At a summer conference in 2012, my former boss caught me off guard by announcing that she had managed to score us “the hottest tickets in Chicago.”

My mind raced. What could she mean? Courtside seats at a Bulls game? Something starring Gary Sinise at the Goodman Theater? An audience spot at Harpo Studios? Wait … was I about to meet Oprah?!

“Next,” she said with a tiny wink. I understood.

The second restaurant in the Alinea Group, Next was indeed, in the early days of the 2010s, one of the trendiest restaurants in the country. It had also earned quite a bit of free publicity from its then-unique booking system. Owners Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas rejected a traditional reservations-based model in favor of selling prepaid tickets for each seating.

Frequently compared to the prizes found in Wonka Bars, ultra-rare Next tickets entitled the bearer to a meal (and, depending on the type, a flight of wine pairings) on a specific evening and hour. Everything was taken care of in advance, including the tip, so all a diner had to do on the appointed night was put on a decent-looking outfit and show up hungry.

Eight years on, I remember yielding, coal-charred artichokes, charming mix-and-match Italian dishware and an entire cream-filled cassata portioned at the table. But more than the food, I remember the tickets.

In the intervening years, I have bought tickets to my share of special-event meals but have rarely encountered a restaurant that has patterned itself closely after Next. That is, until this year. With pandemic restrictions on capacity, scarcity of locally sourced ingredients and uncertain staffing, restaurant owners across the country are suddenly finding a prepaid ticketing approach more appealing, and Maine businesses are no exception.

In 2020, it’s also easier than ever to implement such a model, due in no small part to the online booking platform Tock – co-created by (you guessed it) Next co-owner Kokonas. Beyond powering customized prepaid ticket systems, Tock also manages traditional reservations and even takeout order slotting to help restaurants space out deliveries and pickup times.

It is also cheap, especially compared with competitors like Open Table or Grubhub, which can charge upwards of 30% per order in fees. Because Tock earns most of its money through integrated credit-card processing, it can charge a moderate flat monthly fee and take only 2-3% of each sale.

To an increasing number of restaurateurs, inexpensive technology that helps them overcome pandemic-related challenges makes now the perfect time to experiment with tickets.

“Everything else is changing, so why not?” Lyle Aker, co-owner of Portland’s soon-to-open Broken Arrow, said. “Our intent was to open as a regular full-service restaurant. But now to control costs, the model of Next seems like kind of a good idea.”

“Tickets give us the most control over timing so we can get service right and protect the customers as well when they’re not being forced to wait outside or at the bar,” added co-owner Holly Aker.

At the Well at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, Darby Kline hands bowls with yellow tomato puree and peekytoe crab salad and chives to server Logan Marshall. In 2019, the restaurant began selling prepaid reservations for its dinners. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At The Well in Cape Elizabeth, chef Jason Williams has been using a prepaid ticket model for a substantial proportion of tables since the 2019 season. This year, thanks to the pandemic, that number has increased to 100%.

He originally made the shift to eliminate revenue-sapping no-shows. “Here, where gazebos and porch seats are in high demand, cancellations used to be such a huge problem for us. When it got bad, we were getting about 10% cancellations,” Williams said. “People would reserve well in advance, but then they’d cancel during the last week or even later. For a small business using local producers, that doesn’t work for us. It leaves us scrambling. But when you know what you’re getting into every night, it’s a lot easier to operate, especially when supply chains aren’t normal.”

Over the past two months, The Lost Kitchen in Freedom has begun offering ticketed lunches and a scant few prepaid dinners. For dinners, the restaurant pulls from its bountiful supply of postcards to select guests, but lunch tickets are offered on a first-come, first-booked basis on findthelostkitchen.com, alongside direct-to-consumer local produce.

“It kind of started out of business necessity. The postcard process takes a lot of hours and payroll. We couldn’t be staffing at that level if the restaurant is open in limited capacity,” chef/owner Erin French said. “So we’ve gotten really smart about our website. But we still made sure we called everyone who got reserved lunch seats, and we had three or four minutes with that person to make it personal, so it didn’t feel too dissimilar from the postcard.”

While individualized human touch is a cornerstone of The Lost Kitchen experience, French might have gotten away with skipping the extra phone call. Some restaurateurs report that merely moving to a prepaid ticket model supercharges the meal with a sense of occasion.

“From the guest’s perspective, it becomes kind of an event. They know they’re going to do something interesting that night, and it’s a limited-edition thing,” Lyle Aker said. “It also allows us to do something thematic that isn’t corny, something to go with great service, music, something romantic and fun, but done in food and beverage. Not like Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.”

In this archive photo, Elda’s Brittany Saliwanchik pours wine for customers. Elda chef/owner Bowman Brown is considering using a ticket-based model when his restaurant reopens in the Pepperell Mill this winter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Elda chef Bowman Brown, who has used prepaid tickets for Valentine’s Day dinners echoes the potential – and expectation – of pageantry that comes with ticket-based seating. “It becomes less of a restaurant model and more like a play. People have already paid for their seat, so it’s your job to give them a hell of a show. If you can get everybody on board with that, it’s great. It’s more ‘This is the production, and we’re in this together,’ and maybe less about trying to earn tips.”

Brown is considering moving to a partially ticket-based model when his Biddeford restaurant reopens in the Pepperell Mill this winter. As part of each meal’s ticket, he would like to include a service charge to pay his front-of-house team. “It’s ultimately more fair. One of the biggest problems is the issue of tipping. But the problem is when you sit down in the restaurant and people have included service, it looks like so much more. People seem to be more willing to put a dollar toward tips than on the bill,” he said.

As with any new endeavor, implementing a ticket structure is not without risks. While Tock has transformed pandemic challenges into a record-breaking growth spurt — very much like the one point-of-sale system Square is enjoying — small competitors like Seattle-based Brown Paper Tickets are struggling, leaving clients unpaid. The right supporting technology matters.

Broken Arrow plans to make the same move when they open next month. “We’ve opened a lot of restaurants over the years. Sometimes you wonder if any people are going to even come tonight, and you’re staffed for 150. Other times, you get surprised by a concert (audience) come in and you have 200 people. When you sell tickets, you know exactly how many staff you need in advance,” Holly Aker said. “You have a lot more control, and everyone gets paid.”

Yes, adopting a ticket-based system offers a chance for restaurants to restructure server compensation, but federal and state tax laws still lag behind. Currently, mandatory service charges count not as staff compensation, but as revenue for the restaurant. This means that, even if a restaurant commits to giving its front-of-house staff 100% of the service charge, both restaurateur and server must pay taxes on those funds. To hand over 20% to staff, the restaurant must charge upwards of 23% to cover added costs.

Service charges aside, a ticket-based model won’t work for every business. Prepaying complicates or eliminates the opportunity to upsell extra dishes or drinks to customers. It also requires chefs to become better at making their creations sound appealing online, long before a potential guest has tasted or smelled a thing.

From customers, tickets require advance planning and, perhaps most importantly, commitment. Each of the chefs and owners I spoke with described how they attempt to work with people who need to change their plans, using automated or manual waitlist systems to find people to step in for a cancellation. But purchasing a ticket for a dinner always comes with the risk that it will need to be forfeited if life intervenes.

“If someone is cancelling within a day, it’s usually because something devastating happened. We’ll do whatever we can to help you. We’re not the kind of place that just says, ‘Sorry.’ But we did have to start doing a 24-hour cancellation limit because we’ve purchased the food at that point,” Erin French said. “It’s funny, I’ve never run my business in such a ‘business’ way before. I’ve always done it with my heart and my gut. This (the pandemic) is forcing me to make more business decisions as opposed to what’s hospitable and what’s kind to the guests. Rules may have to change. We need that. Right now, we need to you make that commitment to show up.”

And while the thought of clicking “Checkout Now” and ponying up for dinner a month in advance might make you balk, consider that restaurants have traditionally been the ones to bear the costs of the unforeseen.

Perhaps now is the time for that burden to begin to shift back to us, the diners.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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