Table Magic: Africa’s bold answer to OpenTable

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With all the affection bestowed upon restaurant services like Zagat and OpenTable, it’s high time that a standout name starts crescendoing in Africa. Cape Town-based Table Magic is stepping forward to lend its voice.

Last year, Google paid US$151 million to acquire restaurant ratings service Zagat — after its US$500 million bid to acquire Yelp fell through — and restaurant reservations service, OpenTable, is currently valued just over a billion US dollars.

Whether one agrees with the jaw dropping price tags or not, there’s demand for similar services in emerging markets. Nairobi based online restaurant guide, EatOut, received a grant via Samsung Mobile’s bada Application Challenge last year to roll out its mobile offering and has expanded beyond its home country of Kenya into Tanzania.

Further South, Table Magic is seeing good traction. “Our customer base has grown 400% since January of this year,” says founder Kelly May. Drawing from her time spent in the UK, May believes the online restaurant booking concept is set to expand rapidly in South Africa. Having launched in April of last year, Table Magic claims first to market in May’s home country to offer restaurant reviews and bookings combined with a loyalty point programme.

Table Magic is beautifully designed and offers visitors an intuitive interface for exploring dining options. You can browse by restaurant location, booking date, cuisine, special offers, occasion, rating and new additions. The bookings process (including edits and cancellations) is dead simple and claiming loyalty points is as easy as writing a review about your dining experience — just click the review link in your booking confirmation email. The loyalty points called “star rewards” can be redeemed at participating restaurants for freebie bottles of wine and meals.

May tells us that revenue is collected by charging restaurants a per head booking fee on customers who booked through Table Magic. There are no sign up or subscription fees for patrons or restaurants. Listing on the website, and the marketing Table Magic does on the restaurant’s behalf, is all included in the booking fee.

Restaurants benefit from a strong direct marketing and feedback channel with patrons.

Table Magic smacks of elegance and it makes sense given May’s background. She has a Bachelor of Business Science degree from the University of Cape Town — with Honours in Information Systems — and a Post Grad Diploma in Marketing, which she acquired through the London School of Marketing.

Table Magic is self-funded and May, together with partner Roy De Gouveia, is currently working on growing the business in South Africa, but will target Nigeria and Kenya next, with other African markets to follow. Locally, May cite’s ComeDine as Table Magic’s biggest competitor and the US based OpenTable (or toptable in the UK) internationally.

First Africa, then the world

What would it take for an emerging restaurant review and booking service to find favour globally? Customer service for one thing. Definitely. Having an efficient contact centre presence in the various locales the service moves into is important. Flexible packages tailored for each region? Absolutely. But, what about developer APIs and plug-ins?

Yelp’s API for example, allows developers to integrate Yelp’s business reviews, photos and deals into their own apps and sites. It’s a symbiotic relationship where developer apps become more useful and Yelp benefits from the relay traffic. The Yelp developer API doesn’t reach to Africa, however. To date, there is no go-to restaurant ratings or reviews API available in Africa.

There’s also an opportunity to foster the relationship with restaurant owners by providing them booking management right from their own websites and apps. May tells us that Table Magic is in the process of building a plug-in for restaurants that will allow patrons to book and manage tables directly from restaurant sites.

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