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North Star Podcast

Mar 18, 2019

My guest today is Nick Kokonas, the Co-founder of The Alinea Group of restaurants. His restaurant Alinea has been named the best restaurant in America and also the best restaurant in the World. Nick is also the Co-founder and CEO of Tock incorporated, a reservations and CRM system for restaurants with clients in more than 20 countries. In this episode, we dive deep into the restaurant industry. Nick and I begin by discussing how he applies behavioral economics to his bars and restaurants. Then we talk about the design of Next bar, the Aviary, and how he's thinking about the upcoming redesign. We explore many aspects of the restaurant industry. From menu design, to branding, to reservations, to designing experiences. We talked about why golf is the greatest sport in the world, how to increase throughput at a bar or restaurant, and the virtues of dynamic pricing. We also compare and contrast high end restaurants around the world from New York to Argentina.


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1:49 How Nick came to meet Noble Prize winning Economist Richard Thaler, how he applies behavioral economics to the restaurant business, and how small behavioral cues can lead to big changes in results

7:05 Why does Nick care about metrics like revenue per minute per seat instead of average check size, the importance of throughout, and the new Flex AI tool offered by Tock

11:22 Why has the restaurant industry not adopted dynamic pricing?

14:34 Is fine-dining around the world becoming all the same due to Instagram? How has shifts in information created a new kind of chef who mixes art and science at a very early age?

21:44 How does Nick look at food costs and why are truffles so expensive?

25:50 How does the Alinea group manage the trade-off between hospitality and efficiency, and the thought-process behind the new re-design.

31:06 How Chicago’s West Loop become such a hotspot for good restaurants, parallels with New York’s Meatpacking district of Chelsea, and the importance of real estate in the restaurant business

35:31 Importance of giving false choices in parenting and in restaurants

39:02 The origin story of Tock and how it delivers a superior experience for restaurants and customers

51:10 Why Nick becomes every business plan with the experience of going to the place, what’s wrong with most business plans for restaurants, and behind-the-scenes drama at high-end restaurants

58:17 Why are Half Mezcal Margaritas Nick’s favorite drink?

1:00:30 Why Nick enjoys playing golf, David’s story about sneaking into Cypress Point, and how Bryson deChambeau is changing golf

1:07:30 What does Nick think about effective business writing, the importance of editing, being ok with saying “I don’t know” and Trump’s ability to distill ideas into simple rhetoric.

1:13:00 Why did Nick called everyone into work on Chicago’s Polar Vortex day and willingness to do things that others don’t.

1:17:30 How is Nick prepping for the macro environment slowdown given that restaurants are one of the least recession proof industry?

1:18:57 Why people don’t like to make decisions, and why Nick will never work with anyone who can’t make decisions – even if they are the wrong ones.

1:20:36 Nick’s requirements for hospital hotel and why he likes the Crosby Street Hotel in NYC.

1:23:49 How Nick and Grant studied the dew point of water to avoid condensation at the tables in Alinea.