All associated Web sites are down, and I received this statement from the publicist who had circulated a press release about the service:
Restaurants irate over seats-for-pay
John Kessler / Staff
Jennifer Boozer, the marketing director for the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, began plowing through 100 or more e-mail messages Wednesday morning when one stopped her cold. It was a promotional letter from a company called 911 Reservations, offering tables at “the swankiest restaurants in the city” on Valentine’s Day — for a fee.
“It just seemed really strange to me, ” said Boozer, who clicked through to the associated Web site and found several Buckhead Life restaurants — including Chops, Kyma and Buckhead Diner — with tables for sale on what the site was calling “Cupid’s special day.”
“I immediately started calling restaurants on the list to find out if they had multiple reservations with the same name or number, ” Boozer said.
Buckhead Life managers identified some phone numbers used more than once and spread the word. By day’s end, a coalition of chefs and restaurateurs had identified and canceled the reservations, and the service went offline. But they were left with a quandary: Re-book, or hold the tables open in case someone shows up?
Worse, what about those who already paid as much as $100 to lock in a table for dinner with their sweetie?
For now, restaurateurs are left trying to figure out what to do with these reservations. Joe Truex, chef-owner of Repast, will not honor them. “I will tell people we do not condone this.”
“It’s a problem, ” said Robby Kukler, an owner of the Fifth Group restaurants, which include Ecco and La Tavola Trattoria. “It’s a modern electronic form of scalping.”
“People may come in and say, ‘Hey, I paid for this, I want my table, ‘” Kukler said.
Here’s how it worked: Administrators of the site surreptitiously made the reservations under scores of different names several months ago, according to several area restaurateurs who tracked phone calls for tables beginning in September. Though the Web site focused on Atlanta, it also sold reservations in Miami, New York, San Francisco and the Napa Valley.
Top dining spots targeted
The reservations — valued anywhere from $25 to $100 for top draws like Woodfire Grill and Quinones at Bacchanalia — could be purchased with a remittance to a PayPal account. The reservations cut a broad swath through the city’s top destinations, including Repast, Rathbun’s, Bacchanalia, Chops and Craft.
Valentine’s Day is among the busiest and most profitable days of the year for restaurants. If these “reservations” were not sold by the site administrator or canceled by the restaurants, the empty tables could severely impact the businesses’ bottom line.
Before the Web site was taken down about 10 p.m. Wednesday, it showed as many as 150 reservations available at 35 to 40 Atlanta restaurants.
On Monday, a news release about the service began circulating, passed along unwittingly by Atlantans with media contacts. Calls for comments from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were unanswered, and the Web site listed for a public relations firm did not load.
But it wasn’t until Wednesday, once Buckhead Life began spreading word of the site, that restaurants mobilized. Andres Loaiza, the general manager at Aria, got wind of the scheme from a manager at Chops. When he tried to run charges of 50 cents on the credit cards used to hold the reservations, the cards were declined.
Loaiza contacted Clifford Bramble, a partner in Rathbun’s, who sent an e-mail burst to 40 local restaurants with the names and phone numbers attached to the reservations. Then he spoke with one man who had placed one of the reservations.
“The guy promised he had just made the reservation for him and his girlfriend, ” Bramble said. “But he backed off really quickly, which seemed strange. He wasn’t angry. Didn’t beg. If you lose your Valentine’s Day reservation, then you’re in the doghouse, right?”
Rathbun’s canceled the reservations it uncovered in the scheme.
Reprehensible, not illegal
The reservations were all made either to a sequence of land lines registered to a private home in Douglasville or to an Atlanta mobile phone number. Repeated calls from the AJC were not answered.
“We have 14 reservations between all of our restaurants, ” said Anne Quatrano, whose four restaurants include Abattoir and Quinones. “It wasn’t so much a problem at Abattoir, where we get a lot of walk-ins. But we only have 10 tables at Quinones, and they made three reservations.”
Quatrano said she would re-book the tables at Quinones, but keep them on the books in her other three restaurants in case someone comes in.
Though area chefs find this scheme reprehensible, it is not illegal, according to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.
“If there’s no prior limitation on the restaurant’s reservation policy, then there’s no statutory authority to prevent someone from transferring a reservation, ” Porter said.
However, if a restaurant cancels the reservation and the operator of the site sells it anyway, then he or she could be charged with the criminal violation of theft by deception. “Certainly, they would be subject to be sued as well, ” said Porter, “because they breached the contract.”