The maitre d' of hard-to-get reservations

Pascal Riffaud wants to sell seats at the world's most exclusive restaurants. The only problem, reports Business 2.0: their owners have reservations.

By John Heilemann, Business 2.0 Magazine columnist

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- The appropriate way to begin this column is with a confession: I am a hard-core New York foodie. My wife and I eat out with absurd frequency, devoting as much cash to our gastronomic pursuits as some parents pay for their kids' tuitions.

Sad? Probably. Sick? Possibly. But at least I understand the dilemma of the big-city diner: Scoring last-minute tables at top-shelf joints can be a bitch.

The whine list: Restaurants complain that Riffaud, left, is undermining their relationship with diners.

Thus, I was intrigued when I heard that someone had started a kind of StubHub for gourmands -- an online service brokering coveted New York restaurant reservations. That someone is Pascal Riffaud, a former concierge at the Ritz in Paris and the St. Regis in New York, who in 1994 founded Personal Concierge International, a boutique outfit providing clients (for $4,000 a year) assistance in arranging travel, securing tickets to sold-out events, etc.

Now Riffaud has launched PrimeTime Tables, a service that demonstrates vividly how the Web is creating markets around every scarce commodity imaginable -- and royally pissing off those with a vested interest in the established order.

Immaculately tailored and unfailingly polite, Riffaud is a 43-year-old Frenchman who seems an unlikely provocateur. But he is not a naive one. "I recognized there would be resistance," he tells me over lunch near his Madison Avenue offices. What Riffaud didn't expect was that some of the city's most prominent restaurateurs would dub him a parasite. "I hate that word," he says with a sigh. "I think it's a little bit harsh."

Riffaud's road to culinary controversy began in 2005, when he got a call from a woman who had created a nascent version of PrimeTime Tables. "She was offering reservations strictly to concierges," he explains. But Riffaud thought the service had potential as a Web-based consumer business and offered to buy it.

"I paid $30,000," Riffaud tells me. "The company had no revenue and no technology. What I was buying was the concept."

For a year Riffaud quietly built the business, designing the PTT site, compiling a growing stock of reservations, and offering access to select clients, who could either pay $35 to $45 for a table or shell out for a premier membership ($450 a year) entitling them to a reduced per-reservation rate. Riffaud says, "Everyone thought it was perfect for the businessperson who doesn't have time to think in advance about where he wants to go."

But Riffaud knew he needed word of mouth for PTT to blossom, so he reached out to bloggers. Alas, the food blog Eater led the coverage, heaping scorn on Riffaud: "This site is not more legitimate than the ticket scalpers who cruise outside Yankee Stadium during the playoffs."

The effect of the coverage was twofold. First, PTT's membership soared from 200 to 5,000. Second, a backlash ensued. Restaurant owners accused Riffaud of "warehousing" reservations, making it harder for average Joes to get tables. Of creating a service that would lead to no-shows, hurting the restaurant business. Of "undermin[ing]," as celebrity restaurateur Danny Meyer told the New York Times, "the beauty of the dialogue that takes place when a restaurant and its patrons have a healthy, dynamic relationship."

Riffaud's response to all this is calm, if slightly defensive. He points out that people who've paid for reservations are less likely, not more, to be no-shows than people who got their tables for free. He says he isn't scalping reservations, just receiving payment for a service -- a practice identical to when guests tip concierges. He claims that he never holds more than one table on any given night at any restaurant and cancels unused reservations promptly.

What Riffaud doesn't say is that the restaurateurs are a bunch of hypocrites. At every marquee restaurant in New York (and many other cities), a substantial block of tables from 7 to 9 p.m. is held back for VIPs. Egalitarian? C'mon. In truth, what rankles the proprietors is the loss of control over their dining rooms and the fact that someone else is making money on the backs of their businesses -- two complaints that call to mind an obvious rejoinder: Hey, guys, welcome to the wonders of the Web!

Riffaud isn't nearly so defiant. For the past six months, he has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with a number of the restaurateurs, in which they've labored to thwart him and he has adopted countermeasures to get around their roadblocks: outsourcing his reservation-making to a "changing cast" of workers who book tables under false names, always calling from different phone numbers -- never from his offices.

But Riffaud finds the game tiresome. "I don't want it to be a battle," he says. "I want it to be a partnership." So he has started reaching out to the restaurateurs to try to establish dtente. Rather than selling tables la carte, he's shifting PTT to a pure membership model, with clients paying either $450 a year for 12 reservations or $600 a year for 20.

"To me it's the same thing -- I'm charging for my services," he says. "But to the restaurants, it seems to make a difference in terms of perception." Riffaud notes that many upscale eateries have a deal with American Express (Charts, Fortune 500) to keep a table open for premium cardholders. "I need the restaurants to see us the same way," he says.

For a reality check, I phoned Mario Batali, New York's most famous chef and the co-owner of three restaurants -- Babbo, Del Posto, and Lupa -- whose tables are among the toughest to lay hands on. "He won't get any love from us, but we're not trying to stop him," Batali says. "It's just not going to last long for him, because we can internalize it."

Meaning? "If I announced we were gonna start selling last-minute tables to VIPs with big bucks, I'd look like an idiot. So he's gonna create this little niche and then I can take over the sale -- people are eventually gonna pay me $400 for that table." How far away is eventually? "Oh, maybe a year."

Riffaud knows that Batali is serious, but he comforts himself with the knowledge that few other restaurateurs have the power (or the chutzpah) to follow suit. He has big plans for PTT: first New York, then London, Paris, and other cities around the world.

But such plans might encounter a bigger threat than the Batali maneuver: the full StubHubization of the market. If individuals can bypass brokers and sell sports, theater, and concert tickets directly online, why not reservations? No doubt restaurateurs would hate that too. And PrimeTime Tables would be ruined by it.

But that's the thing about the Web: Its appetite is more insatiable than even the most ardent foodie's.

John Heilemann wrote "Pride Before the Fall." His four-part documentary on the rise of the Internet industry appears on the Discovery Channel this fall. Top of page

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