Next Restaurant - Hors d'Oeuvres

(credit: Next Restaurant Facebook page)

L___: I’m in. Paris 1906 here I come!
Q___: Nope, guess I didn’t get it
D___: I didn’t get it, either. Congrats to you, L___, and have a great time tonight!! Los Nopales, here I come! The carne asada is excellent at Los Nopales.
P___: Have a wonderful time, L___. It is so worth the wait.

This type of conversation on Next Restaurant’s Facebook page is pretty standard: people announcing they’ve gotten one of the very few tables released earlier that day, and people they’ve never met “liking” the status or congratulating them on receiving a reservation.

And if you get a table at Next, you definitely deserve congratulations. Chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant with business partner Nick Kokonas is one of Chicago’s toughest reservations – diners have to sign up at the restaurant’s website to buy tickets. And the restaurant’s Facebook page has become a tight community of foodies, all of them competing for one of the coveted two-to-four-person tables (or the even more competitive chef’s table, which seats six people).

“Everyone is supportive and encouraging to those who haven’t been able to dine at Next yet,” says active Facebooker Jordan Lill. “You generally feel happy for diners who finally get a ‘golden ticket.’”

Next is now approaching the final days of its Paris 1906 menu — Achatz and executive chef Dave Beran’s inaugural menu, inspired by French chef Auguste Escoffier — which features turtle soup, pressed duck, and chicken-mousse-stuffed poached cucumbers. The menu changes cuisines and time periods every three months, and the next multi-course meal will takes its diners to Thailand 2032.

For the diners who have gotten to experience Paris 1906, there are thousands more waiting to try the restaurant. In addition to the tables sold before the restaurant’s opening, Kokonas announces on the Facebook page several same-night tables that sell out in minutes. According to Kokonas, when they released 65 tables for a late-night reservation slot at 10:15 p.m. in mid-May, 4,000 people logged on to the restaurant’s website to try to book a table. People e-mailed Kokonas saying, “’Oh, the software didn’t work,’” he says. “No, it worked. It was just that one-half of 1 percent were able to buy a table.”

Grant Achatz with business partner Nick Kokonas (credit: Alinea website)

Kokonas’s innovative ticketing system—similar to buying tickets to a concert, where people pay in advance for limited seats and pay more or less depending on the day of the week and time of day—is frustrating for people who don’t have access to a computer at all times.

It’s partly this feeling of mutual frustration that creates the community on the Facebook page, says Lisa Meid, another active Facebooker.

“This is one of the more difficult reservations to get right now,” she says. “And while we’re all sitting around click, click, clicking to try to buy tickets (or waiting for same night tics to get posted on FB), it’s natural to seek out others doing the same and to be interested in who gets tickets that day and who doesn’t. If instead we were all calling a reservation line, there would be no community at all.”

At the same time, the Facebook page also offers Kokonas the chance to communicate with Next’s fans in an easy, non-intrusive way, whether it’s to announce new tables or tell customers that they’re all booked up. It’s what he’d been doing for years with Alinea, his previous project with Achatz. He’d spend a few hours a day commenting on blogs that reviewed or mentioned Alinea, whether they had five followers or 5,000, and he’d respond directly to people who e-mail him. He’s continued to reach out to bloggers with Next, but Facebook allows him to reach more people.

The Facebook page itself actually happened “by accident,” says Kokonas. In unveiling its ticketing software, Next ran into a few technical glitches, such as a continuously crashing e-mail server. Kokonas created the Facebook page as a way to keep potential customers abreast of what was going on, but without spamming their inboxes.

Those early hiccups were also the reason people felt instantly connected to the restaurant, even before it opened. “Repeating others, thanks very much for the continued updates throughout the day – it makes all the difference!” one user wrote.

Next Restaurant Foie Gras

(credit: Next Restaurant Facebook page)

“Finally worked,” said one user who successfully bought a ticket. “Used my iPhone to complete the purchase. Thanks for all the updates! We can’t wait to dine with you next month for our anniversary!”

In the end, Next has created a community of people who are all really excited about the chance to eat a once-(or twice)in-a-lifetime meal with other people passionate about food.

“They have genuinely created a one-of-a-kind idea that people like me are very respectful and in some ways in awe of,” says Facebooker Rupert Vaughan. “They took huge risks by trying something no one had done: tickets, designing a menu around a time and a place, creating a cocktail bar [Aviary, next door to Next] where the bartenders are actually in a back kitchen designed for making crazy drinks. When people take big risks and succeed, other people like me respect that. If, in ten years, half the cocktails bars have cocktail kitchens, we lucky few get to say we were there when it all started.”