Why is it harder to get a restaurant reservation in Tampa Bay right now?

TAMPA — Every fall, Jenny Carey secures her family’s vacation reservations. They celebrate New Year’s Eve with dine at Bern’s Steak House, an annual tradition that has been in the making for more than a decade.

This year, Carey’s luck seems to have run out.

“Reservations disappeared in 60 seconds,” she said.

Anyone who’s tried to make last-minute or even regular reservations at Bern knows the Tampa steakhouse has the hardest time, otherwise the hardest tables to get in town. Reservations are offered on a rolling 60-day basis, with a new crop released daily at midnight.

Lately, however, reservations have been faster than usual – sometimes within minutes – which has long-time regulars like Carey wondering who, exactly, is grabbing coveted tables.

Now, a website allowing customers to bid on reservations and a local Facebook group that allows diners to swap tables are creating alternative avenues for those looking to secure seats at the South Tampa restaurant and other locations. difficult to obtain. And not everyone is happy about it.

Local radio station WiLD 94.1 first reported on the Appointment Trader website on October 19, noting that the service allowed potential customers to bid on reservations at some of the world’s most famous restaurants, including that of Bern. News of the site quickly spread on social media, sparking a storm of comments from Tampa Bay residents and Bern worshipers who feared the service had been taken over by bots, rigging the game for fellow diners trying to get reservations the old-fashioned way.

But Bern owner David Laxer said the panic seemed premature.

“I would definitely say that was overkill,” Laxer said.

Since learning their restaurant was listed on the shopping site, Laxer said his team has been monitoring reservations. So far there is no indication that reservations are being taken with the intent to sell or that tables are being booked under one name and then transferred to another.

Dining rooms at Bern’s Steak House are still not at full capacity and the restaurant is now closed on Mondays, which could contribute to increased demand for reservations. [ Times ]

Laxer said he was in contact with OpenTable, the online reservation platform used by the restaurant. A spokesperson for OpenTable confirmed they were investigating the matter and said that under the company’s terms of service, the resale of reservations or waitlisted places is prohibited.

But Appointment Trader does not use OpenTable or any other online reservation system to sell reservations, which founder Jonas Frey said prevented reservation platforms from being able to shut it down.

Instead, Appointment Trader uses an algorithm to determine the popularity of a certain reservation on a given night. Using this score, the program then assigns a value to the booking, which potential customers can bid on using the website. For example, on a Monday afternoon, a table for the following weekend at Bern might cost $170, while a table for a Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week might start at $75. Once a bid has been placed, a corresponding group of “sellers” can offer reservations to the highest bidder.

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Frey, who also co-founded the social networking app Levels, launched Appointment Trader in Las Vegas in July 2021 for people looking to trade and sell appointments at the Department of Motor Vehicles during the pandemic. The service quickly evolved to focus on restaurants and hotels, listing hard-to-get seats in some of the world’s most sought-after locations, including Carbone New York and Delilah in Las Vegas. Currently, Frey said the success rate is around 30%, which means three out of 10 people who use the site are able to secure a reservation.

So far, Appointment Trader hasn’t been a huge hit in Tampa Bay. In the past six months, only five people have managed to get a reservation at Bern through the website, Frey said. But now that more people are aware of the service, it seems to be gaining traction. Twenty bids totaling $2,260 have been placed in the past 90 days, with 95% of them in the past week following the publication of WiLD 94.1.

Reservations for Koya, an eight-seat omakase-style restaurant, typically book up a month in advance within hours.
Reservations for Koya, an eight-seat omakase-style restaurant, typically book up a month in advance within hours. [ KEIR MAGOULAS | Photo courtesy of Keir Magoulas ]

Exchanging restaurant reservations for cash isn’t a new practice, but most Tampa Bay restaurateurs say it hasn’t yet created major problems for the local industry.

Frey admitted that his website doesn’t exactly level the playing field for would-be restaurant goers, but allows those who can afford to pay more to secure reservations that would have gone to others. He said the website installs safeguards to discourage scalping, including limiting the number of bookings a seller can offer at one time.

There are also informal commercial spaces that offer restaurant patrons a place to exchange reservations at no cost. Dana Jacobs started the MOSTly Berns Reservations Facebook group in March 2022 after noticing a trend on the Moms of South Tampa group. People were increasingly canceling reservations at Bern and offering them for exchange on the website, enough that Jacobs figured the exchange could use its own page.

The page now has over 1,500 members and is very active, with members posting several times a week, often several times a day.

“It was literally word of mouth,” Jacobs said. “Everyone flocked to this page.”

There are rules: Only posts about Bern reservations are allowed, users can’t exchange money for reservations, and, “if you don’t show up for your reservation, we’ll kick you out,” Jacobs said. Since March, only two people have failed to show up, she said.

Despite the page’s success, it’s still a seller’s market: Jacobs said those looking to transfer restaurant reservations are the most successful.

“Unless we go into a massive market downturn, I think there will always be more demand than supply,” she said.

The Italian restaurant Rocca is one of the hardest tables to get in town and recently underwent renovations to increase dining capacity.
The Italian restaurant Rocca is one of the hardest tables to get in town and recently underwent renovations to increase dining capacity. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

The fact that Appointment Trader and the MOSTly Bern Facebook group exist indicates a big shift in restaurant reservations, which are skyrocketing at restaurants across the country, including the Tampa Bay area.

Reservations for a weekend table at the famous Italian restaurant Rocca book up two months in advance, often within the first few days of publication. At the upscale Japanese restaurant Koya, reservations are taken a month in advance and are usually made within a few hours of the same day. And at the Edition Hotel’s new gourmet restaurant Lilac, reservations are taken 30 days in advance and currently show no tables available for the following month.

Some have attributed the current reservation craze to Tampa Bay’s sudden population boom. And local restaurants have seen a post-vaccination surge of diners returning to eat out after the early stages of the pandemic.

But there are other factors contributing to stalled bookings, Laxer said.

In March, faced with an ongoing labor shortage, Bern began closing on Mondays, meaning diners had one less day to find a restaurant reservation. And Bern’s dining hall is still not at full capacity, a remnant of the pandemic.

Part of the reservation problem can also be attributed to customer behavior.

“It’s no secret that people make a bunch of reservations at a bunch of restaurants and then cancel them when deciding where they want to eat,” said Bryce Bonsack, owner of Rocca.

“When people don’t show up for reservations, it’s extremely hurtful to the restaurant,” he said.

Bonsack recently remodeled his Tampa Heights restaurant to include more seating, which he hopes will make it easier to get a table. The restaurant can now accommodate 155 people, compared to 118 previously. Rocca’s bookings are also listed on Appointment Trader, something Bonsack said he was “blindly unaware of” until recently. He said he would be “extremely furious and disappointed” to hear that tables were being sold.

“I’m doing a deep dive on our side to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Although restaurant reservations may be harder to come by right now, there are a few hacks.

Restaurants that don’t take reservations are usually easier to find, provided you show up early. And for restaurants that are already booked, showing up at times when other diners usually don’t — around 4:30 p.m. or after 9 p.m. — is a good way to get in. Most restaurants, including Bern’s and Rocca, don’t take reservations for the bar, leaving those seats open for walk-in customers. And simply calling the restaurant and making a reservation over the phone can often yield better results than trying to navigate online platforms, Bonsack said.

Carey, whose family still hopes to snag that Christmas Eve table at Bern’s, said she was disheartened by the experience and unsure if she’ll have to find a new place to dine this year.

“There are a lot of great stories that have come with our traditions in Bern,” she said. “It wasn’t just a Christmas Eve venue, it was a neighborhood venue. And that dynamic seems different now.

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