By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor
In 2014, Chef Curtis Stone opened Maude, his first restaurant in Los Angeles. Maude is an intimate 25-seat restaurant in Beverly Hills and features one seasonal ingredient each month that is built into each of the nine courses of the tasting menu. With only two seatings per night for a total of 50 diners, a table at Maude is highly sought after each month.
Chef Stone had made a name for himself on television with the show Take Home Chef and as the host of Top Chef Masters. However, this celebrity chef trained and worked with some of the best chefs in the world, including Chef Marco Pierre White in London. From the beginning, there was anticipation and demand to dine at Maude. Chef Stone’s high profile and large social media following, matching the limited seating in the restaurant, resulted in filling every reservation immediately.
To get a reservation was the challenge. From the beginning, for almost two years, the process was to call at 10am on the first of the month prior (except Sunday and Monday). Beginning at 10am on that day, the phone lines were slammed and it could take hours to get a reservation. By the end of the day, most of the next month was booked.
“We were surprised by how quickly the demand was there,” explained General Manager and Wine Director Ben Aviram. “It was our hope, as it is with any restaurant opening. But we were surprised by the fervent demand from the start.”
Handling The Demand For Reservations
From the opening, the concept of the team at Maude was to create a great restaurant. They were focused on the quality and nature of the restaurant, figuring the rest would follow. But, based on experience, Aviram implemented the month-prior, call-for-reservation system.
Aviram, born in Los Angeles, went to culinary school at the CIA in New York, where his interest in wine was developed. An internship in the wine department at the French Laundry took him to Yountville for three years, followed by four years in Chicago at Alinea. Both of these restaurants have specific reservation systems in place. French Laundry requires booking a reservation two months prior to the specific calendar date. Alinea also takes reservations two months in advance, not specific to the calendar date, but has a ticketing system in which the meal, not including drinks, is paid for in advance.
Aviram returned to Los Angeles to open Maude with Chef Stone. Both French Laundry and Alinea’s systems inspired the system at Maude, which was a hybrid of the two. Based on his past experience at small restaurants, Aviram knew that he wanted to limit reservations. “If you book a reservation too far out, it can get out of control. We chose the prior month but didn’t want to limit to exact calendar days.”
Like French Laundry, guests would have to call in advance but would not have to book to the day. And, liked Alinea, they booked a month in advance, but did not require the pre-paid ticketing system.
The Call-In Reservation
For almost two years, the call-in reservation system was the process. One day each month was filled with intense reservation-taking. Reservationist Kim had spoken to each and every guest and made each reservation. Month after month, through the more personal system, she became acquainted with the customers.
But, on the flip side, the biggest issue with the reservation system was cancellations. “It is the nature of the LA diner,” explained Aviram. “In some cases, assistants make multiple reservations for their bosses and sometimes they cancel, sometimes they don’t.” With this mentality of no-shows being acceptable, Maude implemented a $100 fee per person, and later the exact cost of the dinner, for no-shows or cancellations. The challenge became enforcing this penalty.
Luckily most cancellations were not last minute and Kim always had a strong waitlist to pull from. And due to Kim’s repartee with the customers, she had been able to offer a level of assistance when dealing with cancellations and other requests.
Shift to Ticketing System
While the call-in reservation system was efficient with a personal element, it was also a frustrating system. It could be difficult to get through with hours of calling and getting a busy signal. To rectify customers’ frustrations, as well as to resolve issues around cancellations and no-shows, Maude has transitioned to an online ticketing system that was implemented in October for November reservations.
“The primary reason to switch to a ticket system is to simplify and streamline the process for our guests,” expressed Aviram. Now customers go online the first of the month prior to book their reservations. Even if the first of the month is a Sunday or Monday, tickets can be purchased. Starting at 10am, customers can see the dates available and select the one they want. However, as part of this new ticketing system, all tickets must be paid in advance and are non-refundable.
The ticketing system is very new at Maude but the transition process has been very smooth. Customers seem happy to be off the phones and can check availability any time of the day. International guests find it easier to go online to purchase tickets than to have to wake up in the middle of the night to try to call in.
The new ticketing system may seem less personal but Kim is still behind the scenes offering the same level of customer service. She maintains a waitlist and should someone need to transfer their tickets, she can try to facilitate it. And Kim will still reach out one week in advance of a reservation and call guests as a courtesy reminder and to confirm any dietary needs, special occasions and answer questions.
Maude’s new ticketing system not only alleviates the pressure on Kim to answer every phone call on the first of the month, but the idea of not having to dial the number 467 times in one day is of great relief to this customer.