies, hates it when someone says, “That’s just how we do it.”

2016_Q1_creators_01“I like hackers,” he says. “People who probe for answers. They put together a quick solution, try it, and then quickly improve it. And then they do that again. It’s a mindset. Most corporations do not have that mindset.”

After years of dealing with what Kokonas calls the “absurdity” of reservations at Alinea—70% of people requesting prime-time weekend slots, three full-time employees answering phones just to tell people no, no-shows hovering at 10% or more, and dejected would-be diners—he and Achatz invented another way. When they launched their second restaurant, Next, in 2011, they created a proprietary software application to sell reservations to every seating. Guests buy nonrefundable tickets to enjoy the 18- to 22-course tasting menu, the same way they would if they wanted to see a play or watch a Cubs game. After all, fine dining was itself a sort of theater, Kokonas thought. In 2012, Alinea adopted the system; the restaurant that lost more than a quarter million dollars a year on no-shows virtually eliminated them.

Last year, Kokonas and Achatz hired a chief technology officer and developed a commercial, software-as-a-service version of that system for other restaurants. “I knew it would have demand if we rebuilt it robust enough to handle thousands of restaurants rather than just ours,” says Kokonas, who reportedly raised several million dollars to launch Tock in December 2014. A year later, Tock had 50 customers, from San Francisco’s Coi, where tickets cost US$220–275 per person, to Portland’s midrange Thai restaurant Pok Pok, where patrons pay a nonrefundable $20 deposit per seat. “We are adding three to five customers a week now,” Kokonas says, predicting that Tock will have a few hundred customers by mid-2016.

Spicing Up Bookings

Online platforms such as OpenTable or Yelp’s SeatMe have digitized the old-school reservation process, charging restaurants for each booking. Tock instead charges dining establishments a flat $695 fee and enables them to customize the system. Restaurants can offer patrons traditional, no-cost reservations; tickets that serve as deposits on their final bill; or all-inclusive entry. Journeyman, outside of Boston, for example, offers no-fee reservations, a $10–20 discount for those who prepay for their meal, and tickets for special events and holiday parties. And restaurants are able to price tickets dynamically based on demand. Alinea, for example, has offered heavily discounted tickets on slow days, such as Super Bowl Sunday or July 4.

By making pricing and seat availability transparent, Kokonas thinks restaurants can create more trust with diners. And few appear to have balked at paying more for prime-time seating: Alinea has remained full on weekends. Customers accept the different prices, Kokonas says, so long as the choice is theirs.

The digital ticketing system enables more personal interaction between restaurant and guest. “It’s actually easier to spend more time with customers,” Kokonas says. “Once a customer makes a booking, the restaurant can reach out by e-mail or text or through social media to confirm choices or dietary restrictions or to learn more about customer needs and desires and can do so efficiently and quickly.”

Dining on Data

Deep knowledge of regular customers’ habits and preferences is part of what defines the high-end dining experience. But the CRM system in most traditional reservation systems is “just a glorified Post-it note” of customer information, according to Kokonas. Tock users can import their own data into their existing CRM applications.

2016_Q1_creators_02“We can learn about the demographics, purchasing decisions, and timing of a restaurant’s customers in entirely new ways,” Kokonas says. “We can track customer preferences like type of water, coffee service, whether they’re left- or right-handed—as granular as a restaurant wants to get in order to serve a patron better. That certainly makes service seem more magical to the guest.”

Early Tock customer Daniel Patterson, owner of Coi, has said that by diminishing reservations uncertainty, the system enables his restaurant to staff more appropriately and spend more time focusing on the customer experience.

Fresh Thinking

The challenge Kokonas and Achatz are facing with Tock is convincing restaurants that there is value in change. “I thought they’d see this great system and immediately go for it,” Kokonas says. “We have to teach restaurants how to think creatively. [Some] are hesitant to embrace change, so we have to do a lot of handholding at first.”

That’s because restaurants typically pay more attention to food and service than to business operations, Kokonas says. And when it comes to technology, they opt for what’s cheapest or best known. As with getting diners excited about a new venue, good word of mouth helps. “In the past few weeks, restaurants have moved from a ‘fear of change’ to a ‘fear of missing out.’”


This story has been updated to reflect information obtained after publication. Tock is no longer hosted on Amazon Web Services and does not pass along its data hosting costs.


Stephanie Overby

About Stephanie Overby

A Boston-based journalist, Stephanie Overby has covered everything from Wall Street to weddings during her career. She is currently focused on the implications of digital transformation.