Beyond the Booking
How a Lafayette man is revolutionizing dining.
By night, you might find him dining with his wife at Metro Lafayette or with the whole family at Chow. But by day, Lafayette resident Matt Roberts sits at the head of the table at Open Table, the largest online restaurant reservation service in the world.
Lately, the 16-year-old company has been rolling out game-changing features, including the ability to settle the check via mobile device or summon a ride from Uber after a meal. Diablo talked to Roberts, the company’s CEO, to find out why restaurants and diners should go high tech—and where else he likes to eat in the East Bay.
Q: What’s new at Open Table?
A: We’re constantly adding new features of different levels of significance, including the ability to personalize your profile. And we just launched reviews with tagging: We have a data-science team that has gone through all the reviews and pulled out key things and sentiments from those reviews. The words help paint a more comprehensive picture for diners of what that restaurant experience will be like. Users now have the opportunity to pull out favorite dishes and things along that line.
Some of that hasn’t been fully rolled out yet, but that’s what we’re excited about: giving the restaurant-discovery process a different level of richness, so diners can find the perfect spot.
Q: How else do you help diners find the right restaurant?
A: We acquired a company in January called Foodspotting, and it’s about user-generated dish photos. That’s been fully incorporated into Open Table at this point. Looking at a picture of a menu item is better than looking at a flat menu item in text.
Q: Well then, I have to ask: Do you take photographs of your food?
A: I take a couple pictures of my food [laughs]. I’m not as avid as some of our users.
Q: The Priceline Group, which owns priceline.com, booking.com, and other travel services, bought Open Table for $2.6 billion in June, but you still run the show. Why did you sell?
A: Priceline is very good at being a truly global company, and it’s figured out how to do some pretty exciting things on the product side of the equation.
We have a vision of creating a global dining passport, so when you are traveling abroad, you can get the same experience as when you’re booking in Lafayette. I also think there’s an opportunity to move faster and more rapidly on some of the new product features, like payment.
Q: Payment is probably the most significant feature you’ve rolled out since Open Table started doing reservations in 1998. It adds a whole new dimension to the company. How has it been going?
A: We launched a pilot at the end of last year and early this year, and we’re now in multiple markets. We just launched in New York in August.
We’ve really hit a nerve in terms of a desire on the part of diners to settle the check without the typical hassles that go along with it. Mobile payments really shift a lot of control to the diner.
And from a restaurant perspective, what we didn’t know is if they’d be open to changing the way that they’ve done things their entire existence. We’ve been pleasantly surprised: They’re diners themselves, and they see an opportunity when something can be done in a more efficient and positive way.
Q: Booking reservations, documenting meals, and settling checks digitally means diners don’t have to interact with restaurant staff as much. Do you worry that Open Table is depersonalizing the experience?
A: Our focus is definitely not on minimizing the time that you have with the restaurant team: It’s really about making those interactions truly “delights.” We allow the restaurant’s team to delight the diners, versus doing the administrative components.
So for example, there are very few people who enjoy calling 10 restaurants to hear nine nos and one yes. I don’t think that’s a situation where they’ve enjoyed something, and we’ve depersonalized it. It’s the opposite.
I don’t think the waiters really want to walk back and forth to put the check in the sales system, and then walk back a couple more times. What they really would rather do is spend a moment or two reflecting on the meal and making sure the diners had a wonderful time.
Q: Open Table has been hit by a wave of competition the past few years, including Eveve, a Scottish company that’s been particularly successful in Europe. Even Yelp just bought Seat Me and can now take reservations. Why use Open Table over the other guys?
A: We think about the dining experience as having three parts to it: before, during, and after.
Before is helping diners discover restaurants: looking at the images of the restaurant and the menu items, or reading reviews by verified diners. Our reviews are different from anyone else’s because you know for sure that the person ate there.
And during, there are all the moments in the meal we can add delight to: Payment is certainly one of those. But you can imagine a time when you’re sitting there, and you say, “I wonder what my friends had when they ate here,” or you can see what’s trending now in the restaurant with real-time comments—in the moment, from within the restaurant.
As for after, we can be your digital dining diary so you can remember everything about that meal: what the server’s name was, all that. We can store all that information so it’s a virtuous cycle.
Q: That all sounds cool, but lately, cellphone usage is a hot button in restaurants. Some have made news for banning mobile devices altogether to discourage people from talking on the phone or slowing service by taking pictures of their food. What’s your stance on that?
A: There are so many applications for the diners to use their mobile devices that we can’t make blanket statements: that it’s good or it’s bad. It’s the behavior that’s good or bad.
Q: Touché. But is there a limit to what Open Table could do in the future? Will we be tipping bathroom attendants from our phones?
A: [Laughs] I don’t know if we’ll get that granular, but we have a very open mind as to what problems and opportunities are ahead of us.
Q: Let’s bring the conversation home. There’s been a restaurant renaissance in Contra Costa, with the opening of The Cooperage in Lafayette, Revel in Danville, and Sunol Ridge in Walnut Creek. What dining trends are you seeing here?
A: There’s a lot of American grill that’s coming up in Lafayette and Walnut Creek. We’re moving away from smaller plates, and that was a pretty big trend for a while.
Q: How does Open Table help suburban restaurants such as ours?
A: We are doing much more outreach to our diner database and giving more microlocal recommendations.
For example, I live in Lafayette. So before, I would get e-mails talking about restaurants that were more Bay Area–focused. Now, it’s really much more precise by looking at my dining history and things like that.
When a restaurant opens with Open Table, we also have a promotional package that includes informing diners in their local area. We tell a little bit of the restaurant’s story and highlight the menu. It’s great to give diners that context.
Q: So what would we find in your family’s dining history?
A: We would have Metro Lafayette: We just went there. We went to The Park Bistro and Bar, which we like. We like Lark Creek Walnut Creek. We also want to go to Pizza Antica, which doesn’t take reservations. [In Danville] I like Amber Bistro and Esin. Sasa in Walnut Creek.
Q: You have two boys. Any favorites when you’re out with the kids?
A: We have a pretty good rotation, but more often than not, Chow. We also like Table 24 and Barbacoa, depending what mood they’re in.
How Open Table Works
Restaurants purchase software from Open Table and pay a monthly fee. Most popular is the Electronic Reservation Book, a touch screen that manages reservations, assigns tables, and keeps track of repeat diners.
Diners make a free profile at opentable.com or download the Open Table app. Then, they can browse restaurants, make reservations, create wish lists, settle their checks, and more.
Diners earn 100 points for every reservation they make and honor. Points can be cashed in for credits to pay toward future meals. Restaurants can opt in to be featured as 1,000-point restaurants during certain time periods, filling tables that may otherwise go empty.