Nick Kokonas’ Next Big Thing
It is customary to buy tickets in advance for the opera, theater and sporting events. Now one Chicago restaurant is following suit by requiring its customers to prepay.
Next restaurant opened earlier this month with a totally new concept. To eat at Next, diners must pay for their meals before they’ve put a foot through the door.
“People love it,” says Nick Kokonas, who co-owns the restaurant with Grant Achatz, who’s also the executive chef. “They arrive, they eat and they don’t flag the waiter down at the end of the meal. And there’s not that awkward moment if people bring guests.”
Tables can only be booked online. There’s no menu, so guests must select their drinks—either the non-alcoholic option, which includes house-made juices, sodas, etc. for $22; the wine pairing for $48, which 60 percent of diners choose; or the reserve wine pairing for $98, which 30 percent opt for. The total amount is run through a credit card and presto, dinner will be served.
But there’s a snag: Tables are being snapped up so quickly that there are a lot of disappointed people.
The ticketing system is not the only unusual thing about Next. It’s an ambitious plan but Kokonas and Achatz will entirely change the restaurant’s menu on a quarterly basis—they’re starting with classical French, for instance, and are planning to then switch to authentic Asian cuisine.
Ending Customer Frustration
Kokonas opted to run Next as a pre-paid restaurant in an attempt to end frustration. At his other restaurant, Alinea, also in Chicago, a month of tables sells out in three days. Then his reservationists have to turn people away for the rest of the month—and there can be 100 calls a day. It’s also frustrating for customers, he says, “because they have to basically sit there and do a dial-in lottery.”
Next opened on April 6 and the tickets didn’t go on sale until that morning. Kokonas released about one-third of the available tables for the first three months at once and sold about 900 tables in 20 minutes.
Now, every day, he makes a few tables available and they have sold by the time he refreshes his browser—or in about 0.7 seconds.
Next is already big business but it seems another business is flourishing: Ticket resales and scalped tickets. Ticket sales are final and non-refundable so Kokonas says he’s aware that sometimes plans change and people need to sell their tickets. However, while he doesn’t mind sales for face value, he doesn’t endorse the scalping.
A week after opening, Next had 19,000 registered users on its site and 13,000 active users. “Each [of these users] represents three people on average,” Kokonas says, “which is more than we can serve in two years.” In fact, he adds, Next can serve around 30,000 people per year.
But there’s an incentive for diners to try to come more than once a year: Next’s changing menu. The opening menu is Paris 1906.
This menu was selected because the original idea was a Paris bistro menu, but then it moved to 1906, to set it shortly after the publication of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, which was published in 1903 and the opening of the Ritz Paris in 1898.
“It’s a pretty amazing way to start a restaurant,” Kokonas says. “We do the most avant-garde cuisine at Alinea and now we’re going to do the most classic cuisine at Next. We started with the most classical cuisine we can think of.”
Dishes on the Paris 1906 menu include potage à la tortue Claire, filet de sole Daumont, caneton Rouennais à la presse, and bombe Ceylan, not that most of these dishes mean much to non-French speakers.
Next for Next will likely be Asian food and Kokonas hints at Thai cuisine.
The reason behind this changing menu is simple: “The idea of Next came from watching Grant cook ethnic foods on his day off,” Kokonas explains. “I’d tell him we should open an Italian/French/etc. restaurant and he’d say, ‘Ah, I’d get bored in three months.’”
And in fact, the very idea for the restaurant was developed on the day Achatz learned he had an advanced form of oral cancer and would have to have his tongue amputated—a career-ending move for a chef. Fortunately, chemotherapy and radiation—offered by a different doctor—have been successful and he’s in the clear.
Regular customer base
But the changing menu works: It is drawing customers back regularly.
“I thought people would look at it like a season ticket to a theater and try it out every season. But now that we’ve pulled off the French food so well, I think people will want to come back just because whatever we do, we do well,” Kokonas says.
“We’re like a pop-up restaurant but we’re more permanent,” he adds. “It’s a pop-up restaurant at a really high level.”
And the high level, naturally, continues into the prices.
However, like the price of tickets to most events, the cost of the meals at Next varies somewhat. At a peak time, such as 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the meal costs $110 (before drinks, tax and tip); the same meal at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday is $65.
Dinner is a set meal but seating is staggered so two or three tables are sat every 15 minutes between 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. A couple of tables are turned and re-used at 9:15, but that’s the only turn Next can manage with an eight-course meal, Kokonas says.
Despite the steep price of the meal, the restaurant’s demographic is firmly in the 25- to 34-year-old demographic.
“I think one of the unintended consequences of having a web-based reservation system is you’re getting the web generation. It’s the people who are fleet of finger,” points out Kokonas. “We’re getting lots of people who come in expecting it to be stuffy or boring or great food and not fun, but what I’m hearing over and over is ‘thanks for being so accessible.’”
Next was the logical name for this restaurant because Kokonas and Achatz were constantly asked what they were going to do next.
It sums everything up, Kokonas says. “This is really about what’s next. It’s always the next menu, the next course, the next thing. It’s that simple.”
Click here to read how Kokonas uses Facebook for marketing and ticket sales
A lot of planning was put into the opening of Next, not least of which was the table-booking software creation, which Kokonas developed with another programmer.
The goal now, Kokonas explains, is to sell the software to other restaurants—or even just the reservation segment of it.
“It’s entirely web-based and a restaurant can have it set up within an hour and can access it from any browser,” he says.
Kokonas will sell the software for $50 per month, and hopes to start that enterprise in around four months. This month he hopes to test it in 10 restaurants. He predicts the software will find its way to “tens of thousands of restaurants.” In fact, as a former Wall Street trader, he adds: “This is the best business opportunity I’ve seen in 10 years.”
Within a week of opening, Kokonas says he already had interest in the software from eight restaurants, three of which he says are household names. He also says he has heard from two software companies that want to buy his product.