Innovation can come from quarters where you least expect it.

According to the New York Times, world-class chef Grant Achatz will open a new restaurant in Chicago in the Fall.  Naturally, reservations will be very hard to come by.  But those reservations will, in effect, be all-inclusive “tickets,” whereby diners prepay for their prix fixe meal online (including pre-set wine pairing options) and don’t have to spend a dime in the restaurant.  No tension waiting for the bill, no tip (the service charge is included in the price) — just arrive at the appointed hour, enjoy your experience and leave.

What’s more, pricing will adjust according to demand; if you want a prime-time Saturday night seating you’ll pay more than you will if you dine at 6:00 pm on a Monday.  Naturally, all reservations will be taken online.

This is fascinating, and I’d hazard to guess it will prove to be wildly succesful.  We’re always happier to pay for something when we’re anticipating the experience, so if you’re  lucky enough to secure a reservation online you will happily offer your credit card information on the spot (which conveniently creates a terrific cash flow scenario for the restaurant.)  And afterwards, not needing to ask for the bill or calculate the tip ensures that a meal ends on the right note – with a final sip of espresso rather than a signature on a credit card slip.

However, this approach also poses some interesting questions and challenges.  For one, the staff has to be extraordinarily well-trained.  If a diner is paying the service charge upfront, and that service proves to be poor, he or she can quickly feel cheated.  I would also be interested in the underlying economics behind the demand-pricing scheme — will off-peak diners pay a price that’s subsidized by those who choose to eat at the peak hours?   As with airlines, will pricing fluctuate day-to-day, commensurate with demand?   

While I don’t know the first thing about restaurant economics, it seems to makes sense for a fine dining establishment to do this (especially those who only do prix fixe or tasting menus.)  However, I’m less certain of the applicability of this model to other restaurants across the price and value ladder. 

Lastly,  anyone else see some irony in the fact that as restaurants migrate to single-ticket pricing, airlines are moving rapidly towards a “menu” approach, where travelers have to pay for even the smallest conveniences?