'Hi, it's Heston Blumenthal...'
Guess who's coming to dinner? Heston Blumenthal rings lucky ballot winners to welcome them to his famed Fat Duck restaurant, with varying results.
A table at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck is the hottest ticket in town, and more than 250,000 applicants have missed out. But several groups of financial professionals have scammed the online booking system, and secured more than 100 reservations under false names.
Dinner at The Fat Duck at Crown will cost $525 a head when it relocates next year. Desperate dinner-goers have advertised for tables at online sites such as Gumtree, and are willing to pay $1000 a head to dine at the restaurant when it relocates to Melbourne in February.
Two weeks before the online booking system opened, a trio of Collins Street-based financial professionals hired an IT expert based in Asia to write a computer program to bypass controls that limit how many times they could apply.
"We looked at the source code for the booking site and noted that it didn't record IP addresses, just email address and phone details," Fairfax Media was told. "From that moment we realised it was going to be pretty easy to book multiple tables."
In the end the trio has secured more than 50 confirmed bookings for The Fat Duck, varying from two to six guests per table, after submitting more than 800 applications.
They are now being gifted to wealthy clients, or sold to colleagues.
"All are going to friends and clients at cost price," Fairfax Media was told. "We wanted to guarantee our reservations, and this was the only way to do it."
Another group has secured just over 40 tables using such methods, and has decided to sell them at a profit of $500 a head on top of the $525 per head dining price. They are being sold within a closed email group of financial professionals.
Fairfax Media believes a third party, which brings in gambling tourists from Asia, has also secured reservations via the same means.
Crown and The Fat Duck have given successful applicants 14 days to pay for their tables in advance. "That effectively gives us 14 days to on-sell the tables and provide genuine credit card details," said one of the table scalpers.
One of the successful groups was inspired by a table scalping operations in the US, which secure tables at exclusive restaurants to sell at a profit. The most famous is called Today's Epicure in New York, which is so successful it has its own website and phone app.
Run by Pascal Riffaud, a former concierge at New York's St Regis Hotel, it books tables months in advance under pseudonyms and resells them on the day of the booking.
In total Crown received 89,179 ballot entries, and disqualified 2944 on the basis they were duplicates. There were 14,000 successful ballot entries, but Fairfax Media has confirmed at least 100 of these have been secured by table scalpers.
All have been booked under pseudonyms using real email addresses and telephone numbers.
Sources at Crown said its legal team was acting to try and reverse fake bookings.
Peter Crinis, executive general manager of hotels, food and beverage at Crown Resorts, said the ballot was conducted by a third party provider.
"Crown Melbourne is committed to upholding the integrity of the ballot process and has flagged a small number of reservations for further investigation," he said. "The on-selling of reservations is prohibited by the ballot terms and conditions and internal measures have been put in place to ensure this process remains fair and equitable for all Fat Duck diners."
While Crown may try to cancel come bookings, it appears the table scalpers have not broken any specific laws.
Victoria's Major Sporting Event Act only covers ticket scalping for specific events, such as the AFL Grand Final, and does not cover restaurant bookings.
On Monday Blumenthal said: "The ballot system was always going to be a problem due to the sheer numbers of people who applied. The demand was overwhelming. So it was very important for me to contact at least a few of the successful people to congratulate and thank them for going through the process."
with Jessica Wright