Give Nick Kokonas access to a Medium account and a nice glass of wine tonight, and he'll give you nationwide brand awareness tomorrow.
— Erika Adams
Love him or not, Nick Kokonas knows how to generate some headlines. The CEO and founder of restaurant tech platform Tock has built a reputation for being the person who will say what he wants, when he wants, especially if it involves Tock or any of the restaurants that he co-owns with famed chef Grant Achatz.
It was fitting that on the morning that Kokonas spoke with Skift Table in late January, he was in the middle of juggling a flood of incoming press requests related to a tweet he had sent out two days prior inviting the Clemson Tigers football team, winners of the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship, to Alinea to experience a real celebratory dinner after they were served McDonald’s and Wendy’s at the customary White House reception.
That kind of attention is just another week for Kokonas. Whether it’s publicly calling OpenTable out for its business practices or stirring up controversy with a celebrity chef, Kokonas sees the value in becoming part of the news cycle — or being the one to jumpstart it.
Nick Kokonas is one of the executives featured on Skift Table’s Top Restaurant Marketers 2019, our new franchise focused on the top marketing leaders in the restaurant industry.
Skift Table: Walk me through your marketing strategy for Tock.
Nick Kokonas: Tock is actually a great marketing tool for restaurants. One of the things that it does is that we disintermediate OpenTable. So, OpenTable once owned all of the diners and then they used that information to ostensibly promote restaurants to diners. But then they charged the restaurants a dollar every time someone sits down. And it adds up to thousands of dollars a month for many restaurants.
Did you see what I wrote on one of my Medium posts, about everything that’s going to happen in 2019? The pricing model that OpenTable is going to introduce is that they are getting rid of their dollar per table cover charge for any repeat customers, which is an acknowledgment that they basically have been ripping off restaurants for the last 10 years. They’re finally acknowledging that they weren’t getting incremental diners. So then what they’re going to want to do, and this is right from the horse’s mouth, [Steve Hafner, the CEO of Kayak who also took over OpenTable] told me this personally, is that they want to charge a percentage of the spend in the restaurant that a new customer makes. Just like Grubhub.
So, how do I market Tock to restaurants? Well, everything that I just said. OpenTable has been ripping them off for years. We are the only completely cloud-based system that works in any browser. The restaurant doesn’t need to buy any equipment. You can use it from any laptop, any tablet, any modern browser will do, which is very different than Resy or OpenTable that have dedicated iOS applications. Tock is very fast and it’s extensible, meaning that we can integrate at an enterprise level with rewards programs or gift certificate programs or Salesforce or hotel back-ends.
We let restaurants know that their data is their own; their customers are their own.
Skift Table: This is how you always talk about Tock, right? By going after OpenTable and saying they’re floundering around. Going after Resy the same way. Calling out these companies by name. I want to talk about how you think about that as part of your overall marketing strategy.
Kokonas: Our marketing strategy is to show the differentiation of our product and to let the restaurants know that we are a tool that empowers them in a very modern sense to run their business the way many other industries do. It’s not about Tock calling out OpenTable and Resy all the time.
But what’s interesting is that in all [of Resy and OpenTable’s] sales literature that goes out to restaurants, [they will call out the competition]. They don’t do that publicly as much, because the traditional strategy is don’t mention your competitor, right? I don’t believe in that. I think that’s total B.S., you know?
Skift Table: Yeah, I can tell.
Kokonas: Privately, they seed misinformation all the time about, “Oh, Tock’s only for high end restaurants.” Or, “Tock can’t take walk-in’s.” I receive those emails because restaurants forward them to us.
One of my big tenets that you’ll always hear is transparency. So, transparency to me means, hey, we have competitors, that’s normal. It’d be foolish not to acknowledge that if you’re a restaurant, you should look at all three systems and here are the differentiating points between them.
Steve Hafner doesn’t own any restaurants and Ben Leventhal doesn’t own any restaurants. [Part of our advantage is that] I can at least go, “Hey, when I did this, this, and this, this is how it changed the bookings at my own restaurant.”
And, forget Alinea. That’s irrelevant. Look at Roister, look at Aviary, which are essentially a la carte restaurants. Those are very typical. Part of what we do is that we build case studies, not only of my restaurants, but any other restaurant that is willing to share actual financials. Anecdotal evidence is kind of useless in business. You need real hard numbers and you need to be able to prove those numbers and trace them.
Skift Table: Let’s talk for a second about the marketing stunts that you’ve pulled —
Kokonas: [Laughs.] Which one?
Skift Table: Yeah, I know. You’ve compared OpenTable to a dinosaur a thousand different ways.
Kokonas: That was fun. I wrote that post when I was flying back from San Francisco. And, you know, big companies are very predictable and boring. If you buy OpenTablesaurus.com it’s only a matter of time before you get a cease and desist.
Skift Table: They were just adding fuel to the fire.
Kokonas: It’s just like fly fishing. Eventually the fish will get the fly, right? And here’s the thing, all of the folks that used to be there running [OpenTable] had no sense of humor. Steve Hafner has a sense of humor. As does Glenn Fogel, who’s the CEO of Booking Holdings. Just for the record here, I like both of them a lot. And whenever I do something like that successfully, I generally get a note from one of them saying, “Ha-ha. Good job.”
Skift Table: Oh, really?
Kokonas: Yeah, there is a certain amount of mutual respect there. And both Glenn and Steve are really, really good at what they do and very bright. So, they both, in a way, inherited a culture there that was crappy and has been mismanaged for many years. If they can turn it around I’ll be surprised, but they are capable of it.
That said, when you’re a small business and you don’t want to spend 30 percent of your budget on marketing, you have to think of interesting, clever ways of getting through to the industry. And to this day, several years later, we still get inquiries on our online form. We say, “Why are you reaching out to us?” People say, “Dinosaur technology.” Or, you know, “Jurassic Park,” or whatever.
In our front hallway here, we have about a 13 foot dinosaur suit that you can get in. It might show up at the [National Restaurant Association] show this year, I don’t know.
Skift Table: I’ve seen it on your Instagram feed.
Kokonas: Yeah. One of our marketing folks on their first day here, she was like, “What do you want me to do in my first week?” And I said, “I need you to find me a large dinosaur.”
But I think having this stuff is important, right? I mean, we work in the hospitality business as well. Restaurants are in the hospitality business. We try to make people happy. When I walk through my restaurants I’m reminded of why we exist. And that’s to make people happy. Tock is in support of people doing that all around the world. And if we can’t have some fun with our marketing, then we totally failed.
Skift Table: How do you measure the return on investment with things like that?
Kokonas: With something like that, I don’t even try. But I will say that the dinosaur suit cost under $4,000. And my Medium posts cost me just my time. Buying OpenTablesaurus.com cost $15.99. So I would say that my ROI is pretty spectacular on that.
Skift Table: I can’t imagine that you’re making many friends in the restaurant reservation space with doing these things.
Kokonas: If I’m doing my job right, the staff at OpenTable is pulling their hair out every day. And, by the way, I’ve had dinner with Glenn, the CEO of Booking Holdings. We are friends. But, it’s like when I did the Ferriss podcast, he emailed me the next day being like, “Dude, I just listened to that. That was awesome.”
So, I think that it’s like a football team playing football. At the end of the day you shake hands. I don’t know Ben Leventhal very well, but when I see him we’re totally fine. I want to bash his teeth in metaphorically speaking, not literally.
Skift Table: What about what you did with Reserve? Emailing journalists after you knew the deal with Resy was about to be announced and trashing the company.
Kokonas: So, again, I actually like the Reserve guys. But once I heard they were going to be purchased by Resy, should I just leave their marketing plan for a Monday morning? Or should I make sure that it goes out on Friday?
And, furthermore, the thing that I can’t abide by is bullshit. So, because I have the actual data and I know their revenue numbers and I know how many restaurants are on there, when I read press releases from Resy… It’s like Rudy Giuliani is their spokesperson. It’s complete fabrication.
Skift Table: How calculated is your marketing strategy?
Kokonas: I’d say that our overall ad spend and social media spend and Google ads and SEO and all that is very, very calculated and very professional. Then, every now and then I see an opportunity. And I’m just sitting at home drinking a glass of wine and I’m like, “Yeah. This might have some legs.” And I just sleep on it and then the next day I come into work and everyone’s looking at me going, “Oh my God. What did you do?”
So long as what you’re doing is not actually harmful, I think people respond well to it. So long as that when they finally call you, you can back that up with substance. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m very, very serious about this.
I spend 80 hours a week working on Tock. And I love what we’re doing and I love helping restaurants and I really believe in it. With that said, if I’m not willing to put on a dinosaur costume and walk around, I’m not really committed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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