FoodView: Give me the DEETS...

Apparently, this is not anything new, but upscale restaurants are keeping tabs on their patrons. At one time waiters and maitre-d’s took notes directly onto the reservation books or kept information on file in their memory, but now there is technology specifically designed and to aid this recording and tracking of customers. As usual, technology is making things bigger and better, but also maybe more complicated and intrusive.

Susanne Craig explores the methods of intelligence collecting, as well as its importance in her article in the Dining section of the New York Times early September. The article “What Restaurants Know (About You),” looks at how restaurants keep files on their customers. This creates “highly personalized hospitality.”[1] Restaurants are making it their business to get to know its clients, some times in the most intimate ways, in an effort to make the dining experience extra personalized and smooth. This includes individual tastes and preferences, spending habits, even tracking profession.

According to Ann Shepherd (vice president for marketing at OpenTable), as Craig points out, this is called the “Cheers’ effect.” You know, where everyone knows your name. Knowing these details about patrons and potential customers, creates an atmosphere of familiarity, even if it is the first time visiting. It produces a place where everyone is friendly and knows you, a place where you can be comfortable, and enjoy things how you like it, like your local corner spot.[2]

In the ever-growing industry, with restaurants appearing all over the place at a high rate, this kind of personalization of service and the dining experience, gives restaurateurs a competitive edge. According to Craig, restaurant managers and owners believe that this kind of gathering details and information about customers can make or break their business. This is even highlighted through a quote of Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant; “’The ability to know and read your customer is critical for staying on top, particularly in power restaurants.’”[3]

This also appears in most every area that relies on customer service. As in retail, from low to high end, building relationships, through trust and individualization, is key to maintaining business. It is these relationships, forged through honesty and getting to know the customer as a person, which make that customer return and continue to patronize the business.  Also, there are systems, whether it is the point of sale system or other methods that track purchases as well as personal information. In retail settings this can help with determining where to potentially open another store or even what products are the most popular. This links to keeping notes on customers in restaurants, as it is all to build stronger and reliable relationships. It appears to be a good business practice to uphold quality and standards, as well as creating an environment that invites people to return.

Technology is making it easier (or more difficult depending on who you ask) to note and maintain the details—from major, like names and allergies, to the minor like ice preferences. As well as things like anniversaries, birthdays, spouses. Websites that we use all the time to make reservations such as OpenTable, give restaurants insight into who will be dining with them. In order to use those sites, you must create a profile and that profile is automatically shared with the restaurants. Although this profile created with signing up with the site is the bare minimum—email address, and area—the user can also list likes, as well as make notes of favorite restaurants.

 A New York Post article, “Is Your Restaurant Spying on You?” from December of 2010, brings up how OpenTable allows restaurants to find out more information about their customers, even if they do not make reservations with the website. It becomes a searching tool, where managers can type in a name and search the client. Carla Spatos and Brian Niemietz reveal in their article, that managers and owners of restaurants are likely to Google patrons, to find out even more about them. They call this “online sleuthing.”[4] Owners go as far as following twitter accounts, searching through blogs and other profiles, all the get the inside scoop to better serve.

Some headwaiters and restaurant owners believe that there could be excessive notes, and that that can overwhelm and prove not to be useful at all. This has become especially true when there is so much access to identity now through the internet. When the copious notes become too copious, and too much information proves dangerous; “That woman is not his wife…” or “Didn’t the market do poorly today, why is she here…?” The talent not only becomes how to employ information, but also tip toe around it as well.

Customers get profiled. Restaurants are identifying and then recording your kind of status: newcomer, regular, if you are a friend of the owner, or even a person who lives in the area. Not only that, but some clients are given code names or just acronyms for the headwaiter or the wait staff to discern certain patrons. For example some of these acronyms are LOL (little old lady), HWC (handle with care), FOM (friend of manager), PX (person extraordinaire) and NR (never refuse), to name a few. [5] There are names for people who are poor tippers or people who are extremely needy and difficult. These little gems are the labels that are most times unknowingly attached to a customer, and must remain secret in effort to deter lawsuits.

Larger groups of restaurants or networks sometimes share the intelligence gathered, letting even more people into the tics and tocks of customers, which could create infamy or honor. Your reputation can precede you.

The question becomes is this beneficial for the diners? This could be both yes and no.

Yes, it may create a certain atmosphere, where you are comfortable and the servers and staff and owner are not really strangers, they are your friends who know what color napkin you prefer. And yes, it may be nice to walk into a place and not have to repeat over and over that you like crushed rather than cubed ice. And yes, this upscale restaurant can feel like home to you, intimate and loyal. The diner gets the customized service of the staff and the restaurant, elevating the dining experience from just food to a unique experience catered to the specific individual. Dining and eating in restaurants is not only about the food, it is the experience and service that tends to stick to the ribs. It is also this experience that brings them back.

 But on the other hand the investigations and note keeping can be too much. Is it too much an invasion into privacy and identity?  With just a name these days, histories and profiles can be searched and found, noted and kept. This is not just a risk that diners encounter, but it is a risk of this highly open and accessible world though the internet. But certain facts about the patron are known to restaurants through the various booking websites, even if she is a first time visitor. The restaurant has the heads up and advantage, even though these online booking sites often contain scarce information. Is there something so wrong as walking in a restaurant as an anonymous, a blank canvas that the staff could get to know? What if someone wants to remain anonymous, and maintain her own mystery and privacy, as well as some remnant of unpredictability? This is a notion that seems to be fading in the minds of the owners of these power restaurants, but protecting identity and spontaneity is present in diners.

The manipulation of getting to know the customer, as a current, past or potential, is all in the restaurateur’s effort to maintain a competitive edge and business in a cutthroat world. This kind of exploitation of the patron goes both ways, a potential benefit to both the owner and customer—to get the business ahead as well as to create an environment for the patron. Knowing the client, her needs, whims and tendencies, are all keys to a great service, but also stumbles on the line of intrusive.  A custom tailored dinner or dining experience can ruin surprise and take the adventure out of eating, which against the hopes of the restaurant owner, could result in no result, no return. Technology has only granted further access into personality and recording, which was once an art and mildly less invasive. This, though, is a trend that will not vanish, as it has already been going on in the restaurant business, and the times are allowing it to grow.

Check out my sources page for full links to the articles in the New York Times and New York Post.
RER 8.19.12

[1] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times
[2] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times
[3] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times
[4] Carla Spartos and Brian Niemietz , “Is Your Restaurant Spying on You”, New York Post
[5] Susanne Craig, “What Restaurants Know (About You)”, New York Times

1 comment:

  1. Amazing post. On the one hand, it is good to have this info for those difficult patrons or patients in my case, so you don't have to tip toe around them or get abused; but on the other hand this is a little dishonest. Does this info make a waiter or staff more talented or is it just phony packaged as hospitality? Will this make it easier for people to check their social skills at the door and just follow the algorithm? Does technology really make us well informed or better equipped, or is it just a crutch for people to avoid navigating tough situations? I agree that this is good for business, makes the patron feel good, like they got their money's worth. However, at what expense? I don't privacy is the issue; profile on internet (on any website) = loss of privacy, however you slice it. I think the real issue is our loss of humanity. Though, as you said, this trend isn't going anywhere.


food for thought...