Why Robots Are Stealing Your Dinner Reservations

High-frequency trading comes to the restaurant world.

Like a lot of young foodies in San Francisco, Diogo Mónica works in tech. And as an engineer at Square, the payment company, he knows how to code. And like most people who make a living coding, he has an eye for inefficiencies.

Getting reservations at one of his favorite restaurants, State Bird Provisions, struck him as inefficient. Or at the very least, frustrating. “Unfortunately, SBP got noticed by the San Francisco foodie community,” he wrote on his blog. “This meant that the reservations page started to consistently return the following status: No reservations are currently available.”

As is increasingly common, especially in San Francisco, State Bird Provisions takes reservations online. So Mónica threw together a little tool that could monitor changes on the reservation page. His first discovery: Within an hour of new reservations becoming available, at 4 a.m. they were gone.

People getting up early for a restaurant reservation is neither surprising nor unprecedented. His next discovery, however, was: “It had been a while since I looked at [the tool],” Mónica told BuzzFeed, “so I went back and analyzed the data that I had collected and realized that the patterns were getting too fast for this to be humans reserving reservations.”

“In under a minute, all the reservations were being taken,” he says. The bots had taken over.

Who exactly was running these bots was unclear, but Mónica quickly put together a reservation bot of his own. Asked if he knew anyone else who was using one, he responded: “Every single engineer in SF that is also a foodie. Starting [with] my co-workers here at Square.”

The rise of the reservation bots has been gaining traction for a while. Hacker Table scrapes hard-to-get reservations from OpenTable and makes them available through a web interface. Now, though, its consequences are becoming very real, very fast. “Restaurant reservations are turning into high-frequency trading,” says Mónica.

UrbanSpoon did not return a request for comment this morning [ed.: comment added below], and it’s clearly in their interest to prevent services like this from working — if users can’t get a good reservation by using the site in a normal way, they simply won’t use it.

The consequences for restaurants are more complicated: Either way, they’re seating the same number of tables. But it changes their clientele and, by extension, how the city regards them. If hackers are fighting over your reservations, all your reservations will go to hackers.

The top comment on Hacker News spells it out: “There’s something frustrating about reading this,” it says. “Perhaps it’s that a technological advancement that was supposed to make life easier is being capitalized on by a small group of technically competent people, shutting out the average user.” In addition, the transformation of reservations into a sort of high-speed trading market is something that most restaurant owners have never had to consider. State Bird Provisions hasn’t yet responded to a message; a number of other high-profile San Francisco restaurants promised to get back. Every rep I spoke to sounded familiar with the concept, at least.

Mónica, for his part, says he’s planning on turning his reservation bot into a website, to “level the playing field.”

This generation of reservation bots can probably be stopped. But the next, maybe not: OpenTable and UrbanSpoon are in the unenviable position of competing against the most qualified engineers and programmers in the world. “At the end of the day, bots can be made to look arbitrarily close to a real human being getting a reservation,” says Mónica.

“This is a losing battle.”

Update - 4:23 p.m. EDT: UrbanSpoon has responded with this comment:

Urbanspoon’s data on State Bird Provisions’ reservations do not support the findings reported in Diogo Mónica’s post. While we will not disclose data about specific customers, we currently have processes in place to prevent duplicate reservations and combat reservation fraud.

Urbanspoon’s goal is to give real diners the opportunity to make reservations. We’ve noticed that many diners will stop at nothing to get a table at the hottest restaurants in town, like State Bird Provisions , so we are constantly working on improving the overall reservations process to give all diners an opportunity to secure a table.

To which Mónica responds: “Well, people should try it for themselves. I’ve definitely seen these reservations being taken under one minute, consistently. It’s actually really easy to get this data.” He has posted his bot’s code here.

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