How to Tell if the Restaurant Is Lying to You

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It is enough to ruin your appetite.

You are hungry. You surf to OpenTable.com, you type in your desired eatery's name and up pops this message: "No tables are available within 2.5 hours of your 7:00 PM request."

You shrug, and type in choice #2, where you book.

What happens next is filed under: OpenTable Welcomes You to the Twilight Zone.

On the way to choice #2, you wander by choice #1 and curiosity impels you to take a look inside. What do the faces of the happy, winning diners look like?

Except: The room is nearly empty. Chair after chair, table after table, nobody.

What exactly happened?

Know that it happens, a lot, at restaurants across the country every night. They show up full on OpenTable, but they aren't and, insisted multiple restaurant consultants contacted by Mainstreet, there is no software glitch at OpenTable that is inflicting false fullness on empty restaurants.

Quite the contrary: the restaurants themselves are claiming to be full, even though a glance at their reservations book tells them they aren't.

For the record, OpenTable indicated it had no comment on this gaming of the system by some restaurateurs...who expect to win exactly what?

First however, know that you probably can get that table you want even if it shows up full on OpenTable. Note: we are not talking about scoring a Valentine's Day table at Union Square Cafe at 9 p.m., because it really is sold out, unless you are a regular and/or a friend of owner Danny Meyer.

The technique we offer is for those restaurants that do not regularly sell out and it is so 1954: pick up the phone and call. Odds are high you will be greeted enthusiastically and booked promptly, because they know even better than you do: they need the business.

Longtime OpenTable user Marcy Schackne offers testimonial validation. She checked OpenTable to book at the Palm steakhouse in Bal Harbour, Fla; it showed up full, but when she called and asked for a table, she was promptly given a reservation.

Precisely the same happens at hundreds of restaurants every night.

What gives? Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president for food services strategies at retail consulting firm WD, said that for many restaurants, the $1 per diner they pay OpenTable for a booking - on top of a fixed monthly fee - "rankles."

They think they can book diners more cheaply themselves," he said.

Adi Bittan, CEO of feedback service OwnerListens, with many restaurant clients, added: "For times when they expect to be full based on past experience, they do not want or need to take the OpenTable reservation. They're taking a gamble, because they could end up with empty tables -- and then the diner will walk by and see it -- but it's a calculated gamble based on probability. Since most of us, restaurant managers included, are not economists or mathematicians, we understand this dynamic intuitively but will often get those exact probabilities wrong."

Meaning the restaurant bets that it doesn't need OpenTable, but the empty chairs it winds up with make a mockery of their inductive capabilities.

Other eateries are playing a variation on the game, however. Kate Lacroix, a Boulder, Colo. restaurant publicist, elaborated that some restaurants play a game of booking chicken where they block out the prime dining times - say 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., always claiming to be full - "because they are trying to push people into earlier and later times."

They don't want to pay $1 for a primetime diner, but for a 5:30 pm diner? You bet.

"They also may be trying to appear to be hard to get," she said. If a restaurant always is booked solid on OpenTable, just maybe the perceived value of a reservation shoots up. Maybe.

Restaurant consultant Ronald Odom, Jr. shrugged that just plain ignorance on the part of a restaurant's owners and managers might fuel some of the OpenTable mysteries.

"They might have OpenTable, because they think it is required as an industry standard, but might not have a grasp on how to use it effectively," he said. "They most likely do not have it set up properly. OpenTable is not a difficult platform, but it does require a decent amount of understanding to set it up."

Bottomline: When it comes to OpenTable, no does not mean no. When you come up goose eggs with OpenTable, pick up the phone - and you may be rewarded.

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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