It’s Friday evening, and you desperately want a table at Frances.Unless you’re a VIP who keeps the general manager on speed dial, you scour OpenTable where, if you’re lucky, you may find a seat at 5 or 10 p.m.—score one for little old ladies and European tourists. But here’s what you don’t know: The lack of seats doesn’t necessarily mean the house is packed. Turns out, some of the city’s hottest restaurants hide peak-hour tables from the only major reservations system online.
With 22 million North American users, SF-based OpenTable has had the monopoly on online reservations since 1998. It’s a low-tech system that requires dining rooms to buy an expensive, clunky monitor for the hostess stand. It also charges initiation and licensing fees plus $1 per person per reservation. That translates to a monthly cost upwards of $5,000, which is why some block OpenTable from booking during prime hours.
Launching this month, SeatMe—a venture-backed startup founded by 23-year-old Alexander Kvamme and 32-year-old Jordan Mendelson—aims to change all that. The FiDi company’s iPad app charges restaurants a low monthly flat fee with no surcharges or outdated POS system. “OpenTable’s product is stale, and their pricing has never been challenged,” says Kvamme. “Our goal is to save restaurants money.”
At press time, SeatMe’s client list was still under wraps. Though anyone who has recently booked a spot at Saison’s chef’s counter in the Mission may already be a SeatMe user. From the get-go, diners can expect access to mom-and-pop eateries that can’t afford a presence on OpenTable. Later down the road, look for mobile reminders, GPS-based alerts of available tables in your neighborhood, and pay-for-play reservations when, say, perennial favorite A16 is full. Who knows? An 8 p.m. same-day reservation at French Laundry might soon be within reach.