Next Up in Fine Dining: Pay in Advance
(Corrects the age of the restaurant Alinea.)
Nick Kokonas got the idea for his new reservation system while listening to phones ring off the hook at his current bastion of haute cuisine, Chicago's Alinea. "If you sit in that room for a day, you'll think of it," Kokonas says. "All you have to do is hear Emily and Amanda say, 'Sorry, we're full. Sorry, we're full.'" Instead of paying reservationists to perform customer relations that were inadvertently "pissing customers off," Kokonas came up with a revolutionary concept: an entire restaurant that wouldn't piss anyone off. There would be no hounding for reservations, and no bill dropped at the end of the meal. Kokonas has now built that restaurant—and he's even figured out an algorithm to determine the price of dinner.
Next Restaurant, which opens this month in Chicago's hip West Town neighborhood, is his second collaboration with the 36-year-old star chef Grant Achatz. Their six-year-old Alinea is basically the best thing that's happened to the city since Oprah: It's one of only 93 restaurants in the world to have received three Michelin stars and is ranked seventh on S. Pellegrino's list of top restaurants worldwide. Unlike Alinea, where reservation strivers have to beg to sign up to take advantage of rare last-minute cancellations, Next sends people who want to eat there to its website. There they'll be asked to pay in advance for a nonrefundable meal ticket that includes food, drinks, tip, and tax. Next will serve one thematic prix fixe meal each night for a period of three months before moving on to a menu with a new theme. The first dinner—based on the cuisine of Paris, circa 1906—will cost $65 to $110 per person (not including drinks), depending on the desirability of the reservation date and time.
Like many restaurateurs, Kokonas, 43, got into the business accidentally. He spent the first 10 years of his career as a derivatives trader and built up his own company, Third Moment Trading. After the firm merged with another in 1999, he basically retired in his 30s and, like many basically retired rich guys, began dining out a lot. A favorite restaurant was a stuffy Evanston (Ill.) joint called Trio that served bizarre molecular gastronomy constructions created—and plated with tweezers—by an unknown chef named Grant Achatz. "It kept gnawing at me: Someone is going to build this guy a restaurant, and it's going to be the best restaurant in the world," recalls Kokonas. "It was like seeing Miles Davis when he was young. He's playing a kind of music that no one else is playing."
After dinner at Trio, Kokonas pitched Achatz on a restaurant partnership. As it turned out, though, he wasn't the first customer to try to seduce the wunderkind. "They were the big blowhard guys," Achatz says of his other suitors. "You knew if you opened a restaurant with them, they'd screw you out of equity and tell you to put a steak with a potato on a plate the day it opened." Kokonas seemed different; he was inquisitive about food—and his wife had actually cried over one of Achatz's meals. A bromance was born. "I quit on a handshake," Achatz says.
Unless you count Alinea's four-hour, 23-course meal ($195), the Next online ticketing system is probably the wildest idea the duo has yet to concoct. And it may also be the most sensible. The tickets will allow them to know how much Next can spend on its food budget. More importantly, by spreading diners evenly throughout the week and not getting pinched by late cancellations, they can keep a reasonably sized full-time staff employed, rather than rely on people to work mainly on Fridays and Saturdays. They won't have to pay anyone to answer phones, either.
Kokonas has big dreams for his reservation system. He has employed two programmers to work on it full-time, and he hopes to spin the operation off as a separate company that will challenge the reservation hegemony of OpenTable, the restaurant software giant. (He's been shorting their stock for months.) Kokonas also wants his software to function as a cash register and compete with Squirrel, the popular point-of-sale software. Next is actually the perfect place to test these ideas, mainly because diners will have a lot more to be freaked out about. In addition to the opening menu—which serves turtle soup, among other delicacies—there will be a cocktail bar featuring neither bartenders nor a bar. Instead, chefs hidden behind a wall will make molecular gastronomy beverages, such as a powderized gin and tonic served like a Pixy Stix. There are plans for another drink that turns into shards of ice.
By making diners do things his way, Kokonas thinks he can deliver exciting food at a lower price. Still, this worries Achatz and the other chefs, who believe in serving customers what they want. It is, however, more cost-effective not to listen to such diners. "If somebody walks in and says, 'I'm a vegan,' then there [has to be] a whole different menu," Kokonas groans to Achatz. "We lose money on that person." What about vegetarians, Achatz asks. "We're not going to serve vegetarian meals for Paris, 1906!" Kokonas says. "Come when we do Indian food!"