CHICAGO – Greek-American Nick Kokonas, CEO of the restaurant reservations platform Tock and co-owner of the now three-Michelin-star Alinea, was featured in Fast Company (FC), for his 6-year-old reservation system that helps “chefs manage both their dining rooms and kitchens more efficiently.”
Tock also “threw a lifeline to independent restaurants during the pandemic by allowing their kitchens to offer takeout and delivery service on better terms than other platforms,” FC reported, adding that “the 140-person company is now taking on some of the biggest industry players with a tech platform that gives more control to chefs and restaurateurs.”
Kokonas is the “co-owner of Chicago’s renowned Alinea restaurant, along with several other eateries in the city, and has spent the past decade and a half thinking about what a restaurant needs to survive and even thrive,” FC reported, adding that Kokonas’ “strong views on everything from menu items to food delivery have helped upend the hospitality industry several times already.”
Based in Chicago, the “entrepreneur arrived on the food scene 16 years ago as an outsider: a former derivatives trader who was looking for a new career and had a few thoughts on what a great meal should taste like,” FC reported, noting that “after eating a couple of meals cooked by Grant Achatz, he offered to give the young chef a restaurant.”
Alinea opened in 2005 and “changed fine-dining forever by taking cues from Spain’s legendary El Bulli to turn meals into spectacles (edible balloons, olive oil lollipops, scented pillows to infuse a dish) and dining into an experience,” FC reported.
Kokonas “took the concept of dining as theater even further in 2015 by launching the restaurant reservations platform Tock, which pioneered the notion that restaurants should charge diners a deposit to hold a table (or even have them pre-pay for their meal) and use dynamic pricing for more coveted tables,” FC reported, adding that “within a few years, Kokonas had signed on some 3,000 restaurants in 28 countries and was managing both his Chicago restaurant empire and a burgeoning competitor to OpenTable.”
During the pandemic Kokonas “may have struck upon his most industry-transformative idea yet: Tock To Go, which helps restaurants offer now-essential takeout and delivery meals, but doesn’t charge the onerous fees of services like Seamless and DoorDash, which can take up to 30%,” FC reported, noting that “instead, Tock charges restaurants a flat monthly fee of $199 plus 2% on orders, or just 3% on orders without a subscription” and “the service offers a ‘pro’ plan for $699 a month, charging nothing for bookings and 2% on Tock To Go orders.”
“Tock also, crucially, lets restaurants retain their customer data, so they can establish their own relationships with diners,” FC reported.
“What makes Tock such a strong player is that they’re both on the reservation side and the delivery side,” said R.J. Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You, which owns and licenses more than 100 restaurants across the country and was an early investor in Tock, FC reported. “So when things open back up and take-out business becomes a lower portion of what you’re doing and your reservation business will increase, [Tock] will help you on either side.”
He says that “40% of his company uses Tock for reservations, while between 80% and 90% use Tock To Go,” FC reported.
“If you’re [a restaurant] owner who says, ‘We could barely make it [in 2019],’ to me, that says you weren’t running it right. You’re saying it was boom time and you could barely make it,” Kokonas told FC. “I want these restaurants to reopen in a sustainable manner.”
“Restaurant owners, in other words, need to take better command of their businesses, whether they’re running a beloved local joint or a Michelin-starred, travel-worthy establishment, and Kokonas is positioning Tock to be their essential tool,” FC reported.
Kokonas “knew that 2020 was about to go off the rails when he saw, last February, reservations for the 60 or so Hong Kong restaurants on Tock go to zero in a single week as the island struggled to contain COVID-19,” FC reported, adding that “when Illinois issued stay-at-home orders in late March, Kokonas and his team had already worked out a plan to turn Alinea and the other restaurants in the Alinea Group into carry-out places.”
He “furloughed some 300 restaurant employees, but remained hopeful about rehiring them,” FC reported, noting that “after all, the appetite for restaurant food was still there. Those meals just needed to be consumed at home— and Kokonas needed to adapt his technology to enable that.”
He “pulled together a team of nearly two dozen engineers and designers, who worked around the clock to transform Tock into a platform to book and process carry-out orders,” FC reported, adding that “within eight days in mid-March the team had a working prototype of Tock To Go and started piloting pickup orders at fine-dining restaurant Canlis in hard-hit Seattle.”
“Three days after Chicago shut down, Alinea was selling takeaway Beef Wellingtons for $35— an unheard-of price for the establishment,” FC reported, noting that Kokonas “had figured out that customers uncertain about their futures did not want a $375 meal; they wanted comfort food.”
He “pushed Alinea’s chefs to create a simple carry-out menu with the price of each meal under $40” and “by April, the restaurant was selling 1,250 meals a night, making about 75% of its previous revenue, and it had rehired 62 of its 85 employees,” FC reported, adding that “Alinea hosted diners in an outdoor rooftop space over the summer, but closed those operations in the fall as the weather turned and COVID-19 rates rose; by the end of 2020, it had served 135,587 to-go meals via Tock.”
“As restaurants throughout the country began closing their doors last spring and the pandemic’s grim toll on the hospitality industry became evident, Kokonas was advising chefs on Tock to lean into takeout and delivery,” FC reported, noting that “for many of the fine-dining places on the platform, creating meals to be eaten at home— something previously inconceivable— became essential for survival.”
Tock To Go “has also allowed Kokonas to expand his company beyond its fine-dining base,” FC reported, adding that “Pat Odon, the owner of Chicago’s oldest sports bar Nisei Lounge near Wrigley Field has used the service to sell mixology kits and to manage reservations as indoor dining opens up.”
“Tock’s fee is better than the cut other apps take,” he told FC, noting that “he plans to keep using the service to generate extra revenue even after the pandemic recedes.” “Tock also partnered with the city of Chicago in October to offer Tock To Go for free to restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, to help retain the city’s small-business fabric,” FC reported, adding that “Tock To Go is different from services like Seamless, Postmates, and DoorDash” in that “instead of taking up to 30% in commissions, which can break a restaurant’s margins, Tock charges between 2% and 3% on all orders,” and “while other delivery services submit orders as they come, Tock asks users to select pickup and delivery times in 15-minute intervals… to prevent kitchens from becoming overwhelmed.”
The platform also “allows restaurants to keep their customer data,” cutting out the “third party middlepersons,” FC reported.
“Tock empowers restaurants to actually sell what they produce,” Kokonas told FC.
“Though his father owned a grocery store and diner, Kokonas didn’t come from great food— he describes his mother’s cooking as ‘terrible, so bad’— or a wealthy background,” FC reported, adding that “he recalls that when his terminally ill father came to visit him in New York, he was blown away by a bowl of soup served as an appetizer at a tony restaurant.”
When his father saw the price, Kokonas told FC that “he was like ‘$18 for a bowl of soup! What is in this soup?'”
Tock continues to innovate and expand, and in less than a year, “has also tripled its number of employees,” FC reported, noting that “wineries, ski resort operators (including Vail Resorts), and even car dealerships are now using Tock for bookings.”
Kokonas “is looking to expand the number of restaurants and purveyors that use Tock as a marketplace to sell meal kits and other goods,” FC reported, adding that “he’s even toying with a Spotify Wrapped-style service that would recommend experiences based on users’ dining habits,” but he also “admits that he might sell Tock.”
“We get inquiries every day, and I have investors. If I never sell it or liquidate part of it, then I never get their money out. They had faith in me and they deserve that return,” FC reported.
Kokonas “seems to love big-picture problem-solving more than the daily grind of managing employees,” FC reported, adding a story Kokonas shared as an explanation, “In 1996 Wilco’s Being There came out, and it was punk, country, and bluegrass. I listened to it three times and threw it in the garbage. I was so angry at myself. I was thinking you’re never going to make anything that good in your life. I eventually got to know [bassist] John Stirratt. When I told him I loved the album he was like, no aspect of doing that was fun. And I was like, ah, that’s the part you don’t get to see, right? Nothing’s like it seems. The sausage factory sucks. That’s true of Tock and that’s true of the restaurants. It’s true of everything.”
More information about Tock is available online: https://www.exploretock.com/.