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Introducing Nick Kokonas's Ticketing System, Tock

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The Chicago restaurateur taps Thomas Keller, Twitter's CEO to help launch the long-awaited system.

After months of anticipation and speculation, Nick Kokonas — the Chicago restaurateur behind Alinea, Next, and the Aviary — has finally unleashed information about his commercially available ticketing system platform. Christened Tock (a play on the idea of tickets, time, and the "tick-tock" sound of a clock), the system will launch in early 2015 with a team of heavy-hitters in Kokonas's corner: Among his investors are legendary chef Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se), Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, venture capitalist Kimbal Musk, chef Ming Tsai, and the Melman family, the owners of the 118-concept Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group. Keller's restaurants will join Tock when it launches next year; one of Melman's properties will be on the pilot-program version in just four weeks. "We wouldn't have gotten all the people that we've got on there if we weren't doing something right," Kokonas excitedly tells Eater. "I'm enthusiastic about our ability to really change the industry."

"I'm enthusiastic about our ability to really change the industry."

Kokonas has been hinting at the possibilities of Tock — formerly and colloquially known as "Tickets" — for months. As promised back in May, Tock will give restaurant owners the option of how many tables to set aside for pre-purchased tickets or table-holding "deposit tickets." Tickets, like at a movie or sporting event, simply pay for the experience in advance, while the deposit tickets apply the full ticket "fee" to the diner's final bill. For fine-dining restaurants like Kokonas's Alinea, the pre-purchased ticket guarantees up-front payment for a multi-course tasting menu. Deposit tickets have worked for neighborhood restaurants with a la carte menus, like Phoenix's Tuck Shop, which implemented Kokonas' system in August.

In a now famous blog-post manifesto, Kokonas also revealed in July that the system would include "dynamic deposit tickets" to shift demand pricing in "both directions." Tock has delivered: While the tickets system always allowed restaurants to adjust prices based on the desirability of reservation time (peak hours could mean higher ticket costs), dynamic deposit allows restaurants to draw in diners by effectively offering a discount to book. As a guest, "on days where there are a high number of seats available, or low-demand days, you could put down a $15 deposit and it would actually give you a larger credit," Kokonas says.

Photo: Ulla/Eater

But today's announcement adds additional options to the mix, and Tock's $695/month fee for restaurants will offer every feature at the same flat rate, with no additional fees. "We are trying to build a whole toolbox of every aspect of what a customer needs, from a booking and table management and CRM," Kokonas says. Tock will provide a fully integrated customer service management system, a table management platform, an open API that allows sharing of data, a social media manager, event ticketing, and crucially, zero-deposit tickets — which may be better known as traditional reservations. "One of the reasons to include that is a restaurant may want all the other features," Kokonas says. "But they're not willing to take the risk, in their mind, of doing deposit tickets. They'd rather take ordinary reservations."

The Tock system will offer five types of tickets, including one that's essentially a regular, no-cost reservation.

And those restaurants might have a point: Early forays into ticketed dining have proved it doesn't work for everyone. At his Philadelphia fine-dining restaurant Volver, chef Jose Garces abandoned his restaurant's ticketing platform just five months in: Its Thundertix system, powered by an Austin-based company, was often criticized for being too complicated. (Eater critic Ryan Sutton called the booking process "Sisyphean," a frustrating journey through "various pitfalls.") One-Michelin-starred restaurant Elizabeth, an early adopter of Kokonas' system, broke away from the tickets-only mold and began offering traditional reservations earlier this summer. A representative from the restaurant, the first outside Kokonas's own portfolio to offer tickets in Chicago, was diplomatic in her critique, calling the addition of reservations an effort to "make the experience for our guests as simple or best as it can be." Even Keller has questioned if the ticketed platform would work as well for casual restaurants, telling the Chicago Tribune he's unsure the system is the best option for his less-in-demand restaurant Bouchon.

But Kokonas cites investor Ming Tsai's Boston restaurant Blue Dragon as an example of how Tock could work for those customers. According to Kokonas, Tsai's main dining room is walk-in only, but the chef could use the Tock platform to sell tickets for Blue Dragon's chef's table. For a farewell set of dinners, wd~50 chef/owner Wylie Dufresne used Tock's "event ticket" feature to rack up $41,000 in ticket sales in the first two minutes; Kokonas says any restaurant on the Tock platform would be able to sell tickets for special, one-off dinners. "It's just a matter of having every possible mix for having a ticket, and one of them was an ordinary reservation," Kokonas says. "Which means it can do everything OpenTable can do, and then some."

Taking on OpenTable

OpenTable, the 16-year-old reservation service that powers online reservations for some 32,000 restaurants nationwide, comes up frequently in conversation with Kokonas. (It's the industry standard-bearer: Per OpenTable's own numbers, the service seats 15 million diners every month.) But Tock's ability to draw Keller, one of the country's most high-profile chefs, is a coup for Kokonas: When Keller's French Laundry joins the Tock line-up next year, it will switch from its current OpenTable system. The 118 restaurants in the portfolio of new investor Lettuce Entertain You, according to Kokonas's numbers, accounted for nearly one percent of all OpenTable's 2013 revenue. (One of Lettuce's concepts will join the Tock pilot program in the next four weeks, and Kokonas calls its investment a "huge vote of confidence that this system can be used in basically any restaurant that takes any type of reservation.")

"This system can be used in basically any restaurant that takes any type of reservation."

When chef Daniel Patterson's two-Michelin-starred Coi announced its switch to the tickets system this summer, it did so by abandoning OpenTable. At the time, Patterson told Eater Kokonas's ticketed system provided the best way to curb no-show diners, saying "about 15 percent [of diners] either cancel or no-show within the last 48 hours." As Kokonas has mentioned several times of Alinea and Next's ticketing system — which is now referred to as the "legacy software" in Tock's pilot program — one of its greatest advantages is that it creates a relationship between the restaurant and diner. More than simply pre-charging for a seat at the table, it's this relationship, Kokonas argues, that gives diners more reason to follow through on a reservation. According to Kokonas's internal data made public this summer, incidence of no-shows at Alinea dropped to less than two percent in 2013 due to the ticketing system (no-shows numbered less than one percent for its sister cocktail bar, the Aviary, which uses deposit tickets).

The addition of Keller's fine-dining institutions the French Laundry and Per Se, meanwhile, is fueled by the chef/owner's desire to "improv[e] the relationship with his customers," Kokonas says. Tock provides restaurant owners with the contact information of everyone who buys a ticket, allowing restaurateurs to phone guests without the back-and-forth of leaving reservation request voicemails. From the diner's perspective, Tock offers optional features like the capability to create a "diner's profile" (which can deliver information about food allergies and dietary restricts directly to the restaurant) and the ability to login via social media accounts, like Facebook and Twitter. "We're not trying to get between a customer and the restaurant and vice versa," Kokonas says. "We're simply trying to give a restaurant a toolbox to do all this stuff themselves."

Diners can also log in to Tock and interact with its web platform without having to download a specific Tock app, and a single username/login will work across all Tock restaurants (this is not the case in the current system, on either the restaurant's or the diner's end). Kokonas, who admits Tock's pilot program interface was "clunky" at times, has brought in a tech team to improve user experience. Last week, Kokonas announcedformer Google engineer Brian Fitzpatrick would join as founding partner and CTO; he'll be joined by a three-person engineering/design team, who flaunt Apple, Bose, and Trunk Club on their resumes.

"It's going to be one of those things where: Imagine you had to call an airline right now to book an airplane ticket, or go to a travel agent," Kokonas says. "It would seem weird. OpenTable's like a travel agency. I don't need a third-party agent to do that transaction for me anymore. And that's important. It'll feel weird in five years to not just be on your phone and instantly make a purchase at a restaurant."

Looking Ahead

Tock, which will be completely redesigned from the current tickets legacy system, won't roll out until the "late first quarter" of 2015 — it lives online as tocktix.com. But Kokonas clearly has big plans for the idea, which according to his numbers, has processed $3.1 million in ticket sales for its commercial clients thus far this year (that number doesn't include his own spots in Chicago). "Doing ticketing, along with an administrative charge, or a service charge, or whatever you need to call it in your state, is the future of all dining," Kokonas says.

Selling tickets and eliminating tipping is the "future of all dining," Kokonas says.

According to Kokonas, ticketed dining cuts down on food waste, allows chefs to purchase product more strategically and efficiently, and thus passes along those savings to the consumer. It also takes a stance on the much-discussed, often-maligned practice of tipping in restaurants: Service/administrative charges are often automatically added to the ticket purchase price. "I think everybody is going to get rid of tips," Kokonas says. "At the end of the day, if someone raised our minimum wage to $15, and our labor costs went up whatever the percentage was, we could easily change all of our pricing to reflect that without redoing our menus, without redoing anything. We can change our deposit tickets, we can reduce no-shows, we can reduce waste. That's what we're doing here."

Kokonas's greatest challenge might be luring customers that would otherwise balk at paying up-front for a reservation, or conversely, distance Tock from the recent influx of booking apps, some of which offer last-minute, "pay-for-play" access to restaurants. He has help. Other Tock investors from the tech world include Marc Benioff and Scott Hansma of CRM company Salesforce, LA venture capital firm Upfront Ventures, and "several others that wish to remain anonymous," Kokonas says. He won't specify the exact valuation amount, other than that it's in the "tens of millions" of dollars. (Kokonas tells Crain's Business Chicago the valuation is worth "greater than $20 million.") And the Tock system promises a few additional "surprises" that he can't — or won't — go into further detail about right now. Says Kokonas: "For me, I want the leaders in the industry to go, 'Here's what's wrong with the industry now, and here's what we hope it can do.'"

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