Text Me an Open Table

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Another true story. I was meeting an old family friend for dinner in downtown San Francisco. I had told him to meet me at ZeroZero, a very popular newish Italian joint with killer pizzas and a reasonable menu. We get there and I ask the hostess how long the wait for a table. She smiles sweetly: “One hour.” Well that won’t do. Oh, by the way. The family friend? Works at Uber, a private car-on-demand company, as a business development guy. He’s newish to San Francisco and doesn’t know where else to go to eat. I’m likewise not that savvy on the Moscone Center locale and also was “budgetarily constrained.”

We whip out Yelp and start walking. B. Bar and Restaurant? Closed for a private event. Uh oh. There’s a convention in town. Tropisueno? Booked solid for the next 45 minutes. We pass a few other eateries where the prices are too stiff. And the irony hits me. I’m walking around with a guy from Uber and we can’t find a restaurant we want with an open table (pun intended). Uber lets you text in your location and a car shows up. We need something similar for our restaurant search – type in our location and open tables show up: I’m dead certain there are dozens of restaurants very close by that have capacity and if we could figure out which ones they were, we could quickly choose where we wanted to eat or even quickly reserve a spot to sit down and avoid a bar scramble.

I’m dead certain there are dozens of restaurants very close by that have capacity. If we could figure out which ones they were, we could quickly choose one.

And it occurs to me that this was the second time in the past few months this had happened to me. For Valentine’s Day, we took my wife out to eat but we lamely failed to make a reservation. We went to a place near our house that is huge but it was booked. And the same silliness ensued as this night with my Uber friend, only with two hungry young children in tow. There is a market waiting to be made in the hyperlocal space – a market for real-time restaurant open seats, an Uber for Restaurants, if you will – and maybe smarter.

Yes, some folks are heading that way with geofences and promotions from restaurants to smart phones. (AT&T and O2 are both trying this out). But people are very picky about restaurants – I passed on Jillian’s, thank you very much, because the food is not to my taste, despite the high likelihood of getting a table. Discounts, unless they are Groupon-like in size, fail to drive real traffic. And in big cities, restaurant choices are often last-minute decisions. Those decisions would be dramatically influenced by knowledge of where you can and can’t get a table. For restaurants, it would be a huge upside because they could more easily advertise or fill empty tables and, at the same time, not disappoint customers and dissuade them from dropping in. How would restaurants map this out down to the empty tables level? I don’t know, I’m not an engineer. But I would bet it’s not as hard as we think. And I’d use that service in a heartbeat, because hoofing around while you’re hungry and suffering the drab Moscone area is a definite buzz kill – and maybe a nifty business opportunity. Now where’s my Uber car?

Alex Salkever’s Personal Fight column appears every Friday.