Are Prepaid Restaurant “Tickets” in Our Future?

Question MarkGrant Achatz, owner of the world-famous Alinea restaurant in Chicago, is doing away with restaurant reservations. Instead, he’ll be selling advance prepaid tickets.

No-shows are a huge problem for restaurants, and one missing diner can wipe out the profit for a single table. For this reason, tickets are also sold for the chef’s counter at San Francisco’s Saison, a 2 star Michelin restaurant, where tickets for the chef’s counter tasting menu go for $498, with no refunds if you don’t show up. I’m sure you are all reaching for your phones, so I won’t make you wait – you can get your tickets here (warning: terrible flash website).

More on Achatz from Huffington Post:

The price of an e-ticket has not yet been determined, but it will cover the cost of the meal. It’s not clear when the restaurant will launch the new system; since reservations are accepted two months in advance, it won’t be before June, Achatz said.

E-ticketing helps restaurateurs by eliminating the risk of no-shows, he said. These tickets are nonrefundable, similar to theater and movie tickets, so if someone cancels at the last minute, the restaurant still makes money.

“What people don’t realize is that profit margins at restaurants are extremely small — between 5 and 15 percent, overall,” Achatz said.

“Let’s say you have a reservation for a four-top,” he explained, holding up four fingers, “And at the last minute, one person gets sick.” He dropped one finger. “There goes your entire profit for that table. But with tickets, you solve that problem right away.”

According to, Achatz uses a similar ticketing method at his new restaurant Next.

“A lot of times what would happen at Alinea is you would book a reservation for a four-top, and either they would completely no-show or would only show up with two people. That real estate in your restaurant—literally that chair sitting empty—makes that table not profitable. We’re doing what an airline or Ticketmaster would do, right? If you buy two front-row seats to see Bruce Springsteen and your girlfriend decides she doesn’t want to go at the last minute, you don’t call Ticketmaster and say, ‘Hey, give me my money back.'”

So here is my question for you. Would you go to a restaurant where you had to buy no-refund tickets in advance?


Your thoughts are welcome

  1. jimster says

    That’s a complicated thing. Dining isn’t like going to a show. If we go see The Boss we all hear the same song regardless of our level of enjoyment of the song. At a restaurant there are different dishes, amounts consumed, variability between one plating of the same dish and the next, etc. Am I getting wine and cocktails with this? What wine? What beer? What after-dinner drink? It would have to be a very specific place to pull this off.

    I get where the restaurant is coming from. No-shows are completely irritating and costly. I would be more inclined to be fine with a restaurant taking my credit card and then running it for some specified amount should I no-show or have less in my party than reservered for or whatever.

  2. Jill-O says

    As long as I knew upfront that was the deal and as long as there is no extra fee, sure, I’d be paying for that meal anyway. Paying for that meal plus a handling fee for the payment itself…um, no.

    • says

      For me, it would be more of an issue for a party of 3 or more. I trust me and my partner to show, but I’ve had other couples have to pull out at the last minute. Then I’d have to dash to fill the spot.

      • Jill-O says

        I would try to make an arrangement where, if I was dining with another couple, they would pay for their seats separately and we would request to be seated together. Because, I hear ya on that…

  3. PDX2CDG says

    There are already restaurants in town that have you prepay for your meal
    by giving a credit card number. I can see the plus and minus side. Restaurants are operating on slim profits and doing it because they love what their doing. No one loves losing money……on either end.

  4. Economics Stickler says

    That’s actually not how profit margins work…the 5 -15% doesn’t just simply disappear because a person doesn’t show. It’s just based on 3 people instead of 4.

    • Tommy says

      Yeah, I agree. It seems that Achatz is basing his argument on the presumption that a four top must have four people sitting at it from open to close. Yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a restaurant with one other person and been seated at a four top. More butts in seats impacts profit, for sure, but not necessarily profit margin, to as much of a degree, anyway…

  5. says

    Wow, according to Huffpo, Saison will be offering

    An all-inclusive dinner ticket will start at $255 per person for an indulgent 16-course tasting menu, and will max out at a whopping $600-a-person 22-course tasting menu with wine pairings, prepared by Skenes himself and served at a private table in the kitchen.

    Table of six? My credit card would herniate itself

  6. Man-o-steele says

    I love the idea and would like it even more if gratuity was included. When you show up at the restaurant, all you have to do is sit down and enjoy the food–assuming it will be good. Don’t have to bother the waiter with running the card or figuring out the tip–just eat and enjoy yourself–crazy.

  7. L'epicier says

    I agree with Econ Stickler and Jimster. I think this would be difficult for all but a few highly desirable restaurants to pull off. I think that taking the cc info and billing for no shows is better.

  8. Alice says

    I think greedy landlords have chewed up the profit margins for many restaurants, not the unreliable customers. It’s so competitive to get a table in a good restaurant, many people don’t even try. Let us return to the days of, wait for it, ‘walk ins’. Alternatively, modern tools such as twitter or messaging could notify interested people on a real-time wait list. It shouldn’t be hard to fill tables in such trendy in-demand restaurants.

    • says

      I think many restaurants tend to get good initial leases and build-outs from landlords, and then raise the rent on down the line, but it seems to me that much of this is more the fault of many restauranteurs not having the best (if any) lease attorneys. Of course, for a while, rents everywhere were going through the roof.

      Some Portland restaurants reserve a certain number of tables for walk-ins, which I appreciate. We’ve had a lot of discussions on this site over the years about this very topic. I agree using messaging as a tool – PokPok and several other places will send you to the bar down the street, and text you when your table is ready.

      Actually, looking at that link, that may be one of the best discussions we’ve ever had on the site. It harkens back to the day when we could have intelligent conversation without personally attacking people and scaring them away.

  9. Gary Okazaki says

    Hi Food Dude:

    Actually, in mid-December, I had the Childhood menu at Next Restaurant and followed that up with dinner at Alinea the next night. At Next you could only buy tickets in increments of 2 (i.e., 2, 4, and 6). Even though I was dining alone, I had to buy 2 tickets. I could have sold the other ticket to a total stranger, but I would have felt uncomfortable sitting across the table from a stranger at a two-top. So I just ate BOTH of the meals at Next.

    I heard about Alinea converting to the Next reservation system and was very disappointed. I will be going to Alinea in April, so I don’t have to worry about that visit. But if I go in the summer as I was planning to do and if they sell tickets in increments of 2, then I have a dilemma. I think it will come down to either not going to Alinea or eating both of the meals at Alinea which would be a challenge (40 to 50 total courses) even for me.

    I understand the issue with maximizing profit, but I wish there were options for people who dine in groups that are odd-numbered. Well actually there are solutions: communal tables and chef’s counters.

  10. Gary O. says

    One advantage of living in Portland is that I can’t think of a Portland restaurant where we have to plan a month or 2 in advance to obtain a reservation. I guess Beast is the most difficult reservation in Portland; if you really want to go, it is only a couple of weeks of planning in advance.

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