Management Service + Hospitality

Flex Mode: The day OpenTable took control of the dining room, what came next, and how it could change restaurants

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Written by Eli Feldman

OpenTable sent out a press release on August 17, 2010 heralding the release of version 9.0 with ‘Flex Mode’. Flex Mode promised, amongst other things:

  • ‘to help our restaurant partners fill more seats, while taking the guesswork out of managing front-of-house operations’
  • ‘offer a more intuitive view of reservations across shifts’
  • ‘create a more thorough representation of table availability’

Flex mode did do many of these things but, as many restaurateurs have come to expect, these ‘improvements’ coincided with increased monthly billings. At that time, OpenTable was a publicly traded company and it’s primary responsibility was to shareholders. This is the way of the world so it’s hard to fault them. Something else happened on the relentless road to grow shareholder value. OpenTable began to take over control of the dining room, dehumanize the host/maitre ‘d role, and start restaurant reservations down a path to automation. A less euphemistic writing of the press release might have been:

  • ‘to generate more per cover fees by taking the human out of managing the door’
  • ‘offer a more algorithmic and formulaic reservation model to facilitate automation and generate more per cover fees’
  • ‘create a bigger and more thorough representation of table inventory to generate more per cover fees’

For those that are unfamiliar, OpenTable used to operate on a very static ‘slot mode’ from the restaurant’s perspective. A slot was essentially one table that could be reserved at one specific time. The only way to change a time or combine tables was for a host/manager/human to do it manually. Flex Mode is a much more dynamic system where pacing, reservation times, and table combinations can be set so the computer can more aggressively fill tables. All sounds good, right?

Automation is a reality of the modern world. In Nicholas Carr’s most recent book, The Glass Cage, he weighs the pros and cons (spoiler, he’s heavier on the con) of this automation. He writes extensively about the impact of automation on airline pilots, how piloting a plane has become more about watching and inputting information into the autopilot computer rather than actually flying. The upside is commercial flight has become safer. The slower and subtler downside is that pilots are less engaged in flying the plane and their skills are degrading. When something goes wrong and the autopilot gives control back to the pilot, they may be less capable to take the reigns.

Carr tells two stories of trade-off in aviation. The first is one of virtuosity and craft versus automation. The second is the trade-off between maneuverability and stability. Both are incredibly useful in understanding the impact of OpenTable’s move.

“Pilots have always defined themselves by the relationship to their craft….what is chiefly needed is skill, not machinery.” Wilbur Wright

Carr just as easily could have been writing about OpenTable Flex Mode and the impact it is having on the door of restaurants. Hosts, maitre ‘d, and managers have always piloted dining rooms. They’ve read their guests, the energy of the room, the second turn, etc.,to help guide seating. And yes, for much of the last 15+ years OpenTable has enhanced their ability to do this. Guest and reservation notes help restaurants tailor dining experiences to their guests and are a godsend for many who run doors.

A thoughtful host will seat an anxious 8:30 deuce ahead of the 8:15 couple who has a blossoming relationship with the bartender. The computer cannot pick up on that nuance. Before Flex Mode, OpenTable enhanced the host role by complimenting the uniquely human abilities required to run a service. With Flex Mode they are trying to replace the human being.

Of course Flex Mode does not prevent a host or maitre ‘d from seating whichever guest wherever they choose. The challenge is that once the computer has made it’s decision, it is cumbersome to change course. Many a host has been frustrated by the countless ‘are you sure’ warnings as they try to override the autopilot of Flex Mode. Carr’s second trade-off mirrors this quite well.

‘There’s a trade-off between maneuverability and stability. The greater a plane’s stability, the harder it becomes for the pilot to exert control over it….The more stable an aircraft is., the more effort will be required to move it off it’s equilibrium. Hence it will be less controllable. The opposite is also true–the more controllable, or maneuverable, an aircraft, the less stable it will.’

Carr goes on to say that Wilbur and Orville Wright believe a plane should be fundamentally unstable, like a bicycle. Most relevantly, they felt this instability would give the pilot ‘maximum freedom and autonomy to apply their skill’.

The Wright Brothers ultimately lost this debate and it would be hard to argue we aren’t all better off for it. Flight has become exponentially safer over the past 50 years and it has a lot to do with automation.

It is the loss of freedom and autonomy that is most worrisome when considering the impact of OT Flex Mode. Yes, that freedom can lead to mistakes and longer table waits, but it will not crash a plane or kill anyone. These mistakes often lead to learning and that learning keeps people engaged and enriched in their work. Most guests have encountered a disengaged host and it does not make for a great start to a meal. Remaining on the current course of semi-automation (there is no affordable robot who can find table 34 coming anytime soon) likely means we’ll all be experiencing this disengagement more frequently.

There are few professions that are not experiencing this debate between the stable automation offered by computers and the inherently less stable execution of humans. In many ways, restaurants are being brought, or occasionally dragged, to the table very late. It’s easy to chalk this up to technophobia or slim profit margins. Or maybe it is something deeper than that. Restaurants rely on friction to some extent and it seems the mission of software is to eliminate friction. In restaurants eliminating friction means eliminating people, or at least the things that keep those people engaged in their work. An engaged host or maitre d’ can take more chances and be more aggressive in an evenings service. An engaged host or maitre d’ cultivates relationships with guests.

There is absolutely a much greater role for technology in the future of restaurants. It’s imperative that restaurants continue to adopt technologies that help them improve profitability as that is the path to growth, job creation, and improved working conditions-shorter work weeks, higher pay and much more. For start-ups and technologists there is a huge incentive to build these products for such a massive and underserved industry.

The future of technology in restaurants is not of the OpenTable Flex Mode variety. That is to say it is not entirely algorithmic and designed to eliminate human roles. The better and more successful future for technology in restaurants is one of collaboration and co-creation with restaurants to enhance and compliment human capability.

About the author

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Eli Feldman

Eli Feldman is the founder of Three Princes Consulting and Clothbound and has worked in restaurants for over a decade. He is most excited about raising the dialogue around the hospitality industry. He often dances in the morning to start the day off right.