If you’re yearning to try Carbone’s spicy rigatoni vodka or the Polo Bar’s bacon cheeseburger, it could take you months — and some luck — to get a reservation. But a website called Appointment Trader may be able to get you a table tonight, if you’re willing to pay several hundred dollars.
The site, which started in 2021, lets people with existing reservations sell them on a virtual marketplace. And it gives diners the chance to snag a table at a very exclusive restaurant, like Rao’s, where reservations have become harder to get than Taylor Swift tickets.
Though the platform trades reservations in hundreds of cities, Mr. Frey said, it is beginning to reach a significant customer base in New York City, where the site gets half of its traffic. In the process, it has become a growing concern for some traditional reservation platforms.
The idea for the site was born from the frustration of trying to make a high-demand reservation, said Jonas Frey, the site’s founder, who lives in Miami. He started the platform as a way for people to buy hard-to-get appointments at motor-vehicle departments, but quickly expanded it to include restaurants, hotel rooms, bars and clubs.
Mr. Frey, 35, created an algorithm that uses cellphone data he bought from vendors to identify the most popular restaurants and when they’ll be packed to set the price of each initial bid. So far, more than $2.4 million in reservations have been sold, according to the site.
Appointment Trader takes a cut of about 20 to 30 percent from the reservation’s sale price, depending on the type of reservation.
Of course, the original reservation costs nothing, except in cases where the diner has to pay a deposit. “There is a lot of demand for something that’s free,” Mr. Frey said.
Appointment Trader even allows users to bid on reservations that don’t exist yet. Those reservation slots can be created by restaurant managers, who often have the power to find room for powerful customers. Managers can then pocket the bid, Mr. Frey said.
AJ Bernstein of Las Vegas, who works at a tech company, has used the site for five reservations, at places including Sexy Fish in Miami, Delilah in Las Vegas, and Beauty & Essex and Mizumi in New York City. He said he was willing to spend hundreds of dollars to secure a reservation because “it’s really a drop in the bucket compared to the total amount” spent at dinner.
“These are restaurants that have exclusivity, and that makes it more desirable,” he said. “I’m paying more of a premium because I want to be at this specific restaurant.”
Mr. Bernstein, 48, said he views these restaurants as must-visit attractions, like the Statue of Liberty. The most he has paid was $200 to eat at Sexy Fish, where he said he spent $3,000 for four people. He has since gone three other times to the restaurant’s locations in South Florida and London.
In Manhattan, Nick DiMaggio, 33, has used Appointment Trader to book more than 220 reservations for restaurants like Carbone, Nobu Malibu and the Polo Bar, for himself and for clients of his concierge business, called Little Nicky.
“Everyone wants to get in somewhere they can’t and brag about it,” he said. He added, “The rich will pay anything for access.”
This may sound like scalping, which is illegal in many states. New York’s scalping law is particularly strict, but several lawyers said its language applies only to tickets, mostly in the sports and entertainment industries.
Last month, Yoshino, a New York sushi restaurant, alleged that someone was scalping its Tock reservations. And small groups like #FreeRezy and the Reddit subgroup r/FoodNYC have also posted reservations for the taking.
Apps similar to Appointment Trader, like Dorsia, promise to give their paying members access to exclusive reservations at restaurants they partner with. In 2014, a similar, short-lived service called ReservationHop drew a public outcry. Appointment Trader has drawn similar online criticism, but traditional reservation platforms have also been called out as contributing to this problem.
Resy specifies in fine print that users can’t sell or trade their reservations.
“Restaurants tell us that third parties who trade or monetize reservations by reselling them undermine the success of their businesses, and that Resy reservations obtained on third-party sites and accounts often lead to significant no-shows and late cancellations,” a spokeswoman for Resy said.
Nick Kokonas, the former chief executive of Tock and an owner of Alinea Restaurant in Chicago, threatened to sue Appointment Trader when it first came on the scene, but Tock’s current chief executive, Matthew Tucker, said the company is not pursuing a lawsuit and doesn’t view Appointment Trader as competition.
Customers who can afford to pay extra for a reservation are in “a very privileged position,” Mr. Tucker said. “Tock is much more democratic. You come on, you have the same chance as everyone else and hopefully you get it this month. It’s not for the privileged who can go on Appointment Trader and pay a lot more.”
Several popular New York restaurants with reservations listed on Appointment Trader declined to comment about the site.
Some diners who have used the Appointment Trader website and discussed it online, though, have complained that it doesn’t work. The New York Times tried to buy a confirmed reservation to the New York restaurant I Sodi for $40, but a reporter never received a response from the site. Attempts to contact Appointment Trader’s customer service several times via the platform and email were unsuccessful.
Mr. Frey acknowledged that his business lacked enough customer support staff and said the process could be easier for users. He said the platform was adding some features that would improve its customer response rate.
In December, Rob Kearny, 54, was planning a trip to New York City from Maine, and bid on a reservation at Rao’s for $200. After bidding, Mr. Kearny typed in his credit-card information; the site requested that he agree to its terms and conditions before confirming the sale. Mr. Kearny changed his mind after reading those terms, but his card was charged the full amount anyway. The site later reversed the charge.