What Does Your Favorite Reservation App Say About You?
For a decade, the online reservations industry was dominated by one player. Now the myriad choices have given way to strong opinions from diners.
- Nov. 15, 2022, Updated 12:11 p.m. ET
OpenTable is economy. Resy is premium economy. Tock is business class.
That’s how Christina Woog, who works in marketing in Los Angeles, thinks about the three main reservation systems that she uses to book tables at restaurants.
She considers herself more of a Tock person. “I feel like I am always trying to find something special, unique or hard to get,” said Ms. Woog, 40.
Reservation systems that were once abstract, nameless algorithms for connecting with your favorite restaurants now have reputations and identities of their own. And just as many think of Tinder as an app for casual hookups and Hinge for long-term relationships, diners have strong opinions about what these reservation systems represent.
In major cities, making a reservation has become more or less a requirement for going out. This summer was the busiest season in the history of the reservations site Resy by quantity of diners seated; on OpenTable, online and app reservations increased by 9 percent in the first half of 2022 compared with that period in 2019. And many restaurants that didn’t accept reservations in the past now do — seeking some predictability after the tumult of pandemic lockdowns.
Securing a hard-to-get reservation at the restaurant everyone is trying to get into? “That gives me a specific dopamine hit,” Ms. Woog said.
Lindsie Hartman, 29, who works for a software company in Dallas, said that she associates Tock with “fancy prix-fixe menus,” Resy with upscale restaurants that “are not necessarily going to be $200 to $250 per person” and OpenTable, founded in 1998 and once the main player in the business, with “lower-tier restaurants.”
“OpenTable, I would say, is now outdated,” said Ariana Nathani, 25, a product designer in New York who prefers Resy. “Unless a restaurant that I specifically know uses OpenTable, I will rarely check it.”
Prashant Punjabi, 42, a software developer in the Washington, D.C., area, knows he’s not as interested in the trendy restaurants he might find on a service like Resy. He mainly uses OpenTable. “I don’t go to extremely busy places and try to find spots,” he said. “It is mostly, like, business lunches and date nights with my wife.”
Accordingly, many restaurant owners are choosing to work with reservation services based on these perceptions.
Erika Chou, a partner in River and Hills Hospitality Group, which operates New York establishments like Kimika and Wayla, used OpenTable at her previous restaurants. Now, all her restaurants are on Resy.
“They work with a great group of restaurants,” she said. “So you know if you are in that company, your exposure is also greater. You are getting in front of that same type of clientele — people who really value the dining experience as a whole.”
These reputations aren’t accidents. They are born from how these companies initially sold themselves to customers.
Resy, founded in 2014, began as a service that specialized in coveted tables, like Minetta Tavern or Balthazar. Now any restaurant can sign up for Resy, but many diners said they still saw it as a destination for new, buzzed-about spots. Some people live and die by the platform’s Notify feature, which sends an email if a reservation becomes available; others religiously follow social media accounts like ResX, where people can give away or take coveted reservations.
Nick Kokonas, a co-owner of the Chicago fine dining restaurant Alinea, started Tock the same year. With Tock’s ability to offer prepaid reservations and deposits, tasting menu restaurants flocked to the service. Yelp, which started offering reservations in 2013, is best known for its virtual wait-list system, used primarily by casual restaurants like ramen shops and cafes.
SevenRooms, which can be integrated into Google, Facebook, Instagram or a restaurant’s website, isn’t meant to be noticed by customers, said Joel Montaniel, who co-founded the company in 2011.
But OpenTable maintains an outsize presence in reservations, with more than 50,000 participating restaurants. (Resy, in comparison, has more than 16,000; Tock, around 10,000 businesses; Yelp, more than 11,000; and SevenRooms declined to share a figure.)
The breadth of restaurants on OpenTable is a strength, said Debby Soo, who became the chief executive of OpenTable in 2020 after 10 years at the travel search engine Kayak. She’s fine with the company not being “the coolest brand.” As far as reputations go, “let’s let the restaurant do that work,” she said.
But, she said, the competition has driven the company to innovate more. In October 2020, OpenTable redesigned its app, and restaurants can now chat with diners through the app, or charge deposits for reservations.
For Andrew Riggsby, 57, a professor of classics and art history at the University of Texas at Austin, the problem is not the lack of innovation. It’s that there are just too many services.
“All of this is inconvenient for the customer,” he said. “There is no longer one place to go.” This echoes his frustration with the endless options for streaming channels for movies and T.V. He’s tired of having to download another app just to go out to dinner.
“I would not sign up for yet another one,” he said.