Why tickets are now on the menu at restaurants in North American cities.

Dining out is a favorite social pastime in San Francisco, to the point where people sometimes forget how much preparation and effort goes into creating meals for their pleasure. Yet even for those truly trendy restaurants, which book out months in advance on the reservation site OpenTable, customers who fail to show up can have a major impact.

That’s why it was so nice recently when I decided to have dinner at one of the hottest new restaurants in town, Lazy Bear. I literally waltzed in five minutes before my seating time and was shown right to my table.
lazy bear Menu

During the meal, a member of kitchen staff presented each dish on the 11-course tasting menu with an anecdote. The pastry chef’s cousin had just brought some matcha back from a trip to Japan, which is why I’m eating huckleberries and koshihikari rice with green koji and matcha chips dusted in matcha powder.

When the meal was all over I got up and left without ever taking out my wallet. No tip, tax, or check. Why? Because I’d purchased a ticket, much like I would have for a rock concert or ballet.

Ticketing systems at restaurants seem to be a growing trend in San Francisco. We can trace the story back to 2011, when Nick Kokonas launched a ticketing system at his Chicago restaurant Next, followed by Alinea in 2012.

On September 1, San Francisco’s two Michelin-star establishment, Coi, began using a version of the online ticketing system, followed by Lazy Bear, who rolled out tickets for their September 25 opening.

Curtain opens on tickets

Restaurant ticketing is much like buying tickets to a live performance, sporting event, or movie. You can do it online, and, at least for Lazy Bear, tickets are not refundable (but they are transferable).

This means patrons can sell their tickets to someone else if they can’t make it, but they are encouraged to do so at the same price or lower. Platforms on restaurant websites allow transferring the name on the reservation.

At Lazy Bear, the ticket price covers the full cost of a meal—tax and tip included—with beverage pairing available as an optional add-on. Coi has dynamic pricing, which varies depending on the reservation’s time and day. It is, for example, less expensive to dine before 6pm or after 9pm, and midweek is cheaper than weekend dining.

Coi restaurant ticket

To ticket or not to ticket

The ticketing trend is on the rise, some say, because it allows for better bottom-line and food waste management, and reduces the dreaded no-show rate.

TheAtlantic.com’s deputy editor Alexis Madrigal recently described the phenomenon as a step beyond convenience apps for reservation management and a way for restaurants to regain control over their tables.

A couple of weeks before I dined at Lazy Bear myself, I sat down with its chef David Barzelay to ask him about his decision to use ticketing.

“Before ticketing, when we were doing our pop-up restaurant, diners would have to submit a reservation request, and we would then use a lottery system to decide who would get a seat,” he says. “This just works better for us.”

Plus, ticketing asserts that only committed diners will come to try the restaurant’s food. It seems diners tend to think that with an online reservation, their seat will be reserved no matter what and therefore don’t consider that it would change anything whether they come or not.

But this one-way relationship doesn’t work on the restaurant’s end. In an email, San Francisco-based chef Iso Rabins makes the same reflection regarding his monthly Wild Kitchen dinners.

“I’ve been using tickets for about four years now… pretty early on we realized that folks who RSVP don’t always show up, and since we do [these dinners] only once a month, we couldn’t afford to have 10 out of 100 no-shows.”

Chef David at Lazy Bear admits he’s had “some complaints about the bugs in the system, but not the system itself.”

Tickets seem to be rather efficient. Lazy Bear’s opening night sold out within four minutes.

What about tickets on the black market? Just like one can find sold-out concert tickets for ridiculous prices, will a seat at a new restaurant cost thousands of dollars and be attainable only for the extremely wealthy foodies out there?

Maybe, but at least the restaurant will be compensated whether someone shows up or not.

Want to read more restaurant trends in the Bay Area, like booze trucks as the new food trucks? What about kissing tips goodbye?