Looking to squelch revenue draining no-shows, and cultivate customer relations, upscale restaurants in the North Bay are moving away from traditional online reservation platforms to a system, where dinners are paid for in advance, much like tickets to a ballgame or concert.

Developers of Tock say the system makes no-shows a rarity. Some restaurant owners say it is more flexible and hospitality industry friendly.

The system is even gaining ground with wineries, where no-shows for tastings can run 30 to 40 percent.

Restaurants that have embraced Tock include St. Helena’s Restaurant at Meadowood, Single Thread in Healdsburg, and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, in Yountville. Keller is also an investor in the system.

Chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife Katina opened Single Thread in December, 2016, and said Tock was the only reservation system they considered.

The restaurant serves an 11-course meal, tailored to guests preferences. The 3-1/2 hour dining experience begins on the rooftop garden for aperitifs and first courses. Guests then proceed downstairs to the main dining room for the rest of the meal.

Reservations at Single Thread cost $293 per person. The price includes service and tip but does not include beverages. Those options include a non-alcoholic pairing for $98 per person, a wine pairing for $202, or the reserve pairing for $385 per person. Those who don’t want to commit ahead of time can opt to speak to the sommelier upon arrival.

The restaurant holds 55 for a one-time seating, and a no-show party of four would put a sizeable dent in the evening’s revenue, Connaughton said. With Tock, if a guest needs to cancel a reservation they can give it to a friend, or the restaurant can access its waiting list. But because the meal is already paid for, there is no financial loss for that reservation.

“It’s very, very, very rare that a guest cancels at the last minute and a ticket gets unused. If they do, it’s like having tickets to a concert. The band plays on without you,” Connaughton said.

While for the restaurant there’s very little risk or downside to the prepaid system, feedback from guests has also been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

“Our clientele understands the booking is like for a concert. It’s a different dining experience, not just ‘I’m here, feed me,’” Connaughton said.

Tock is more than just a means of securing payment, however. It is a means by which an establishment can build a relationship with the guest before they arrive.

Single Thread’s booking department reaches out to guests about dietary requests and restrictions, allergies, and any special celebrations. Staff also engages with guests in concierge services, providing information on wineries, hotels, other restaurants, and other things to see and do in the area.

“It all builds a positive expectation before the guest arrives,” Connaughton said.

Another advantage is that the least enjoyable part of the meal — paying for it — is already done.

“It takes away the transactional part of the stay. You just arrive, enjoy the experience, and get up and leave like you’re coming to our home for a dinner party versus (the guest thinking) the goal is for us to take your money,” Connaughton said.

With a secure number of reservations, restaurants also run more efficiently and waste less food.

“The magic of Tock is it allows restaurants to sell what they are actually producing,” said restaurateur Nick Kokonas, Tock co-founder.

Kokonas started using the system at his three Michelin stars restaurant Alinea in 2011, and launched it world-wide in 2014.

Based in Chicago, Tock was founded by Kokonas, Brian Fitzpatrick, a former Google engineer, and former French Laundry chef Grant Achatz.

With zero dollars spent on marketing or sales, the system is currently used by 150 restaurants in 44 cities and 14 countries, and it has processed 15 million reservations.

Restaurants that use Tock are not all high-end. Prices for meals range from $18–$800, Kokonas said. Not all require any prepayment, and some require deposits that are applied to the meal price.

Others, like Vignette Pizzeria in Sebastopol, which only requires reservations for large parties, use the system for special events, which precludes having to use a separate system like Eventbrite. Special events can be posted on the same webpage so that when making a dinner reservation, guests can readily opt for another experience at the establishment. The cloud-based system can also run operations reports.

“It’s by far the most comprehensive reservation system,” Kokonas said, adding he created the system because he couldn’t find one that was “elegant to use and beautiful to look at.”

Kokonas says that industry giant OpenTable retains customer information, while with Tock, information stays with the restaurant. OpenTable also charges for installation, which Tock does not.

But Tock is not for everybody.

Terri Stark and her husband Mark own and operate six of what she calls casual-upscale restaurants in Sonoma County, including Monti’s Rotisserie and Bird & The Bottle. Last year, they switched from OpenTable to another standard reservation system called Reserve, as OpenTable’s fees were too high, she said.

About 10 percent of Stark’s restaurants’ reservations are no-shows, but Tock’s prepaid system is not right for their venues, she said, as “no one would come.”

“It’s definitely not something we would ever do. It’s not like a hotel reservation, it’s more fluid. Peoples’ plans change, they get sick… I understand that for restaurants with super-high end per person cost, a no-show of four could really impact your evening. We can fill it in with walk-ins,” she said.

Besides restaurants, Tock is currently pursuing another niche for the system; wineries. With a high rate of tasting reservation no-shows, there is growing interest in the North Bay, Kokonas said.

“At a certain time last year we had a tremendous amount of no-shows,” said Ryan Ruhl, director of retail sales at Darioush winery in Napa.

As a result, the winery started collecting credit card numbers for reservations and charging for no-shows.

“It was a tremendous amount of work for our team, and we were concerned about security,” he said.

Darioush rolled out the Tock system in late April for a new estate dinner series for which guests pre-paid. The response was “absolutely fantastic,” Ruhl said, and in the coming weeks the winery will expand the service to the rest of its hospitality experiences.

Like Connaughton, Ruhl appreciates the flexibility of the system, and the opportunity to get to know the guest before hand and offer other concierge services.

Not having to take reservations by phone will also allow the concierge team to focus on what Ruhl called the winery’s “high-touch, customized style of hospitality.”

“They (Tock) have a similar approach to hospitality that we do. And they are super-fast in answering any questions, needs or desires we have,” Ruhl said. “We’re kind of in love with these guys.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.