Mr. Tipple’s owner shifts focus and fills seats with ticketed experiences

When San Francisco’s dining and drinking venues started to reopen in spring 2021, Mr. Tipple’s was the first restaurant-music venue to open its doors. Jay Bordeleau, owner, creator, and mastermind behind Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio, created the space with a vision to unite music, delicious cocktails, and memorable food, and was eager to welcome guests back in. Bordeleau shares how he closed one restaurant, shifted the focus of another, and came out stronger than before.

How did you pivot when COVID hit?

We had to make the difficult decision to close our ten-year-old restaurant Maven. Our landlord for Mr. Tipple’s was open to negotiating the lease, but the landlord for Maven was not. Thankfully, the Maven staff got severance and transitioned to working at Mr. Tipple’s.

The ability to focus on music-forward Mr. Tipple’s has been a huge silver lining. We were able to strategically come up with a plan that allowed us to adhere to government mandates while also filling as many seats as possible using OpenTable ticketed experiences. We found a sweet spot offering unique experiences with a pricing model that allows us to collect pre-payments.

You’ve shopped around looking at systems, what conclusions did you come to for your business?

Originally we were doing experiences with Tock in 2016. We learned quickly that we were in the shadow of the symphony and were not getting exposure to theater diners. Tock was not delivering marketing at the time, and we realized people wanting to dine weren’t finding us, which was a huge problem.

We reached out to OpenTable, and within 4 weeks of being on OpenTable Experiences, we were completely full. Instead of 10 people for the first turn, we had 100 guests every Saturday opening. We achieved the symphony pre-show turn we needed.

OpenTable’s marketing service and software system are the perfect combination for Mr Tipple’s. On top of marketing and software, we quickly learned that using experiences helped us lower our ancillary costs. We now categorize OpenTable as a marketing cost in our P&L, rather than an operational cost, and have been happy with the results we have seen.

Why did you decide to use OpenTable?

We already knew that experiences work for us and our guests like them. With OpenTable, we’re able to add in ticketing while using the same reservation service for our typical bookings. For New Year’s Eve, we had limited occupancy at half capacity and ran two services with prepay, rather than no cover, because we needed to increase our revenue. Our staff’s experience and service style are so much more aligned with a restaurant approach as opposed to ticketing at a music venue. We’re managing tables rather than seats, for instance, two-top at table 21, not row A seat 21.

What has COVID taught you?

Never sign a personal guarantee on a lease. When I was young and 26, that’s what I needed to do to make my first restaurant come to life. I’m older, wiser, and having kids significantly changed my risk tolerance.

There’s something in the guest experience that has been lost in COVID. We were doing music live streams during COVID, and happy to still connect with guests, but the total experience was lost without being in person. The experience lacked purpose without hospitality, reaction, and the energy of guests enjoying the music. For example, guests tried to applaud the performer with messages in the chat with emoji clapping. We appreciated the support and engagement, but it just wasn’t the same vibe without hearing the claps and emotion in person.

Another lesson we learned is what happens when you lose sight of true hospitality. In COVID, hospitality turned transactional because we had to do what we could to keep our doors open. It was all about check average and turn times. Since reopening, our team has been hyperfocused on infusing the feeling of hospitality with every single person that comes to Mr. Tipple’s. This is what we are truly about and what our guests have been craving.

What do you think the future of dining looks like?

I am cautiously optimistic and scared at the same time. I am hopeful that there’s a renewed sense of appreciation from the guest for dining and hospitality. It seems like diners are focused on quality and are thankful to be in restaurants again.

But there’s so much pressure on restaurants right now. We’re expected to offer great food with only a skeleton crew running hot plates to new tables on the windy sidewalk. Rough.

This last year has shown a deep disparity between gender, race, ethnicity, and back of house versus front of house. I am hopeful we’ve had enough reflection that we can move forward in an equitable way, but it will take all of us to make that happen. This year has taught me that our journey towards progress is still steep, and justice is further than expected. We must double our efforts.

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