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4. A robot must not scalp restaurant reservations
July 25, 2013 2:58 AM   Subscribe

If you find it impossible to make restaurant reservations online it might be because you're competing against bots. A developer explains how it works and just how common it might be in San Francisco.

Because the blog post offers actual code for writing the bots and some might object to this, it's important to understand that writing this type of bots is trivial, something that most coders can write in a moment or two.
posted by Foci for Analysis (65 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh man, I did get reservations at SBP soon after it opened. And now I know why I have never been able to get any since.

I hope there is no further bot war escalation but the owners, instead, try to do things differently. The problem of the over-subscribed restaurant is not a new one. Alternate solutions include:

1. El Bulli style
You request a reservation and you get chosen or not-chosen by some random or non-random method.

2. Noma style
Reservations are take once a month. The best way is by phone/constant redial. (Reservations are taken on-line but the server easily crashes.) I guess you could have phone-bots too but these require more effort.
posted by vacapinta at 3:27 AM on July 25, 2013


3. Put up prices.
Of course, this might not "work", depending on what you want to achieve. You might change your crowd to one you don't want, or lose ambience without a full restaurant. Lots of factors to consider.
posted by alasdair at 3:31 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why aren't they using captchas?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:36 AM on July 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Even the most infuriating complex captchas can be solved for like 0.00139 usd each, so I'm not sure it's even worth the effort anymore.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:58 AM on July 25, 2013


Why aren't they using captchas?

what incentive is there for either the restaurant or urbanspoon to do this? as long as the tables get filled, and the customers who get online reservations aren't all assholes or something, a bot-writer has money just as green as anyone else.
posted by russm at 4:00 AM on July 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


The correct solution is to require a short essay on preferred kitchen techniques. This way you can screen both bots and the insufficiently culinary.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:01 AM on July 25, 2013 [12 favorites]


The next step in the evolution of this is that someone cobbles together a site like getSBPreservations.com which runs one of these bots on anyone's behalf. Perhaps they slap ads on it or ask for a donation. That might get UrbanSpoon's attention...
posted by vacapinta at 4:09 AM on July 25, 2013


Even the most infuriating complex captchas can be solved for like 0.00139 usd each, so I'm not sure it's even worth the effort anymore.

unless the reservations are being made by someone who is then scalping them on, I'm assuming this is all individuals like the author of the article who a) want a reservation at somewhere popular, and b) have the skills to whip up something like this in 10 minutes. I suspect most of these people aren't going to hook into commercial captcha-breaking as part of their "fuckit I can script this" lunch break toy project.
posted by russm at 4:10 AM on July 25, 2013


I love food. This means that I'm bound to compete for reservations at good restaurants with the the hipsters that are native to San Francisco.

So here "hipsters" means "people who want do exactly the same thing I want to do"? And yet the writer is still not a hipster?
posted by ominous_paws at 4:24 AM on July 25, 2013 [20 favorites]


Someone on here once wrote "A hipster is someone who enjoys the things I do, but in ways I disapprove of". That might be one of the deepest things I've ever heard; I think of it often.
posted by Leon at 4:32 AM on July 25, 2013 [72 favorites]


They can stop the scalping quite easily with an online booking surcharge: take average cost of a meal to establish a baseline, and charge 5% per day in advance that the booking is placed (i.e. if you want to book a table 14 days in advance there's a booking fee of 70% of the average cost of a meal for that many people). Payable in advance, non-refundable, non-transferable, deducted from the bill when the diners arrive.

(i.e. If you're serious about making a reservation, you pay a chunk up-front and you get your table. If you're a scalping dot-com, you are screwed: you have a huge capital outflow if you want to monopolize those tables.)

Reason restaurants might go for this: it gives them a rolling line of credit from the serious diners, and it stops pissing off the ordinary punters.
posted by cstross at 4:32 AM on July 25, 2013 [12 favorites]


Revenge of the Foodie Nerds !
posted by lobstah at 4:35 AM on July 25, 2013


> Even the most infuriating complex captchas can be solved for like 0.00139 usd each, so I'm not sure it's even worth the effort anymore.

Third-party and automated CAPTCHA solving is not as useful when time is a factor in success. A reservation bot that solves CAPTCHAs will still be able to spam but won't be able to monopolize a restaurant's tables nearly as well as one that doesn't have to deal with it.

Part of the problem is that high-status restaurants want full tables and the sort of reputation that comes through word-of-mouth and some limited accessibility that fosters desirability and makes people work harder to try to get in. Reservation bots inadvertently give them what they want, so they're going to be disinclined to fight them.
posted by ardgedee at 4:36 AM on July 25, 2013


I don't know the mechanics of transferring reservations from one person to another, but I can only hope that there's a bunch of well-dressed people in expensive suits awkwardly introducing themselves to the maitre d' as "Mr. xHG54JKwfd543" while trying to look as nonchalant as possible.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:40 AM on July 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


Maybe Grant Achatz's ticketing system isn't looking so bad after all...
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:49 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


They can stop the scalping quite easily with an online booking surcharge

This was long before the days of online reservations, but I've seen fine restaurants in college towns require non-refundable deposits for reservations on graduation weekend, so the idea is not unprecedented.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:51 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


unless the reservations are being made by someone who is then scalping them on

That was the first question that came to my mind. I'm curious if this is a problem specific to tech-heavy San Francisco where a not-insignificant portion of the population has the skills to do something like this (and the desire to go to restaurants such as these), or if this is more like Ticketmaster scalpers. Not even sure how you resell a restaurant reservation, to be quite honest.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:10 AM on July 25, 2013


There exist random pronounceable string generators, you know.
posted by mkb at 5:23 AM on July 25, 2013


My guess is a concierge service that contracts out to nicer hotels and other resources of the upper class. It creates a multi-tier reservation system.

Such a service would, by booking up reservation slots weeks in advance, guarantee short-term table availability for their clients (who have more money). If no client wants a table in the next 24-48 hours, the system drops the table back to the Urban Spoon prole queue.

The restaurants would likely have no problem with this system because it enables people willing to spend the extra money to use the concierge service to get a table on short notice which would presumably bring in more people with a higher ability to spend. The resto might even have some kind of out-of-band communication system with the concierge service to notify them that their reservations are too aggressive / not aggressive enough.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:24 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe this isn't skilled individuals or scalpers but local tech companies snatching up all the reservations for entertaining potential investors or giving away as employee perks. There's certainly enough largess in the tech sector to support that kind of thing, and I wouldn't doubt that there's some bratty little startup out there taking pride in having gamed the reservation system for their own personal benefit.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:29 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Man, I went to San Francisco when I was a kid and I thought it was just about the coolest place on Earth. I think I will probably never go back again. I don't want to taint that memory.
posted by SkinnerSan at 5:37 AM on July 25, 2013


and the customers who get online reservations aren't all assholes or something

You mean the kind of people who would write a software bot to hoover up restaurant reservations the instant they become available?
posted by Naberius at 5:43 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are a few ways around this (we're locals, and this is stuff we do):

1) Don't go to places where reservations are so mandatory that they don't even have tables for walk-ins.

2) Go early. Like, loiter-on-the-sidewalk-cuz-they-ain't-open-yet early.

I dunno. Those work for us.
posted by rtha at 5:48 AM on July 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


ok, as long as they aren't assholes in person, at the restaurant.

(would you consider the author of that post an asshole? he wrote a bot to make reservations, but only because they weren't available any other way. or are you thinking of someone like seanmpuckett's concierge service?)
posted by russm at 5:48 AM on July 25, 2013


So.. the obvious solution is not to require a matching name for the reservation to the person showing up for the meal, verified by a DL or somesuch?

You make a reservation, you put down your name, not a corporate name, that name must be part of the party that shows up to eat.
posted by edgeways at 5:59 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


make restaurant reservations online

You know, Internet, in some ways you and I are very different people.
posted by DU at 6:06 AM on July 25, 2013


a popular board game cafe near us used to have online reservations: they were booked solid Th-Sun for months ahead. Maybe this was bots; maybe just enthusiastic patrons.

They've since scrapped the online reservations. You go in person, give a name, and then are told how long it will be for a table (maybe up to an hour - but that's not bad if you plan ahead).
posted by jb at 6:13 AM on July 25, 2013


Jean, I need a reservation at Dorsia. Do you know ... Ruby?
posted by adipocere at 6:22 AM on July 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've had restaurants require giving them a credit card number for a reservation, but they've never been charged ahead of time. As I am not one to no-show on a reservation, I assume they charge some nominal amount if you miss your seating.

Something like that would cut way down on mass reservation bookings if such a thing is actually happening. Require a credit card number with your online reservation, and limit the system to one reservation per card per night.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:24 AM on July 25, 2013


Some restaurants around here will charge you a hundred bucks if you don't cancel. Depending on what you were planning on spending there, this may or may not be nominal to you.
posted by rtha at 6:42 AM on July 25, 2013


You could do away with online reservations altogether. A phone call takes five minutes and I can do it while dusting the windows.
posted by The Whelk at 6:44 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


( speaking of which, I was taught that it was beyond the pale rude to not call and cancel a reservation if you couldn't make it, did other people get this drilled into them?)
posted by The Whelk at 6:45 AM on July 25, 2013


But...but...then I'd have to TALK TO A PERSON. On the PHONE. Which is like my most dreaded task in the world.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:06 AM on July 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


But...but...then I'd have to TALK TO A PERSON.

Maybe we need Moviephone for restaurants.

WELCOME TO FOODIEPHONE! PRESS ONE TO HEAR ABOUT RESTAURANTS IN YOUR AREA! PRESS TWO TO MAKE A RESERVATION! PRESS THREE IF THIS IS ALL TOO MUCH AND HAVE A LARGE CHEESE PIZZA DELIVERED TO YOUR HOME!
posted by backseatpilot at 7:14 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I motherfucking hate the fucking loathsome phone, most dreaded of all human interactions, but making a reservation is one of the most mechanical, ritualized interactions you can have on said sinister device. It's a script.
posted by The Whelk at 7:17 AM on July 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


PRESS THREE IF THIS IS ALL TOO MUCH AND HAVE A LARGE CHEESE PIZZA DELIVERED TO YOUR HOME!

you jest but this could be the next uber or facesnatch. i can do your logo+favicon for some stocks
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:26 AM on July 25, 2013


it's important to understand that writing this type of bots is trivial, something that most coders can write in a moment or two.

These phrases are incongruent. The fact that a "coder" can write something in two minutes doesn't make it trivial to do.

I hope there is no further bot war escalation but the owners, instead, try to do things differently.

Agreed. I'm not sure what the magic solution is, to the problem of thirty people vying for every seat in your restaurant on a given night, but it isn't to position your business for ticket scalping.
posted by cribcage at 7:27 AM on July 25, 2013


But...but...then I'd have to TALK TO A PERSON. On the PHONE. Which is like my most dreaded task in the world.

IF you are going to make a reservation, then online is DEFINITELY the way to do it.

But I understand there are even places that will serve food to people not wearing black ties. Downfall of civilization, I know, but we can enjoy the decadent ride while it lasts.
posted by DU at 7:28 AM on July 25, 2013


All these rubes in the pocket of Big Restaurant. I've lifehacked my own DIY MakerBot to cook and serve food for me! It only took me 450 hours to put it together, but now I can have a four-star meal on my own dining table that I salvaged from shipping pallets and the WaiterBot will even be surly to me if I want! In three months my urban farmstead will have enough beans that I can have cassoulet, and I spent all morning working on my paint-can-turned-ice cream churn so we can have dessert.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:37 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


But I understand there are even places that will serve food to people not wearing black ties.

Not sure what you mean by that, but here's a photo of the restaurant under discussion, State Bird Provisions.
posted by vacapinta at 7:50 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


These phrases are incongruent. The fact that a "coder" can write something in two minutes doesn't make it trivial to do.

From the perspective of coders, those phrases are redundant.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:54 AM on July 25, 2013


The Whelk: "( speaking of which, I was taught that it was beyond the pale rude to not call and cancel a reservation if you couldn't make it, did other people get this drilled into them?)"

My mother did in fact drill this into me. She came down to visit me at college and I made reservations at 3 places. She chose one and then stood over me while I called the other two to tell them our plans had changed.

Now, when I need to cancel, I call. I actually don't mind it now as most of the time I get a huge thank you for taking the time to call. I always tell them not to thank me, but if they want they can call my mom.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:59 AM on July 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm so not used to having to make reservations to get seats in a restaurant and I keep forgetting. Ten years ago, the foodie scene around here was pretty much non-existent and while restaurants were mediocre, you could always walk in and get a seat. Now we're getting a lot of really good places but I keep forgetting that you have to call at least a few hours ahead or you're not going to eat before 9:00. At least we're not in the "must get a reservation two weeks ahead" situation that you New Yorkers and Californians talk about.
posted by octothorpe at 8:04 AM on July 25, 2013


I have a wealthy friend who lives in SF. Whenever I am out to visit or for the brief period I lived there, he never had a problem with a reservation that a handshake with a couple of twenties didn't solve. I also saw him get a table at the French Laundry as a walk in.

His basic technique was to go in and say his name and he had a reservation for 7:30. They would look and say, "Sorry sir we do not see that reservation, are you sure it is for tonight?" "Yes I am sure, but maybe it was under my wife's maiden name?" "What name is that sir?" "Cash. Like Johnny Cash." Then he would simply pass along a $20 or two and our reservation would be honored. I felt like such a slimeball those times, but I did get paid for meals at wonderful places.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


Sometimes you can get a table in person simply by telling them the concierge at a nearby nice hotel sent you to them. Especially if you know that person's name. ;-)
posted by Goofyy at 8:49 AM on July 25, 2013


We once got a secluded table at a very busy and very well-regarded restaurant in Paris because they mis-heard my SO's last name and thought it was "Kennedy"
posted by The Whelk at 8:55 AM on July 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Heh. We have a friend with the same name as a local sports icon. He reports good results when he calls for reservations!
posted by rtha at 9:12 AM on July 25, 2013


RonButNotStupid: "awkwardly introducing themselves to the maitre d' as "Mr. xHG54JKwfd543" while trying to look as nonchalant as possible."

mkb: "There exist random pronounceable string generators, you know."

I have a reservation for Danger, Carlos Danger
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a business opportunity here to auction reservations off to the highest bidder.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:35 AM on July 25, 2013


So, ticket scalpers, but for dinner reservations.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:17 AM on July 25, 2013


Oh, don't worry, soulless entrepreneurial computer nerd who hasn't read a single work of fiction since freshman year of college with the exception of various Internet fanfictions and who thinks the "Summer of Love" is that new store with all the multi-colored polo shirts and ill-fitting khaki cargo shorts that just opened up next the Apple Store on Union, we hate you far, far more than you could ever hate us "hipster natives."
posted by Mooseli at 2:33 PM on July 25, 2013


Umm, Mooseli? W. T. F.???
posted by aspo at 2:47 PM on July 25, 2013


That's just a parody of the ridiculously ignorant "programmers are destroying SF" meme where tech is scapegoated for rising costs in the city.
posted by Llama-Lime at 2:57 PM on July 25, 2013


You've probably never heard of it.
posted by Llama-Lime at 2:59 PM on July 25, 2013


Our fanfic is getting wicked meta.
posted by rtha at 3:24 PM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dude that's my thing
(flashes AO3 gang signs)
posted by The Whelk at 3:27 PM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here in Salt Lake, I can usually get a reservation for any restaurant I want at any time of day. One of my favorites is a place called "Forage" run by a chef who moved here because he was sick of the Bay Area. Hmmm..
posted by pashdown at 4:35 PM on July 25, 2013


I don't need any computer bots to order food I can just get a pizza
Brought to me while I read Metafilter poolside at my pacific island
Resort holiday. Keep up the interesting discussion!
posted by Narrative_Historian at 7:55 PM on July 25, 2013


JohnnyGunn: "I have a wealthy friend who lives in SF. Whenever I am out to visit or for the brief period I lived there, he never had a problem with a reservation that a handshake with a couple of twenties didn't solve."

I just don't see how one could easily scalp reservations. If it were done, you'd think someone would have linked to their site by now.

It's San Fransciso, so perhaps the maitre d's side line of business is to nab the online reservations and sell them under the table in precisely this manner? If you own or manage a restaurant popular enough to have predictably long wait times or warrant reservations, I doubt you bother measuring things like reservation noshows. Or you could do it with management's approval as a tax dodge.
posted by pwnguin at 10:02 PM on July 25, 2013


Me, 24 hrs ago:
"The next step in the evolution of this is that someone cobbles together a site like getSBPreservations.com which runs one of these bots on anyone's behalf."

DiogoMonica on Twitter, 5 hrs ago:
"@justintopia hahah, I'm making a website that uses the bot on the backend so everyone can use it. I'll keep you posted :)"
posted by vacapinta at 3:04 AM on July 26, 2013


I just don't see how one could easily scalp reservations. If it were done, you'd think someone would have linked to their site by now.

Whose Table Is It, Anyway?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:44 AM on July 26, 2013


jacquilynne: "Whose Table Is It, Anyway?"

A defunct website and what looks to be a parked domain? Not exactly evidence in the affirmative here. My point is that people don't appear to be writing bots to sell reservations on the open market like StubHub, and yet the evidence, as presented by the author, is that the reservations consistently run out 1 minute after release to the public at 4am. That's a lot of reservations to scoop up and do something with before management notices an uptick in reservation no-shows.

The problem with black markets (well, gray in this case) is that you have to attract customer's attention without attracting the wrong kind of attention from newspapers, restaurant owners, etc. The only way I can see to solve it have restaurant staff / owners in on it. Concierge service is plausible. Hell, maybe the owners are faking reservations being full in the same way those penny auction sites run shill bidders. I mean, if you've got a line to be seated, holding a table for a reservation is probably a net drain on the business.
posted by pwnguin at 6:55 PM on July 26, 2013


I posted that mainly because it was several years old, to point out that this isn't a new idea, and some people have done it.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:01 PM on July 26, 2013


But if you can't do it right now, what's the purpose of a single entity scooping up reservations en masse?

A. Someone who has access to a lot of interested buyers
B. The premise is invalid; the rapid sellout is the result of a diffuse group of people who've retrained their wootoff scripts on reservation systems

Both seem possible. But I mean, with 49+ forks I have to admit that B is becoming the more plausible option.

And upon rereading the original article, I discover that only the choicest slots are taken at 4:01. So the answer may be

C. A set of really enthusiastic buyers, a percentage of whom are dedicated enough to set alarm clocks, or maaaybe script it.
posted by pwnguin at 7:18 PM on July 26, 2013


This is about one guy automating reservations at one restaurant--far from a trend piece. The real surprise for me is seeing a popular San Francisco restaurant that even takes online reservations! The actual (annoying) trend here seems to be super-popular spots that don't do reservations at all.
posted by phoenixy at 1:23 PM on July 27, 2013


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