Alinea, Tock Owner Outlines Fine Dining's To-Go Pivot at FODC
"You have to face the world as it is, not as you wish it to be," said Nick Kokonas, founder of restaurant reservation system Tock and co-owner of Alinea Group. He kicked off the discussion today at the virtual Food On Demand Conference with Editor Tom Kaiser.
What is it like to run a restaurant reservations platform during a pandemic, Food On Demand Editor Tom Kaiser asked the founder of Tock to kick off today's virtual FOD conference. "It took work that was interesting, and made it important," replied Nick Kokonas in a pragmatic and hopeful discussion about third-party delivery and the survival of restaurants.
Kokonas launched Tock in 2015 as an "elevated" reservation service, added Tock To Go in March amid COVID-19 and in May raised $10 million from a Starbucks-backed venture fund to bolster the platform's effort to help fancy restaurants do takeout.
Tock had about 50 restaurant clients in Hong Kong, where early in 2020 "we saw reservations go near zero," he said. Seattle was next to be hit. "So we realized there would be risks in the United States."
Kokonas also co-owns the Alinea Group, starring Alinea, "Chicago's fine-dining mecca," as Kaiser called it, where meals cost $375 a pop, and four other restaurants, none of which did any carryout business in the past.
"We took the technology for Tock, which is cloud-based," and adapted it for to-go business. "We use data structures to maintain the proper pacing of the kitchen," he said. "A lot of the third-party delivery platforms don't have any sense of how a kitchen operates that's not a QSR."
They built a prototype for Tock To Go within six days. "Within the first week we had 50 restaurants using that, and now we have almost 5,000. I think in May alone we added 1,200 clients."
Among other features, Tock has a full CRM suite to collect customer information. "We feel very, very clearly the relationship between the diner and the restaurant is actually owned by the restaurant," he said, which he believes sets it apart from others in which the platform owns the data and the fee to restaurants can be 15 to 30 percent of the check. Tock charges a flat 3 percent fee. "It's been a lifeline and a bridge for many, many restaurants around the country," he said.
Kaiser asked Kokonas about the prediction that 25 to 30 percent of restaurants may close for good from the pandemic. "Obviously, I have no idea," Kokonas said, but he uses his own five restaurants as an example. "Two of them are doing pretty well; we're doing a pop-up on a rooftop. One of them is losing money every month because it's a high-volume restaurant that did 350 covers a night and now we're doing 70. So, a quarter of my own restaurants are losing money," and if that holds across the board the prediction may be accurate. "It depends on how long this lasts."
Kaiser cited a recent piece in Food & Wine, in which Kokonas wrote: Whatever people build is never as strong as the people themselves. "What gives you hope?" Kaiser asked.
"I think that the death of dining is highly overrated. When we have treatment for COVID or a vaccine, one of the first things people do is run out to their favorite restaurant," Kokonas said, citing the last pandemic in 1919. "If you can survive and build that bridge to the other side of this, we're going to see a boom like in the 1920s. 1920 to 1928, it was party time."
As cool and cold weather arrives in Chicago and elsewhere, Kokonas believes restaurant owners will need to continue to adapt. "My own restaurant did 32,000 carryout meals in May. It was our record revenue month ever," he said as an example. Then as summer came to Chicago and patios opened, the to-go operations were down 60 to 70 percent.
"I see a lot of restaurants being short-sighted. Once their patios got opened, they said, 'I'm done with to-go.' They called us and said we're going to shut off to-go, and I said no, no, no, no." The extra few thousand in revenue will be a lifesaver, and then when the weather gets bad, to-go will boom again. "Then we're going to build up our offerings for the holidays," he said. "You have to face the world as it is, not as you wish it to be."
The third annual Food On Demand Conference, presented for the first time this year in an all-virtual format, continues through 3 p.m. August 12 with presentations, an exhibit hall, polling features and Q&A offerings. Visit foodondemandnews.com for more information.