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OpenTable Upgraded!

If there's a restaurant out there that actually serves crow, Citi analyst Mark Mahaney might not mind a plate of it.

Mahaney upgraded shares of web-based reservations specialist OpenTable (Nasdaq: OPEN  ) this morning, less than three months after he downgraded the stock at a much lower price point.

Back in June, the analyst took the stock down a peg -- from "buy" to "hold" -- after it hit his $45 price target. What brings Mahaney back to the table now, with the stock closing over the weekend at a price 26% above his late June exit?

According to Mahaney, the story has changed. He sees improving trends, but that's not a recent development. The company posted a healthy 37% spike in quarterly revenue five weeks ago. Despite macro concerns over the state of dining out, OpenTable's top line has been accelerating during the recession. In other words, this isn't a new development.

Mahaney also sees OpenTable as a growing play on smartphone adoption, but that's no "stop the presses" event, either. I've been booking dining reservations through OpenTable's application for Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPhone for more than a year.

Mahaney's third salient point is the game-changing potential of OpenTable's Spotlight initiative -- but he's late for that bandwagon, too. Merrill Lynch's Justin Post upgraded the stock last month based largely on Spotlight.

Spotlight is OpenTable's program -- currently being tested in two cities -- where folks can buy discounted vouchers for popular eateries. The model has propelled market leader Groupon toward a 10-figure valuation in venture-capital financing rounds.

Margins in this space can be pretty juicy, but the market's also getting pretty crowded. Everybody seems to be playing the Groupon card. Travelzoo (Nasdaq: TZOO  ) , The Knot (Nasdaq: KNOT  ) , and Yelp have all dived into this niche, and they won't all succeed.

OpenTable will face challenges -- and not just from Yelp. OpenTable has working relationships with 12,250 North American restaurants and another 1,878 abroad, but won't offering a single city-specific deal for a particular customer alienate its base? If OpenTable becomes a site known for both dining discounts and online reservations, won't it tempt eateries that aren't discounting to seek a rival service? Before Groupon's rise awakened the sector, OpenTable had no inclination to follow in the footsteps of dining loyalty specialist Rewards Network (Nasdaq: DINE  ) . It does occasionally offer more points in its rewards program for participating restaurants, but that won't rattle the system as dramatically as half-off vouchers for a new client hungry for first-time diners.

This doesn't mean that I'm wavering in my bullish conviction. OpenTable has more than doubled since I recommended it to Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter subscribers last summer. It's holding up well against competitive threats and accelerating growth is always a welcome omen. The company has done nothing but blow analyst estimates out of the water with every passing quarter since last year's IPO.

However, when you're eating in a crowded restaurant with reformed bears, it's always nice to know where the exits are -- just in case the kitchen is fresh out of crow.

Have you ever used OpenTable for a restaurant reservation? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

The Knot and OpenTable are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. 

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of new stocks, and has even recommended several fresh IPOs to newsletter readers in the past -- including OpenTable. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 15, 2010, at 2:34 PM, 8cents wrote:

    Do you have any new information that OpenTable and Yelp AREN'T partnering? In early June they announced Yelp users could reserve tables via OpenTable from Yelp reviews.

    This means that MORE restaurants will be pressured to use OpenTable for the convenience diners will have in quickly reserving upon reading a Yelp review.

    So either you know something about this or this is an uninformed article. Additionally OpenTable is a CRM system. It is not a mere website. It is a sophisticated piece of software that adds a lot of value to restaurants.

    I have no affiliation with them other than being a happy shareholder who believes in knowing the full story. I hope this comment is useful information.

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