Foodies using technology to get tough reservations


On a recent evening, the line outside State Bird Provisions in San Francisco's Fillmore District stretched about 40 people deep. All were trying to snag a highly-coveted walk-in reservation.

John Bloodworth of San Francisco got in line at 4:30 p.m., an hour before the restaurant opened. "So knowing that it would make a couple of people happy, I decided to bite the bullet and get in line early and take one for the team," he said.

Only a few tables can be reserved ahead of time and those are snapped up 60 days in advance, the earliest you can book a table. State Bird became the rage when Bon Appetit named it the "Best Restaurant in the Nation in 2012."

"It's more just the experience of coming and saying you've waited in line," said Tana Peterman, a Seattle resident.

Rana Brarar of Fairfax had been trying to get a reservation for weeks without any success. She knew that new reservations open up 60 days in advance of the date. "So I knew there had to be new reservations, but I couldn't figure out when they put them up. I tried at noon. One time I tried at midnight," she said.

Software security engineer Diogo Mónica figured it out. He developed a program that would notify him the minute a reservation opened up. He declined to talk on camera, wo we went to Dan Garcia of the computer science department at UC Berkeley to find out how the program worked.

He said Mónica's program grabs a snapshot of the reservation's page every minute. And 99 percent of the time it says, "No reservations currently available."

"And if those are ever different, that means that the reservation page is updated. So, rather than saying, 'No reservations today,' if ever that changes to say, 'We have five reservations,' he'll know that," Garcia explained.

The program then immediately sends the user an email.

It didn't take long for Mónica to figure out that the reservation would open up every day at the same time -- 4 a.m. -- and were often gone within 30 minutes. Others figured that out too, including an eBay user who gobbled up a bunch of them and sold the reservations on eBay.

"It might be worth it, but it depends on what time. Is it $20 for 5:30, for 9 p.m.? Is it $100 for 7 p.m.?" said Bloodworth.

The reservations sold for $20. Several buyers left positive comments about their purchase, but not the general manager of State Bird Provisions. He cancelled all of those reservations. So, that eBay seller is no longer selling.

So foodies, your choices are waiting in line or getting up at 4 a.m. Brarar chose 4 a.m. and was able to snag a reservation for 5:30 p.m. "Well, I have to say I felt like I beat the system, a little bit," she said.

By the way, Bloodworth, by being the first in line, was able to get 7:30 p.m. reservations. Peterman, who was at the end of the line, got 9:15 p.m. reservations.

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