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Maitre d' Is Watching

The online restaurant reservation service Open Table (www.opentable.com) has been around for a decade now, and in Richmond for a couple of years. Lately, a few more independents here have signed up for the table management software, and they say it's a sign that Richmond is becoming a destination-dining market.

"I looked at bigger cities," says 1 North Belmont chef/owner Frits Huntjens, "and about 450 restaurants use Open Table in D.C. -- are they all wrong? I talked to people at the Jefferson Hotel and they love it, and that's what encouraged me to do it."

For a setup fee and a monthly rate, restaurants get a 24/7 reservation system that allows customers to book tables. If you need a quiet table, VIP treatment to impress a guest or some other whim, the computer can convey that desire.

On the other end, owners can track how quickly tables turn and how to make their restaurants busier and more efficient. Restaurant staff can also add as much detail to the online files as they choose: what customers ordered, which wine or server or dish they liked, birthdays, food allergies, dining needs, spending histories.

"These simple things are actually valuable," Huntjens says, "and I keep the book up all the time so the guys in the kitchen can see who's here and what they need and like. If you had to do this manually, you wouldn't possibly have time."

Jay Comfort, new owner of The Ironhorse in Ashland, agrees. He's been on the Open Table system there for 90 days. "We have elected to put a lot of eggs in that basket," he says of the restaurant's marketing resources. "As much as you put in is how versatile it is. It gives us a Web presence with bona fide, active restaurant users. We get travelers, and it's not limited to the young and tech-savvy. And it allows us to manage our internal marketing for a reasonable cost."

Because Richmond is considered an emerging market, the set-up and maintenance fees are lower than those in larger cities: about $800 for a hard drive and monitor and a monthly percentage based on diner use.

Sixteen local restaurants are on the system now, including Bank, Bottega Bistro, Hondos, Sensi Italian Chop House, The Boathouse and a handful of upscale national chains. "Join the industry superstars," the Open Table online pitch goes, and "build robust diner databases for superior guest recognition and targeted email marketing. … Every guest becomes a permanent part of your database. Now you can leverage your own data to generate valuable reports or create revenue-driving marketing programs."

Owners can track a diner's cancellation and no-show history, phone, e-mail and credit-card information, even details such as private seating for a rendezvous. Not everyone loves to be managed in such a way, and the Chowhound message boards burst with complaints about "dropped" reservations or other problems. But Open Table has a legion of converts and significant clout in the industry — it's linked with media distribution partners that provide cross-promotion and visibility for restaurants and ease for diners who like the at-all-hours availability and the modest rewards program.

What was once a novelty when it started in San Francisco in 1998 seems to be a hospitality must-have. Even those diners who prefer to phone in their reservations the old fashioned way go through the Open Table software at the host stand. Is the maitre d' really the newest form of Big Brother? Restaurants don't want you to think so, but for many, your dining habits are now an open book.



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