For those looking to score a reservation at the latest hot restaurant like New York City's The Little Owl
, diners have to hit the phones exactly 30 days prior to their desired date and hope to be one of the few chosen. The result is less like planning a nice evening out, and more like trying to win a radio show call-in prize. Tablexchange.com is hoping to change that by allowing diners to buy and sell their reservations to hot restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and the Hamptons
. The site, and others like it like Tablepronto (which covers San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas), work without the consent or knowledge of the restaurants -- in fact, when you "buy" a reservation, you are actually instructed to not change the name or details of the reservation, so you must check in under the original reservation's name. These sites are reminiscent of reservation scalper PrimeTimeTables, which was hotly debated
last year. Unlike these marketplace sites, PrimeTimeTables charges their members a $500 annual fee and uses their supposed "connections" to score the hard-to-get reservations (annoying
some restaurants in the process). Tablexchange claims that they are less shady since they simply provide a marketplace that is more efficient than, say, Craigslist
for this purpose. However, if the Tablexchange model gains traction, it could create a legion of professional reservation traders that would then compete with diligent foodies who are trying hard to get a reservation through normal (free) means.
This debate is much like the ticket scalping debate that we have seen
here again and again. This market for reservations has simply surfaced the fact that there are people willing to pay for reservations that are currently free. With any limited good, charging money is a good way to decide who ultimately ends up with that limited good. That said, the power still lies with the restaurant -- if they are really against this practice, they are free to take measures against it, such as check their diner's IDs. Or, perhaps they can recognize the existence of this market and capitalize on it by setting aside a few tables that are "biddable." The Little Owl already does the converse today -- every night, at least three tables are set aside for walk-in customers, with the rationale that this practice maintains the "neighborhood" feel of the restaurant. So, it doesn't seem like a huge stretch to allow for some reservations to be bought and sold as well.