For some reason, when people discuss “apps” in relation to food and dining out, I almost always still think that we will be talking about appetizers. Although I have a penchant for abbreviations and nicknames, my app confusion belies my current anger at all of these new apps that impact the dining experience. After checking my gut reaction, I also think about the ways that technology has improved my eating life, for example how last night I tasked someone to go pick up my favorite soup dumplings in Chinatown and waited with bated breath as I watched his little bike ride icon its way back up to Union Square, all from the comfort of my couch, iPhone in hand. Technology has afforded many conveniences that have become indispensable to my routine, including Seamless web and Open Table, but for some reason these new reservation apps just strike me as cheesy and sleazy.
It just sounds so douchey to me to be able to pay more in order to receive a reservation that is highly desirable. The idea of reservation scalpers, for lack of a better term, snatching up good reservations in the pursuit of turning a profit is just really hard to swallow, even though the market may demand it. Proponents of pay for play reservation systems deny that they are elitist, but how is giving one group with more money an advantage in an otherwise level competition not elitist? Some will also argue that the reservation world is always elitist, with celebrities and regulars getting preferential times and seating, but that is all part of the game; the second that you start allowing the Bankers with the bulging pockets to buy bottle service to gain entry to the club, you no longer truly control the door. Of course it is disappointing to not be able to dine at the new hot spot on the exact date and time that you desire, but if you really love food, and you value the experience above being seen and convenience, who has not gone to a restaurant at 530 just to get in? I have, several times, to Carbone and Sushi Nakazawa, to name a few. What will the dining landscape look like if the majority of people at desirable restaurants are all people who can pay more for their reservations and are tech-savvy?
After reading some of the founders pontificate on how their app is democratizing the reservation system and how empty tables cost restaurants so much money, my question is this: what is to stop any of these app reservation obtainers from canceling their reservation at the last minute? Clearly someone who is prepared to pay more for any experience is someone with a few dollars to spare, and losing $20 paid for a reservation would probably not be a big hardship anyway. Are we so technologically dependent that we are beyond showing up and waiting our turn, or actually nurturing real life relationships?
Personally, I like Seamless and OpenTable because it eliminates some tedious phone conversations and having to spell my last name over and over to someone who may or may not be competent. However, when I really want a reservation and it is not available on OpenTable, I still pick up the phone and call and try to talk to a human. I also always cancel a reservation by phone or online in a timely manner, obviously except for the unavoidable. I see nothing wrong with putting a little effort into getting a highly coveted reservation; while it might be commonplace for some to expect to be able to eat wherever they want whenever they want and with no prior planning, obtaining any desirable, tangible product some times requires some hoop jumping, and dining experiences should be no exception. Waitlists for handbags and designer items are extremely commonplace, and although the lucky few may have an inside advantage or advance notification due to spending a lot of money with a salesperson, the rules are pretty simple supply and demand. Restaurants have a limited amount of time to make money each evening, and they need to maximize the amount of bodies in seats and ordering food in order to keep the lights on, and I can see that extra money from a reservation app could be appealing, but it is sending a message that only those willing to pay more deserve the best tables at the best times. Even airlines, who favor paying more for a better class of service and a better seat, reward loyalty, something that can not be achieved through an app.