(Bloomberg) -- There’s no shortage of tricky questions facing enthusiastic diners these days. What to book first, the far-away restaurant reservation or the airline tickets? If I can’t get into the place I actually want to go to tomorrow night at 8 p.m., where can I dine that’s similar?
The new concierge-style program Tock Time, from the digital reservation service Tock, wants to solve those pressing problems. The program, announced on Tuesday, Feb. 11, includes several new features for the high-end culinary reservation site that will be available in the second half of the year. Most notable is the Wishlist, a function that helps secure reservations before they’re publicly available. Say your anniversary is in June, but the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Calif., currently accepts only reservations through April. The Wishlist lets customers book the future date. When it’s made available by the restaurant—sometimes only nominally, as anyone who has set an alarm in a vain attempt to get into Noma’s reservation system will know—Tock grabs the table.
Another new feature of Tock Time will be the Instant Book, which shows diners only what’s available for their night, time and party size, informed by past restaurant preferences—a predilection for new places, or steak houses—which cuts down on search time. Customers can swipe through to see what is most compelling, dating-app style, then swipe up to reserve. “It’s like Tinder for your tastebuds,” says Tock Chief Executive Officer Nick Kokonas, who is also co-owner of the Michelin-starred Alinea restaurant group in Chicago.
Kokonas, a former derivatives trader, has been an early adopter in the online reservation business. Tock, which was founded in 2004, was the first reservation service to have guests prepay for reservations, buying tickets the way you would for a Beyonce concert. (More than 70% of Tock’s restaurant bookings are now free.) Kokonas also introduced the concept of variable pricing, so that a dinner early on a Tuesday night would cost less than a meal at 8 p.m. on a Saturday.
The Tock concierge service will be fee based; the annual subscription price is being determined.
There are a few other caveats: The Wishlist will initially be available only for the approximately 2,500 restaurants that partner with Tock. That includes plenty of sought-after tables, from former World’s Best restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York to SingleThread Farm in Healdsburg, Calif., Minibar by José Andrés in Washington, and even the notoriously impossible Noma in Copenhagen. But it doesn’t include some of the most famously tough reservations, such as Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo.
More important, just because you put something on the Wishlist, it’s not a definite that it will happen—especially if the restaurant hasn’t yet opened the reservation books for that day. “We can’t guarantee the table any more than a concierge can make a guarantee,” says Kokonas, considering the reality of confirming every request for the 40-seat Noma dining room. “But we will work hard to grant it, and Tock has the leverage to make the odds of the booking happening very probable.” In the case of Noma, “only 4 or 5 places in the world command that kind of demand,” he adds. Those few places are, of course, the ones many people would use the Wishlist for. But if the likelihood of getting in isn’t good, the service will offer other recommendations in the requested genre.
Tock currently has 11 million users, as well as restaurants and culinary experiences in 200 cities around the world. Along with reservations, it specializes in such experiences as winery tours and whiskey distillery tastings. In early February, Tock announced an expanded partnership with Chase, which will allow its credit-card holders to use points to book restaurant reservations. Later this year, Chase will introduce a dining section on its mobile app that will be connected to Tock’s website.
The customized restaurant-reservation space is becoming increasingly crowded. In May, the platform Resy was acquired by American Express, where dining is a top spending category, for an undisclosed amount. Resy currently has 10,000 restaurants in its worldwide network, including such hard-to-book spots as Carbone in New York. Among the signature programs are the loyalty-style Resy Select, and “Off Menu Week”, which pairs top chefs with restaurants for an insider-style meal and gives AmEx cardholders 48-hour early access. And in November, OpenTable announced Premium Access in partnership with Capital One, giving users access to tables at prime time, with help from the credit card.
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