Tuesday, March 28, 2017

TockTix and The French Laundry Reservation We Never Got

As you'll note from previous posts that I've written as well as the food blog that we don't really update much anymore, my wife and I enjoy food and dining. Leading up to her birthday this year, she had one simple idea for what she wanted -- for us to share a dinner at The French Laundry.

The French Laundry holds a special position of royalty in the food pantheon, one of those places we revere and, even as restaurant ratings change and prestige hops from one establishment to the next, it remains a benchmark for once-in-a-lifetime dining. We've never been there, but we've seen glimpses of the food in film and video, tasted approximations in dishes we made from the cookbook.

As one of the world's greatest restaurants, The French Laundry has always been difficult to get reservations at, and that's been true since well before the first time my wife and I went to Napa together in 2006 (before there was OpenTable and smart phones). And over the years, we've made a few casual attempts to get reservations, but never anything to concerted as the actual prospect of getting reservations, combined with a window of opportunity to go, seemed unlikely.

The Plan is Made
Once we decided that we would try to do The French Laundry for my wife's birthday dinner, I needed to prepare the support logistics. After an epic meal with wine pairings, nobody has any business driving, so you need to stay in close proximity to the restaurant, so I booked a hotel in Yountville. And, while the price for the hotel rooms seemed extremely high -- we even considered abandoning the Napa plan and heading for Hawaii -- we decided that it would be worth it. Additionally, since we were already going to be up there, it seemed worthwhile to book reservations at another restaurant on Friday night, the 28th. As we'd always wanted to try Redd (heard great things about it), that was the first place I checked -- and booked a reservation. Finally, my wife requested a couple's massage, so I tracked down a spa in Yountville for that -- and booked at the beginning of March. All that remained was to book our dinner at The French Laundry.

While I don't follow their site and I haven't ever successfully gotten a reservation there, I can say with some confidence that, for the longest time The French Laundry maintained a policy of taking reservations one month to the calendar date before the actual date -- as you'll note from this snapshot grabbed from the WayBack Machine.

This was the case until March 20 of this year. Why? Because while I planned and prepared to go on OpenTable and make a reservation at 12:01 on March 27 -- and I kept checking on The French Laundry website to verify that information; suddenly, on March 20. everything changed. On that day, preceded by one day's notice on their Twitter feed, The French Laundry rolled out a new ticketing system by Tock. And suddenly, reservations were open through June 30.

While this was probably a windfall for some seeking reservations, if you were like me and last visited The French Laundry site on say, March 19, you didn't know anything about it. And, if you were like me, you sat, thinking you were in the non-existent virtual line waiting for the reservation day opening to appear. Perhaps I should have called. Pestered the staff at the restaurant. Ah, hindsight perhaps. But it wasn't until Sunday evening, March 26, when I decided to visit the site again, thinking I would check on the Open Table portal, that I discovered the new ticketing system... and that all of the reservation opportunities were now gone.

Perhaps, I thought, I'm just missing something. Perhaps if I call the restaurant in the morning at 10:00am (as the web site used to say), I can speak with a human. Perhaps they can help me understand what's happening. Maybe they have some tables set aside for something special like my wife's birthday. And, having spent the night wracked with unpleasant French Laundry dreams, I got up, went to work, and called The French Laundry at 10:00am. Of course, the number doesn't do anything now except take you to an electronic message detailing the new reservation system.

#FAIL -- Suprises in Queueing are a Recipe for Customer Frustration
You don't have to be an expert in queue theory to know that people in a queue don't like surprises. Imaging if the window for taking food orders has a long line and then, suddenly, that window closes and another window opens up on the other side of the building. Without careful line management, the odds are unlikely that the people who were nearest the front of the line will find themselves near the front of the line at the new window. And there will be much frustration.

But it doesn't have to be that way. With careful queue management, a business can exert control over the line, manage the changes, and maintain customer satisfaction (like the clerk who comes to get the next person in line). It's not difficult for a business to do this, it's just that customer satisfaction and customer experience must be a consideration for the business.

And that's why, as I wrote on Twitter, it's surprising that The French Laundry would be so haphazard with their roll-out of this new ticketing system. Surely, The French Laundry, the restaurant that lands the plates of diners with such precisely timed synchronization, would be the pinnacle of customer awareness. Sadly, it looks as though all of that careful attention to detail and customer experience only happens in the dining room. It certainly didn't carry over to the roll-out of this ticketing system.

Consider the timeline as I can backdate it from news and communication reports.
  • March 19, 2017 -- @_TFL_ announces the new ticketing system on their Twitter feed
  • March 20, 2017 -- Local news outlets, SFGate and NBC Bay Area pick up the story
  • March 23, 2017 -- Wine Spectator does a piece on the new ticketing system
  • March 24, 2017 -- Food and Wine piece notes all reservations through June 30 are booked
Remember, as of March 19, The French Laundry web site still said you need to wait until the calendar day one month ahead. So, when did they decide on this system? It's hard for me to believe that they just found it and decided to activate it on March 19. Wouldn't it have been a bit more customer-friendly to provide some sort of transition -- say 30 days notice -- before rolling out the new ticketing system?

What's up with TockTix?
Fundamentally, the difference between the Open Table system and the TockTix system is that users must essentially purchase their spot at the restaurant -- their experience -- at the time of booking. The strategy behind this, from the restaurant's perspective, is to prevent no-shows.

When I first encountered the Tocktix system on Sunday night, March 26, I had a number of reactions. My initial reaction was, what happened to the old reservations screen? Initially, I thought that perhaps this was the result of the opening of a new window of bookings for April 27th, and I was excited to see a booking time/interface. Of course, that was not the case.

Here's an example (taken today) of the Tocktix interface.

Initially, I think I accidentally tried to make a reservation on March 27 because I actually thought it was just the opening of the calendar month window interface. What I didn't see was that this was further down the screen.
Instead, when I clicked the date, the calendar interface was gone. Same result, sort of, but up until this point, I thought I was making progress. So I clicked on "Add Me to the Wait List."

It was at this moment that I realized that things were unfolding badly for me. I went ahead and added my name to the wait list. At the same time, I was extremely frustrated that I couldn't add anything, no notes or comments, to clarify that this wasn't just any day, that it was my wife's birthday. Sure, I could add us to a wait list a week later, but that day wouldn't be anywhere nearly as important as the first day that I signed up for.

Since that time, I've also realized that there are other issues with the TockTix waiting line system.
  1. I can't tell what position in line that I am.
  2. I can't drop my listing from the wait list, like if say, we decided to cancel the entire trip to Yountville and go somewhere else.
  3. I get no sense of movement or updates from the list. I don't even get an initial confirmation email confirming my place in line. What if all of the other "people" in front of me are ticketing bots?
Needless to say, I my frustration with the entire experience hasn't dissipated.

Prospective Customers and The French Laundry
As a business, The French Laundry doesn't have to care about potential customers in the queue in the same way that some businesses do. As long as they have limited seats and a consistent parade of butts in the seats, and as long as they deliver a premium, desirable experience to them, they don't really need to care about the people in line. If I get frustrated or you get frustrated, who cares. It won't stop the guy behind you from happily filling a seat, given the opportunity. And maybe you're so frustrated that you write a review on Yelp, but you haven't even been there, so your complaints are hollow. In short, even if you say, "they suck," it's pretty unlikely that you're voice will be heard over the din of oohs and ahs from people who have been there. In the end, it doesn't matter. The French Laundry brand will transcend your unhappiness. They don't need you.

For me, this whole experience diminished the brand. Ultimately, that won't matter to you, the next guy in line, or probably anyone considering going to the restaurant.

And so you're probably thinking that, if they called me today and said, we've got a table for you and your wife, I would change my tune. To that, I'd say, you're probably right about going -- we still haven't canceled all of our Yountville plans yet. And at the same time, The French Laundry brand will never hold the same elevated benchmark status for me as it once did. And I think it's unlikely that I ever will go there. I certainly won't pursue reservations or try to get into the line again.