How I Became the Most Hated Person in San Francisco, for a Day
This morning I put the finishing touches on, and launched, ReservationHop.com, a site where I’m selling reservations I booked up at hot SF restaurants this Fourth of July weekend and beyond.
I built it over the weekend after waiting at Off the Grid for 30 minutes for a burrito from Señor Sisig, and realized that there’s got to be a market for the time people spend waiting for tables at our finest city dining establishments. Turns out I’m not the first person to think it, as there are two startups doing this very thing in New York City (here and here).
It’s a simple site with a simpler backend. I book reservations under assumed names, list them on ReservationHop, and price them according to the cost of the restaurant and how far in advance they need to be booked up. I don’t use OpenTable; I call the restaurants directly. And I have a policy of calling and canceling reservations that don’t get snapped up, because I don’t want to hurt the restaurants (the assumption being that on-demand restaurants with high walk-in traffic won’t have trouble filling those tables).
I anticipated some mild interest when I launched this morning, emailing the 20 or so potential customers I had interviewed at Off the Grid and some friends. I expected maybe having to make somewhat of an effort in order to get people to discover what I’m doing. I never expected a maelstrom of internet hate.
Not all of the responses have been negative, but an overwhelming number of them has been.
I totally understand the frustration people have with SF’s particular brand of “innovation.” And it seems that everywhere you look cherished public resources are being claimed by startups, whether it’s Google laying claim to bus stops or parking apps laying claim to, well parking spaces. I’d half expect someone to come along one day and put picnic blankets down in Dolores park and sell them at $25 apiece.
I also understand that this represents, as one Tweeter put it, “a caricature of SF tech bro shithead.” And as someone who spends a lot of time complaining to my friends about how much of an insular bubble San Francisco has become, what with apps built by the 0.1% for the 0.1%, I completely agree. In fact, I would have much preferred the media raised this much a fuss about Drillbit or The Creative Action Network or any of my other startups over the years.
But there’s something peculiar about SF, in that our media seems to love hating on stuff like this, so I guess I’m not surprised that I got Valleywagged almost immediately, followed by a post from The Next Web. I responded to an interview request from TechCrunch so it’s written up there too.
Meanwhile, traffic has gone through the roof. Here’s my actual Google Analytics graph from today.
I guess you can say that any press is good press.
But let’s talk about the questions/criticisms everyone has. What was I thinking! How dare I sell something that’s free! Is this even legal? Is it ethical? Restaurants are going to hate this!
To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking through these questions. I built this site as an experiment in consumer demand for a particular product, and the jury’s still out on whether it will work. But I can tell you what I have thought through.
The initial criticism has been about the fact that restaurant reservations are free, and I shouldn’t be selling them. First off, reservations aren’t free. Restaurant tables are limited, in high demand and people wait a good long time as walk-ins to get them. Reservations take time and planning to make and the restaurant assumes an opportunity cost from booking them. My friend joked that it took me less time to build this site than most people spend hunting for OpenTable reservations in a given year.
What about ethics? We are talking about an asset that most people don’t think about having a value. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t have a value, or that people wouldn’t be willing to pay for it. For instance, no one would have thought that taking a cab during rush hour should cost more than a normal ride, until Uber launched surge pricing and we realized that people are willing to pay for it. Clearly, the service of booking a reservation in advance has value to patrons. This is evidenced by the startups doing this right now in New York City.
If someone does pay for it willingly, is it really unethical? The consumer has made a choice, the reservation stands, the restaurant gets a table filled as planned, and I have made money for providing the service. That seems perfectly ethical to me. I am aware that the ethical conundrum is around the “what if” question: If I book a table and no one buys it, the restaurant loses business, doesn’t it? I don’t know if that’s true yet, and I’m also working at a volume so low that it probably won’t matter. I’m canceling the reservations 4 hours before if they don’t get bought, and certainly a restaurant that’s booked weeks in advance won’t have trouble filling a table with their high walk-in traffic, or someone who gets lucky and snaps up the reservation for free on OpenTable.
But more importantly, I think that a paid reservation lets customers get skin in the game, and that means that restaurants might even reduce no-shows if paid reservations become a thing. When Alinea introduced ticketing (pre-paid reservations), they dropped their rate of no-shows by 75%. That’s a pretty good deal in an industry with razor-thin margins. I’m just speculating on whether this might provide value for restaurants; I can’t speak for them and need to parse this out over the next couple days.
So, back to becoming the most hated person in SF. I learned a lot today about how media, culture and technology in this city interact, and I have to say that overall, I think that the people who have sent me violent threats via email and Twitter, while excessive, may have a point. So in the interest of ethics and fairness, I want to talk to restaurants about working with them directly on a better reservation system. I’ve heard that OpenTable is loathed by many restaurants who don’t want to pay to fill tables. There may be a ticketing solution to high-demand restaurants. If you’re a restaurant, please drop me a line.
And if you’re a regular Jane or Joe, and you missed an opportunity to get a reservation at a hot SF restaurant for your first wedding anniversary this weekend, check to see if there are any reservations available for you at ReservationHop.com.