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Google's Brian Fitzpatrick says he's got just the ticket for Alinea

What can a Google engineer bring to Alinea and Next?

Brian Fitzpatrick, Google's first Chicago-based engineer and a leader in the company's work on censorship and government surveillance, is leaving the Internet giant to join chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas, the team behind Alinea, Next and the Aviary.

Fitzpatrick will be improving and expanding the restaurants' ticketing system, through which customers reserve seats for dinner just like they would for a play, concert or sporting event. Taxes and gratuity are included in the ticket price.

Already restaurants such as Trois Mec in Los Angeles and Aldea in New York have adopted the system. Other ticketed restaurants in Chicago include Elizabeth, 42 Grams and EL Ideas, although not all of them are using the system Fitzpatrick will be developing further.

Fitzpatrick, 43, is a co-founder with Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan of ORD Camp, Chicago's most exclusive technology conference. He starts his new role with Kokonas and Achatz in early December.

"It's the first thing I've seen to come around in a long time that seems good for everyone," Fitzpatrick said. "It makes the dining experience better for customers. The restaurant can be more profitable, and there's less food waste. And Nick doesn't have to hire someone to answer the phone all day and say, 'No.'"

Before adopting the ticketing system at Alinea, consistently rated among the top restaurants in the world, Kokonas employed three full-time workers to handle reservation lines, he wrote in a June blog post. The post, long enough to be deemed a manifesto for restaurant ticketing, has generated more than 1 million page views, Kokonas said.

"A high volume of calls, especially around the days we would open a month's reservations book, meant that callers often could not get through," he wrote. "One time so many people called that the entire 312-867 exchange went down. AT&T asked us if we were running a Groupon."

Fitzpatrick met Kokonas Jan. 14, 2009. He knows the date.

"I keep almost everything," he demurred, half-joking, in a joint phone interview with Kokonas, as he looked up the date. "Grant had come over to Google to give a talk."

Thereafter, Kokonas and Fitzpatrick kept bumping into each other at dinners or events. Fitzpatrick invited Kokonas to ORD Camp. And at some point, Kokonas began soliciting Fitzpatrick's advice, forwarding that blog post, for instance, and asking for feedback.

Fitzpatrick replied that he had already read the post. Twice.

"He asked me to vet some engineers, to help him find some people who are not going to screw him over," Fitzpatrick said. "So we sat in his kitchen and drank espresso for two hours. And I decided I didn't want to advise people on this. I wanted to do this. I think this is the future of restaurants."

Fitzpatrick joked that when he extended the offer, it was the only moment he'd ever seen Kokonas rendered speechless.

"I didn't expect it," Kokonas said. "But I instantly said, 'OK. We'll figure it out.' He's joining not as an employee but as a founding partner in this effort."

When Fitzpatrick launched Google's Chicago engineering team in 2005, the company employed him and 29 sales people here, he said.

"One engineer showed up in jeans, and everybody else was dressed up fancy," Fitzpatrick recalled. "And I thought, it's never going to be the same, folks."

Chicago is now home to more than 550 employees, including about 100 engineers, according to a Google spokeswoman.

Fitzpatrick, who goes by "Fitz," has not helmed the engineering team here for many years. He moved on to found and lead Google's "data liberation front," ensuring Google users can take their files and photos elsewhere, or delete them.

He also leads the company's transparency engineering team, which tallies and helps publish the number and types of government requests Google receives to remove content or turn over information about users for criminal investigations. His umbrella included attempted and achieved government censorship, concerns about copyright and trademark violations, as well as government surveillance.

"Fitz's vision, leadership and energy have made a big impact both here at Google Chicago and in the Chicago tech community," Jim Lecinski, the head of Google's Chicago office, said in a statement.

A New Orleans native, he came to Chicago to study Latin and minor in Greek at Loyola University. Prior to joining Google, he was a software engineer at CollabNet and Apple. He also co-wrote "Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others" with Ben Collins-Sussman.

Most importantly, he says he refuses to move to Silicon Valley.

mmharris@tribpub.com

Twitter @chiconfidential

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