• Because of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants across the country have shut down entirely or switched to pickup and delivery only.
  • Nick Kokonas is the co-owner of the Alinea Group and founder and CEO of online restaurant reservation system Tock.
  • Tock recently launched Tock To Go, a platform that helps dine-in restaurants offer pickup and delivery so they can keep serving food and paying staff.


Tock founder and CEO Nick Kokonas last visited the podcast in October 2016. Some things have changed since then.

As you are undoubtedly aware, the novel coronavirus has spread around the world, devastating healthcare systems and shutting down non-essential businesses. As the co-owner of restaurant group the Alinea Group, along with his CEO duties at Tock, Nick is watching his economic predictions for the year spiral into uncertainty along with the rest of the restaurant industry.

Tock has changed too, partly in response to this outbreak. Since its founding in 2014, it has transitioned from selling prepaid tickets for high-end restaurants to also offering an online reservation system and options for one-off events. And in March 2020, the team worked around the clock for a week to release Tock To Go, a platform designed to help restaurants that previously only offered dine-in options pivot to fulfill pickup and delivery orders. 

“We’ve seen an influx of nearly 1,000 inquiries into Tock To Go,” Nick says. “We’ve got about 300 restaurants using it and we’re adding 30 to 50 a day.”

Nick joined the podcast to talk about how Tock To Go is helping restaurants in their hour of need, what restaurants can do to weather the storm and how coronavirus could change the dining experience as we know it.

Interview Highlights — Nick Kokonas from Tock

Stay in, dine out

Tock is a booking system and platform for restaurants. We have restaurants in about 30 countries, using it as an alternative to OpenTable and others. 

We created Tock To Go for contactless delivery and pickup. The platform allows restaurants to control their inventory in a way that others like Grubhub, Caviar and DoorDash do not. As you pull up to the restaurant, we have text messaging built in so we figure out who’s in what car, you pop the trunk and we’ll put it in for you. 

We’ve seen an influx of nearly 1,000 inquiries into Tock To Go. We’ve got about 300 restaurants using it and we’re adding 30 to 50 a day. 

Takeout culture could be here to stay

The longer this lasts, the more critical it is for restaurants to take advantage of government legislation — but restaurants also need to help themselves. Even if we are allowed to reopen on May 15 or June 15 or whenever, people are going to be slow to come back. The government may also mandate occupancy at 50 percent or something like that, and restaurants can’t exist at 50 percent occupancy on a Friday or Saturday night for very long. 

I think even really nice restaurants will end up doing a mix of dine-in and pickup instead of delivery, because the delivery services are so expensive — they charge 15 to 30 percent of gross. We are charging very little — 3 percent — in order to keep our lights on. It’s economical for you and it’s great for the consumers and safe for them as well.

Serve up an experience

When we started Tock in 2014, I was preaching to restaurants that you needed to sell experiences. About 80 percent of everything on Tock are just ordinary reservations, but 20 to 25 percent are experiences that wineries and pop ups and restaurants provide. 

Everyone has a favorite table. It could be the kitchen table at Alinea, which is super fancy, or those four seats right in front of the pizza oven in your favorite pizza place. You can sell that as an experience. 

If restaurants are forced to lower capacity and spread tables out, I think you’re going to see more places creating unique experiences. Grabbing a burger will certainly still exist, but that’d be more carry out. The sit-down restaurants are going to have to adapt to different usage of their physical space. 

The problem with that is if you serve fewer people, it’s a less viable business or you have to charge more money. At Alinea, we have 74 seats and 90 employees and we serve 128 people pretty much every day of the year in normal times. If I’m only serving 60 people, 45 of those employees are not needed. And that’s not good for the economy or our business, because our fixed costs haven’t gone down — the rent is still the same, the utilities are the same. It’s a very tricky problem to solve without raising prices.

Play with your prices (not your food)

One of the things you can do in Tock very easily is dynamic and variable pricing. Restaurant owners don’t think it matters because they go well, I asked my friend Bob and he said it wouldn’t matter if I charge another dollar for this pasta plate. But you have to look at the behavior of 5,000 Bobs.

For years I was saying, OpenTable is charging between $1.50 and $7.50 per diner when you book through them: that’s not sustainable for a restaurant. If you’re paying $3 per diner on a $30 check, that’s 10 percent of your revenue going out the door just because somebody clicked the button on their app. And no one wanted to hear it for years, because it’s complicated. It sounds like a small number but it really adds up.

It’ll be sad to watch this play out. There is confusion even among the leaders of the industry in the country. And I think of all the small independent restaurants trying to navigate this quickly over the next six weeks. You hope that there will be guidelines for best practices very soon because if not, not only will they go out of business but they may have debt. 

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