Heron & Grey, the restaurant in Blackrock market that earned a Michelin star last October, is to start taking online bookings at 10am on Wednesday, March 1st, for reservations in September, October and November.
According to general manager and co-owner Andrew Heron, the reservations book for that period is "totally blank, except for one or two tables for family events". The restaurant will continue to open only for three dinner services a week, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, seating 22 guests each night.
Customers will be able to book for up to six guests, at either 7.30pm or 8.30pm, using Tock, the online restaurant reservations system devised by Nick Kokonas, co-owner of the Alinea restaurant group in Chicago, and former Google executive Brian Fitzpatrick.
Heron & Grey will be the third Irish restaurant to adopt Tock, following on from seasonal restaurant Mews in Baltimore, which used it last summer, and Fish Shop in Dublin, which introduced it recently. The system was used by Copenhagen restaurant Noma to sell seats at its Australia and Mexico pop-ups, processing $1.8 million in payments in 30 seconds for the Australia dates.
Initially Tock, which launched in 2015 and is used by restaurants in 36 cities in eight countries, treated restaurant reservations as “experiences” for which tickets had to be booked and paid for in advance. Now it has been adapted to accept bookings with no fee, or part-payment only. Heron & Grey will require €30 deposits from each diner, while Fish Shop takes no deposit on its €39 set menu.
The system, like its competitors OpenTable and ResDiary (the choice of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and Chapter One in Dublin, which both also accept telephone bookings), cuts down on no-shows and can also allow restaurants to build customer profiles so they can provide what Tock director of marketing Kyle Welter describes as "magical hospitality".
In other words, if you are a left-handed, vegetarian diner, with a birthday in July – chances are you’ll find your cultery in the position you prefer, menus tailored to your preferences, and candles on your birthday dinner dessert. Similarly, if you are a no-show, that too will be recorded. “Diner booking notes, guest notes, dietary restrictions and dining history” are some of the areas where restaurants can build profiles by using the system.
The attraction, for diners, is transparency in the booking system and a calendar of dates showing availability, nor not. According to Welter, Tock is working on other features that will appeal to diners, including online rescheduling, and sharing booking details with friends, and on social media.
In the UK, where Tock is used by restaurants including Gymkhana, Hoppers and Lyle’s, and in Ireland, the cost to the restaurant is £99 per month plus 99p per cover, or £495 per month unlimited covers (or euro equivalent).
The biggest advantage it offers heavily-booked restaurants is that it cuts down on reservation line staffing hours. Co-founder Kokonas has said his inspiration for the system came from hearing reservationists at Alinea repeatedly answering telephone lines with apologies for no reservations being available.
Heron & Grey received more than 3,000 reservation requests in the three days following the announcement of the Michelin awards last year. “We were completely inundated with calls, to the point that we knew that demand could not be fairly handled over the phone,” says Heron, who says that using an online reservation system as against taking telephone bookings will save the small team valuable time.
Robert Collender of Mews restaurant, which is gearing up for another season in Baltimore, Co Cork, says Tock appealed because of "its forward-thinking approach to restaurant reservations. We felt it suited our model quite well, in that we were marketing a set-price 'experience'."
The possible reduction in no-shows also appealed. “The cost of empty seats left by customers who had either cancelled their reservation with short notice or changed the number of diners in their party with little or no notice, was 15 per cent of our total turnover in the first year ... Something had to be done.”
But they also found that holidaymakers visiting the area often did not have easy access to the internet, and they also had to take reservations over the phone. For the coming season, “we will continuously refine our reservation system to suit our customers’ needs and in response to customer feedback,” he says.
Galway chef JP McMahon also trialled a ticketing system for his Michelin-starred Aniar restaurant, but abandoned it due to customer resistance. “People never really took up on the idea, even though we were offering a discount on a pre-paid dinner. It’s a difficult sell, I don’t know why,” he says.
For Heron & Grey, offering just 66 seats a week at its tables, online booking may be the way forward. The reservations that go on sale on March 1st will be for a choice of either a Forest & Field vegetarian menu at €58 or a Land & Sea menu at €63.