Restaurant owners slam OpenTable after uncovering phony reservation scheme

SHARE Restaurant owners slam OpenTable after uncovering phony reservation scheme

Patrons dine at Tavern At The Park. | Sun-Times file photo

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Owners of 45 Chicago restaurants who saw hundreds of their tables go to waste over the last three months finally have confirmed the culprit: an employee of the online reservation service OpenTable, who used fake email addresses and phone numbers to make phony bookings on a competing app.

The San Francisco-based company has apologized, saying they have identified and fired the “rogue” employee.

“On behalf of OpenTable, I extend our sincerest apologies to the restaurant community in Chicago and to Reserve for this disgraceful, unsanctioned behavior,” CEO Christa Quarles wrote in a public apology.

Peter de Castro, whose Loop restaurant Tavern at the Park was emptier than usual on Valentine’s Day due to the scam, isn’t buying it.

“What incentive did this ‘rogue’ employee have?” de Castro said Thursday, about a week after the source of the bogus reservation racket was uncovered. “He wasn’t in sales, he didn’t get bonuses. It just doesn’t make sense that this employee would do this out of spite.”

De Castro suspects it had something to do with his decision last summer to switch from OpenTable to a competitor called Reserve. Software engineers from the new firm began noticing dozens of bookings going to waste around the holidays.

“It hit us hard in December,” de Castro said. “Not only does it hurt business, it hurts servers, bussers, hosts and hostesses who rely on gratuities.”

The Reserve engineers narrowed down their list of suspects by mid-February and confirmed last week that the false reservations were coming from OpenTable.

“[The employee] tried to mask his IP address. He didn’t do very well,” de Castro said.

Before that, though, de Castro says an OpenTable sales team reached out to try to get him to switch back to their platform, citing “sagging sales.”

“Way too coincidental,” de Castro said.

According to OpenTable, “a few hundred” fake reservations were made. The employee “was not in a sales function and had no managerial duties,” and was fired within 48 hours, the company said.

“The only reason we exist is to help restaurants grow. When they succeed, we succeed. Taking any action that puts restaurants in harm is a direct attack on us as well,” Quarles wrote. “At OpenTable, we believe that it is our responsibility to help build awareness of the impact of no-shows, which made this egregious behavior by a former OpenTable employee all the more painful.”

De Castro said it’s hard to put a figure on how much money the scam cost his restaurant, but business was down about 5 percent in December and 2 percent in February. OpenTable executives called to personally apologize this week, and they’re offering to reimburse restaurants for lost revenue and gratuities. He says he’s not interested.

“The point is, you’re the largest online reservation service in the world, and you picked 45 independent restaurants to target in Chicago? They’re bullying new restaurants,” de Castro said.

Instead of leading any legal action against OpenTable, he says he’d rather have some time to sit down with the “rogue” reserver.

“I’d like to hear from the source what the impetus behind this really was,” de Castro said.

OpenTable wouldn’t give him a name, though they told him he lives in Chicago, according to the restaurateur. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

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