After winning national acclaim from James Beard and Bon Appetit, it's no surprise that a table at State Bird Provisions has been notoriously hard to get in the past few months. However, those reservations are disappearing within seconds of becoming available. While trying to hack the system himself, one security engineer from Square believes that he uncovered a network of automated bots that snatch up online reservations at hot spots around San Francisco.
"I love food," Diogo Monica writes in a blog post, "This means that I'm bound to compete for reservations at good restaurants with the the hipsters that are native to San Francisco." To give himself an edge, Monica created code that would alert him whenever a table was available at State Bird -- either when they hit Urbanspoon's reservation system or when someone makes a cancellation. What he discovered, though, was that even with an instant notification, by the time he went to the site to book the table, it was gone:
After a while of running this script I had captured a good amount of data. One day I found myself looking at it and noticed that as soon as reservations became available on the website (at 4am), all the good times were immediately taken and were gone by 4:01am. It quickly became obvious that these were reservation bots at work. After a while even cancellations started being taken immediately from under me. It started being common receiving an email alerting of a change, seeing an available time, and it being gone by the time the website loaded.
Monica did what any hacker would do and modified his program. Rather than just sending him an email notification, he tweaked the code to instead make a reservation in his name. With the change, he was able to get a table no problem. He tells Inside Scoop that he is certain third-party "reservation bots" were responsible for the lack of available reservations.
As Eater points out, he's even gone open source and posted the code to Github. State Bird Chef-Owner Stuart Brioza, meanwhile, seemed impressed: "It's pretty amusing, and it's clever for sure," he told Inside Scoop, "the research he did is amazing. I had no idea; obviously I’m sleeping at 4am.”
Urbanspoon, for their part, responded by saying that reservation fraud and duplicate reservations aren't happening (although, it's not really "fraud" so much as it is automation):
Urbanspoon’s data on State Bird Provisions’ reservations do not support the findings reported in Diogo Monica’s post. While we will not disclose data about specific customers, we currently have processes in place to prevent duplicate reservations and combat reservation fraud. Urbanspoon’s goal is to give real diners the opportunity to make reservations. We’ve noticed that many diners will stop at nothing to get a table at the hottest restaurants in town, like State Bird Provisions, so we are constantly working on improving the overall reservations process to give all diners an opportunity to secure a table.
Despite the denial, a few people have already come forward pleading guilty. For example: