A visit to Dhamaka takes some advance planning, but until recently, there was a way into one of Manhattan’s most buzzed-about spots that didn’t involve weeks of waiting or constantly checking for a cancellation. For those who were a part of an online group called #FreeRezy, getting a table at the city’s hottest Indian restaurant often came down to four words: “Dhamaka on Saturday please.”
Dhamaka releases its reservations at midnight each day, according to owner Roni Mazumdar. His customers often set alarms for the middle of the night — a month in advance — just to sit in his restaurant, or otherwise try their luck with Resy’s reservation waitlist system. As many as 1,500 people can be waiting for a cancellation each night, he says. Securing a spot can feel like winning the lottery.
#FreeRezy, which amassed and handed out reservations from dozens of Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants, was a group chat based out of encrypted messaging platform Telegram. Online reservation exchanges have existed before, but this might be the first to offer them for free.
The group comes from Cole, Steve, and Sal, three former investment bankers who asked to be referred to by their first names in this article because they worry about repercussions in their industries. They say the system of making reservations is broken in New York City — even though two of them no longer live in the five boroughs — and thought they had the solution, until Resy shut them down in early February.
According to Cole, the trio was looking to work on a side project last fall when it occurred to them: Getting a hot reservation typically requires advance planning, but with a small breach of Resy’s terms of service, it could be a lot easier. “The value to someone in the group is you don’t have to plan a month in advance,” he says. “People in their 20s have busy schedules.”
Cole says the group has manually booked more than 1,000 restaurant reservations over the last three months. They search online for when restaurants drop their reservations, set alarms throughout the day, and book several tables at once from multiple Resy accounts. On January 30, the last time #FreeRezy posted before it went dark, its founders dropped more than 70 reservations in a single day. Most reservations fell between 7 and 9 p.m., and in-demand tables at Michelin-starred restaurants like Cosme and Le Bernardin were up for grabs, as was a four-top at TikTok darling Saint Theo’s.
“We had a daily calendar,” he says. “When I’d wake up at 6 a.m. every morning to book reservations, I knew what was coming up that day.”
#FreeRezy launched with just a few members in late October, but by February, the online group had swelled to over 700 people, almost entirely through word of mouth. By the time Resy pulled the plug on the group in early February, band members from the Chainsmokers and Lost Kings had joined, and the group was adding more than 100 members each week, most of which were tech and finance workers in their 20s, according to Steve.
Last-minute planners were eating it up, but restaurants were less enthused.
At Dhamaka, Mazumdar says he and chef Chintan Pandya first noticed that customers were coming in with names that differed from those on their vaccination cards and driver’s licenses in December. On one night of service, he recalls the issue occurring with four or five separate parties in a single night. “Something was off,” he says.
Things got so bad that Pandya, who occasionally works the door at Dhamaka, held one group of four for 15 minutes to make sure that another customer with the correct name didn’t show up to claim the reservation. Of course they never did, and the group was eventually seated. “We felt so bad,” Mazumdar says.
At Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which was occasionally listed on #FreeRezy, marketing director Barbara Leung says she hadn’t noticed anything off, and employees hadn’t raised any concerns. But she says the Chinatown restaurant only lists around three to five booths on Resy each night and doesn’t have a policy that requires customer names to match their reservation. Nor should it, she argues.
“I totally get the frustration for customers,” she says. “But from the restaurant perspective, so long as it’s not a flood of no-shows, it is still revenue coming in.”
Leung learned that the group had been shut down on February 4, after Resy emailed the restaurant saying that “a small group of Resy users” had been booking reservations in a way that violated its terms of service. “We have taken prompt action and have disabled these user accounts,” the email read.
Cole, Sal, and Steve confirmed that all of their accounts and reservations made through Resy had been deleted, including those they created for personal use. The trio officially announced the end of #FreeRezy over Telegram on February 4. An outpouring of sympathetic messages from members followed. A Change.org petition to “bring #FreeRezy back” garnered 36 signatures.
Resy “rarely” encounters groups like #FreeRezy because they violate the platform’s terms of service agreements, a spokesperson for the company says, but online platforms for exchanging reservations have cropped up before in NYC. Last month, after New Yorkers were exchanging $1,500 reservations on Reddit, Tock founder Nick Kokonas told Eater that the groups aren’t anything new. They pop up every few years, about as often as another generation of Goldman Sachs interns arrives in the city thinking they have a new idea.
“It feels like it was only a matter of time,” adds Lindsey Peckham, a partner at consulting agency Pomme who worked the doors at Minetta Tavern from 2012 to 2016, back when the Greenwich Village restaurant was nearly impossible to get into. Multiple websites were selling reservations at that time, including PrimeTime Tables and TableXchange, but the one that plagued the Keith McNally restaurant was called Killer Rezzy.
In 2014, Peckham recalls, Minetta Tavern experienced a reservation “crisis” due to last-minute cancellations and customers coming into the restaurant under fake names. When she attempted to contact customers and confirm their reservations ahead of time, her calls went through to fake or disconnected phone numbers. As many as 50 of the restaurant’s 220 tables would not show up for their reservations, she recalls. “There was nothing that we could do,” Peckham says.
While Killer Rezzy charged customers between $50 and $100 for its reservations, #FreeRezy was, for the most part, actually free. The founders say their plan was to start off offering all of their reservations for free, and eventually incorporate a paid option to give certain members first access to the group’s reservations. It also cut down on last-minute cancellations by implementing several rules that discouraged such behavior, including banning members who canceled within 24 hours of a reservation time.
Even if the prospect of free, easily accessible reservations spoke to New Yorkers — and helped the group grow to more than 700 people in three months — restaurant owners say it adds another barrier to an already competitive reservation process. “I would rather keep the process as democratic as possible,” Mazumdar says, “so that everyone who wishes to try our places can come in, get in, and have a great time. [#FreeRezy] takes out the everyday population. Those who don’t have these connections.”
As for Steve, Cole, and Sal, the founders claim they have been banned from Resy, although the spokesperson for the platform says they are welcome to make new accounts, so long as they abide by the platform’s terms of service. In the end, it may be too much to ask for these former investment bankers.
“There’s always going to be drawbacks when you disrupt something,” according to Steve.
“I’d do it again,” Cole adds.