Surf-and-click seating gives around-the-clock access

Jessica Young

While she was planning a trip to New Orleans, Joyce Bartizal of Naperville wanted to make sure she scored reservations to a hot Emeril restaurant in her destination city.

OpenTable.com was her savior. The electronic booking site allowed her to request a table without having to figure in the time zone difference so she could call during the establishment’s business hours.

“Now I use it all the time for dinner at Wildfire or a Mother’s Day brunch at the Doubletree. It’s a great service,” Bartizal said. “I’ve gotten to work in the morning and wanted to make reservations for lunch that day. And I can do it at 8 a.m. rather than waiting until the place opens. Otherwise, you’re trying to guess when someone might be there to answer the phone.

“There are good restaurants on the site, and the list keeps growing,” she added. “I hope they keep adding because it’s an innovation that’s a huge convenience.”

OpenTable, a restaurant software program and corresponding customer service Web site, has a network of more than 7,000 joints worldwide, and hundreds more are signing on every month.

With 33 restaurants in the western suburbs, six in the southwest, three in the south and 31 in the northwest, the site offers diners lots of local choices in addition to 187 high-end Chicago eateries.

Since it launched in 1999, the San Francisco-based company has seated more than 40 million customers and now books about 2 million reservations a month.

Would-be diners can use the site without the requirement of a password-protected profile and get instant confirmation on ideal meal times. For free. (Restaurants are charged $1 for each head the site recruits.) Later, they can switch their timeslot, adjust the group number or cancel with a click of a mouse.

“You have a party of two and want a table at Mike Ditka’s at 7 and the system reports back almost in the blink of an eye as to whether they can accommodate you,” said Ann Shepherd, consumer marketing director at OpenTable. “We’ve transitioned away from the traditional reservation book or paper marked up in red pen to a touch-screen computer at the hostess stand.

“People buy clothes, make airline reservations and check movie times online, so it’s natural to take advantage of the computer,” she added.

Zak Dich, general manager at Carlucci Restaurant in Downers Grove, said he loves the ease with which reports are generated. From the business side of the industry, OpenTable allows managers to compare current revenues with those from a year ago.

And the guesswork is taken out of holiday weekend projections and budgeting sessions with the at-a-glance financial breakdowns.

“It’s the wave of the future. A great and efficient tool for us,” he said. “I’m hooked; let me put it that way. I can’t believe we ever had a different system.

“It’s also much faster than the old-fashioned pencil and paper, and freeing the staff up from answering calls makes it easier to manage the floor,” Dich added.

Carlucci installed OpenTable in April, and the restaurant has been able to track customer history in the way of visits and cancellations in the guest database.

“You type in Smith, select Mr. John Smith, and it pulls up his number, e-mail, likes and dislikes,” Dich said. “So as a server, you know to recommend the walleye since he ordered something similar last time. We know our customers better with the notation feature on the program.”

So a peanut allergy, an overly generous tipping tendency and a patio seating preference can be recorded and utilized by staff looking to better serve regulars.

“In addition to the operational benefits it offers restaurateurs, they love OpenTable because it’s an extension of the superior service they have,” Shepherd said. “It furthers the VIP treatment.”