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

Some blame informal swapping sites and online bidding services, but insiders say the answer is more complicated.
Reservations at several restaurants in Tampa Bay, including Bern's Steak House, have become increasingly hard to get. Some blame informal swapping sites and online bidding services, but insiders say the answer is more complicated.
Reservations at several restaurants in Tampa Bay, including Bern's Steak House, have become increasingly hard to get. Some blame informal swapping sites and online bidding services, but insiders say the answer is more complicated. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Nov. 3

TAMPA — Every fall, Jenny Carey secures her family’s holiday reservations. They celebrate Christmas Eve with dinner at Bern’s Steak House, an annual tradition more than a decade in the making.

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

“The reservations were gone in 60 seconds,” she said.

Anyone who has tried snagging last-minute or even regular reservations at Bern’s knows the Tampa steakhouse has the hardest, if not 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, though, reservations have been going faster than usual — sometimes within minutes — prompting longtime regulars like Carey to question who, exactly, is snatching up the coveted tables.

Now, a website allowing patrons to bid on reservations and a local Facebook group that lets diners trade tables are creating alternative avenues for those looking to secure seats at the South Tampa restaurant and other hard-to-get spots. And not everyone is happy about it.

Local radio station WiLD 94.1 first reported on the website Appointment Trader on Oct. 19, noting that the service was allowing prospective restaurant goers to place bids on reservations at some of the world’s most celebrated restaurants, including Bern’s. News of the site spread quickly on social media, igniting a firestorm of comments from Tampa Bay residents and Bern’s loyalists who feared the service had been taken over by bots, effectively rigging the game for other diners trying to secure reservations the old-fashioned way.

But Bern’s owner David Laxer said the panic appears to be premature.

“I would definitely say it was blown out of proportion,” Laxer said.

Since learning their restaurant was listed on the trading site, Laxer said his team has been monitoring reservations. So far, there’s been nothing to indicate that reservations are being snatched up with the intent to sell or that tables are being booked under one name and later transferred to another.

The dining rooms at Bern's Steak House are still not at full capacity, and the restaurant is now closed on Mondays, which could be contributing to the increased demand for reservations.
The dining rooms at Bern's Steak House are still not at full capacity, and the restaurant is now closed on Mondays, which could be contributing to the increased demand for reservations. [ Times ]

Laxer said he’s been in contact with OpenTable, the online reservation platform used by the restaurant. A spokesperson from OpenTable confirmed they were investigating the matter and said that as part of the company’s terms of use, resale of reservations or waitlist spots is prohibited.

But Appointment Trader isn’t using OpenTable or any other online reservation system to sell reservations, something founder Jonas Frey said has kept reservation platforms from being able to shut him down.

Instead, Appointment Trader uses an algorithm to determine the popularity of a certain reservation on any given night. Using that score, the program then assigns a value to the reservation, which prospective diners can bid on using the website. For example, on a Monday afternoon, a table for the following weekend at Bern’s might go for $170, while a table for a Tuesday or Wednesday the next week might start at $75. Once a bid has been placed, a corresponding group of “sellers” can offer up 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 back in July 2021 for people looking to swap 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 at some of the world’s most sought-after spots, including Carbone New York and Delilah in Las Vegas. As of now, Frey said the success rate is roughly 30 percent, meaning three out of 10 people who use the site are able to secure a reservation.

So far, Appointment Trader hasn’t been a huge success in Tampa Bay. During the past six months, only five people managed to get a reservation at Bern’s through the website, Frey said. But now that more people know about the service, it appears to be gaining traction. Twenty bids totaling $2,260 were placed within the past 90 days, 95% of which were placed within the last week, following the publication of WiLD 94.1′s article.

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

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

Frey admitted his website isn’t exactly leveling the playing field for prospective restaurant goers so much as it is allowing those who can afford to pay more to get reservations that would have gone to others. He said the website installs safeguards to discourage scalping, including limiting the number of reservations a seller can offer at one time.

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

The page now has more than 1,500 members and is very active, with posts from members multiple times a week, often several times a day.

“It was literally word of mouth stuff,” Jacobs said. “Everybody just flocked to that page.”

There are rules: Only posts pertaining to Bern’s 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 been no-shows, she said.

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

“Unless we get into a massive market downturn, I think there’s always going to be more demand than supply,” she said.

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

The fact that Appointment Trader and the MOSTly Bern’s Facebook group exist is indicative of a big shift in restaurant reservations, which are soaring at restaurants across the country, including the Tampa Bay area.

Reservations for a weekend table at the celebrated Italian restaurant Rocca book up two months in advance, often within the first few days of posting. At the upscale Japanese restaurant Koya, reservations are listed a month in advance and usually book up within hours on the same day. And at the new fine dining restaurant Lilac at the Edition hotel, reservations are listed 30 days in advance and currently show no available tables for the next month.

Some have attributed the current reservation craze to Tampa Bay’s sudden population boom. And local restaurants did experience a post-vaccine surge of diners who returned to eating out after the early phases of the pandemic.

But there are other factors contributing to the reservation clog, Laxer said.

In March, facing an ongoing labor supply shortage, Bern’s began closing on Mondays, meaning diners had one less day to find a reservation at the restaurant. And the Bern’s dining room still isn’t at full capacity, a pandemic holdover Laxer said his team has kept on by choice: Not all diners are comfortable eating in close quarters just yet, he said.

Part of the reservation problem can be attributed to diner behavior, too.

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

“When people no-show at reservations it’s extremely hurtful for the restaurant,” he said.

Bonsack recently renovated his Tampa Heights eatery to include more seating, something he hopes will help make it easier to get a table. The restaurant now seats 155 people, up from 118. Rocca reservations are also listed on Appointment Trader, something Bonsack said he was “blissfully unaware of” until recently. He said he would be “extremely furious and disappointed” to find out tables were being sold.

“I am making a deep dive on our end to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Though restaurant reservations might be harder to come by right now, there are some hacks.

Restaurants that don’t take reservations are usually easier to get into, 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 of getting in. Most restaurants, including Bern’s and Rocca, don’t take reservations for the bar, leaving those seats open for walk-ins. And just calling the restaurant and making a reservation by phone can often garner better results than trying to navigate the online platforms, Bonsack said.

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

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

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