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Vancouver’s Cacao is a small, 25-seat, pan-Latin restaurant that specializes in modernist cuisine made with weird and wild ingredients – things like ant salt, seaweed foam and mole made with a 50-year-old starter. And now, as one of the new Canadian clients of Tock, a reservation software company co-founded by Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas (Alinea, Next, Roister, Aviary), it offers a booking system as innovative as its food.

Customers coming for the $85 tasting menus must pay upfront when booking online, the same way they would for a theatre performance, concert or hockey game. Those dining à la carte are charged a $10 deposit. Both types of payments are non-refundable, but can be transferred to another night with 24 hours’ notice. Many restaurant owners love the concept, but some industry insiders are skeptical that diners will be willing to change their habits.

“Imagine you’re going to a restaurant for the first time and you’re asked to pony up $150 before even stepping through the door,” says Alex Fraser, vice-president of western operations for the 15 Group, a hospitality management and consulting company. “I’m not sure how many restaurants in Canada would want that to be someone’s first interaction with the brand. From a service perspective, you haven’t done anything for the customer except guarantee a table.”

Cacao co-owner Jefferson Alvarez says the practice of asking diners to pay for their seats in advance makes sense for a small-volume, chef-driven restaurant like his, where one or two tables of no-shows (customers who don’t bother cancelling) can turn a profitable night into a loss.

“It’s definitely keeping the non-committed diners away and I don’t mind,” says Mr. Alvarez, who estimates that before implementing the Tock system in February, his weekly rate of no-shows was 30 per cent to 50 per cent (the industry average is 10 per cent to 15 per cent). Since he began asking for prepayments and deposits, his nightly seating numbers have remained consistent, but the no-shows have dropped to zero.

“We know how many customers to expect – only about 10 per cent are walk-ins,” he says. “We know how many people we need on staff, how many people will be drinking the wine pairings and how much food we need to buy. We try to be a no-waste restaurant and it helps reduce that too.”

Imagine you’re going to a restaurant for the first time and you’re asked to pony up $150 before even stepping through the door

Alex Fraser

When Tock launched amid much hype in 2015, the company focused on high-demand, Michelin-star-rated restaurants similar to Mr. Kokonas’s Next, which offers a new themed menu every few months and has been using a prepaid ticketing system since it opened in 2011. Early Tock adopters included London’s the Clove Club, San Francisco’s Coi, Napa Valley’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se (Thomas Keller, chef-owner of the latter two, was also an investor, along with former Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo and venture capitalist Kimbal Musk). Tock includes a detailed customer-service management system that keeps records of previous visits and tracks things such as dietary restrictions, mobility issues and whether a diner is left-handed.

But now that the company is growing worldwide – at the rate of one to two new partners a day, with approximately 330 in total – it is marketing to more casual operators such as Cacao, along with wineries, pop-ups, bars and breweries.

In Canada, where there are nine active partners, most are small, experiential, tasting-menu restaurants like Edmonton’s The Alder Room, which was the first to sign up around this time last year. Some, like Victoria’s Nourish Kitchen & Café and Vancouver’s Tempranillo, use the web-based software system for traditional (zero-deposit) reservations, relying on prepayments only for special events. Toronto’s Alo, with its high-priced tasting menus and forever-long waiting lists, is the only traditional, five-star restaurant in the Canadian Tock roster.

Patrick Kriss, chef-owner of Toronto’s Alo, which charges a $50 deposit for the dining room tasting menu and fully paid, $150 tickets for the more exclusive kitchen counter, says he’s had far fewer customer complaints – and none regarding prepayments – since transitioning to Tock last December.

The dining room of Alo restaurant in Toronto in 2015.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

“Previously, it was a disaster and it was our fault. We took too many types of reservations – phone, e-mail and OpenTable. We’d open 30 days out and would have four or five people in the office doing e-mails and taking calls. They were getting screamed at. We’d have 50 people on hold and seats were being filled before we could even speak to anyone. How are you supposed to manage that? Now we just use Tock and it’s much more streamlined.”

For all its advantages, Mr. Kriss and other restaurateurs still can’t see Tock taking over the online reservation industry or going head-to-head with OpenTable, the online-reservation industry leader, which counts more than 45,000 restaurant partners in 20-plus countries.

“It’s very hard to break that network,” says Brandon Grossutti, owner of Pidgin Restaurant in Vancouver, which has been plagued by no-shows, but still doesn’t see Tock working for a medium-sized (74-seat), primarily à la carte restaurant like his.

Mr. Grossutti isn’t opposed to leveraging demand for restaurant seats or penalizing customers for their “frivolous” approach to making reservations. As a more practical solution, he points to DINR, a Canadian mobile application that offers only same-day reservations, yet penalizes customers with a $30 credit-card charge if they don’t show up.

“If OpenTable did that, if they took a credit-card number for all the millions of diners in their network and charged for no-shows – I mean if they really showed they cared about restaurants, they could change the restaurant business overnight.”

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