Last month, I stumbled into Umami Burger, a restaurant here in San Francisco. It was lunchtime on a weekend and the restaurant was crowded, but the host asked for my mobile phone number and told me the restaurant would text me when a table was ready.
There's an app for that, it appears, since the host put my number into an iPad. And it worked: About 10 minutes later, while I was out for a walk, the message came in. The app in question: NoshList, which is leaving closed beta and should be appearing for free in the App Store tonight.
The fact that this is a free app intrigues me. Any restaurant owner, or even just an industrious host, can download the app to their iPad and start using it nearly immediately. There's no contract to sign, no OpenTable installation to deal with, hardly any set-up.
Update, thanks to a commenter and Twitter followers: There are direct competitors in this space. See BuzzTable, Diner Connection, NoWait, QLess, Recess, Table's Ready, and TurnStar. None of them are free, however.
The advantage over the other restaurant paging technology, those buzzing hockey pucks that you sometimes see: cost, range, reliability. With a system that "pages" cell phones, the cap ex is carried by customers. And the signal reaches to wherever there is cellular service. (If they don't show up when their table is ready, the app can call them and play a pre-recorded voice message.)
But the real competitor, says founder Craig Walker, is the paper list. "At the end of the day, they throw away the lists!" NoshList absorbs the phone numbers of its customers. NoshList won't let restaurateurs download the numbers themselves (thank you, Craig), but it will help hosts recognize returning and repeat visitors. That, in itself, is valuable.
Future (likely paid) versions of the app may offer restaurant owners the ability to survey diners, or perhaps send them offers.
There is one big missing feature: a return path for the SMS messages. When a diner gets the your-table-is-ready text message, they can't reply to it. Walker says that may also come in the future, as a paid upgrade. Seconds, another SMS app for customer/business interaction, has the return path in it.
NoshList is using the company's own messaging infrastructure, and not Twilio, as Seconds is. I thought at first that perhaps NoshList's tech wasn't up to that, but Walker knows his telecoms. His previous company, Grand Central, was acquired by Google and became Google Voice. I expect we'll see two-way SMS added in to a premium version.
Google Ventures is funding NoshList by way of Firespotter Labs, the company Walker set up to launch apps like this. Firespotter previously launched another app: Nosh, a menu-item rating service that appears similar to Oink.
Umami Burger, by the way, is killer. Try the pickle plate. Note that the SF location is also within walking distance of competing high-end burger joints Roam and Super Duper. And I bet I get more comments about these restaurants than I do about NoshList.