They find your photo online and study it so they’ll recognize you when you walk in the door. They Google you and check you out on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram to see what you do for a living and to take note of your interests and passions. You’re a Lenny Kravitz fan? Hey, they have a server who loves “Fly Away,” so she’ll be working your table. Maybe you’ll hit it off.
Once you arrive, you feed the restaurant more data. Remember that time you said the fish was too salty? That was duly noted, both by the chef, who double-checked the preparation, and by the front-of-house staff, who added a possible salt sensitivity to your profile. Remember when you ordered the wine pairings, and by the time the Tokay arrived, you were teetering into your banquette neighbor? You may be receiving lighter pours on your next visit, not that anyone would be so uncouth as to point this out to you.
If you went to Grace, Curtis Duffy’s three-Michelin-star temple on Randolph Street, and complained loudly that the restaurant doesn’t offer Burgundy or Bordeaux wines, you might be labeled a PP, or “potential problem.” If you didn’t understand the concept of the tasting menu and insisted on ordering a steak, you may have earned the designation FOW, “fish out of water.” If you watched For Grace, the documentary about Duffy, and now want to meet the celebrity chef, you’re dubbed a Twizzler (Duffy’s favorite candy). If you’re so lucky as to be a celebrity yourself, Grace may refer to you as a TD (for Tony Danza; partner and general manager Michael Muser admits this term “makes no sense,” but he hates “VIP”). More of an Alinea habitué? Maybe the restaurant will have you down as a FOTAG (friend of the Alinea Group) or a FONK (friend of Nick Kokonas, the company’s co-owner) or a FOGA (friend of Grant Achatz, the chef). “Then we have the PON, ‘person of note,’ ” Kokonas says. “You’re not a regular necessarily. It’s just like, Hey, you might be an artist or this or that.” DineAmic Group (Bar Siena, Prime & Provisions, Public House) uses PPX, for personne particulièrement extraordinaire.
That everyone wants to be treated as a VIP, or whatever you want to call it, is a given. But in this era of social media and big data, many restaurants are no longer lavishing extra attention and scrutiny just on famous people, big spenders, and food critics. Now—assuming you’re the one making the reservation—they’re digging up all they can on you.
The restaurant business has not, generally speaking, been a technologically advanced industry. Until relatively recently, most dining establishments did everything the old-fashioned way. Hosts took reservations by phone, wrote down dietary restrictions and the dates of special occasions, and tried to commit to memory the faces of regulars and other folks who might merit special attention. R.J. Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, recalls that guest notes were recorded in a binder or “would live truly in the head of the maître d’ or the manager.”
Yet think about how long Amazon has been suggesting your next purchases or Netflix has been trying (sometimes laughably) to anticipate what you might want to watch. Restaurants were bound to follow suit. “It’s like what hotels or airlines or credit cards have been doing for decades,” says Winston Lord, cofounder of the Washington, D.C.–based hospitality-data collection company Venga. “If you’re fortunate enough to go to a Ritz-Carlton and ask for a down pillow, guess what’s waiting [on your bed] anytime you travel to another Ritz-Carlton around the world?”
The 1998 launch of the San Francisco–based online reservation system OpenTable changed not only the way people book reservations but also how restaurants record, store, and use information about those people. Now more challengers to OpenTable are emerging—Kokonas’s cloud- and ticket-based Tock, for one—and companies such as Venga are providing additional ways for restaurateurs to collect and process data on diners.
Paying such close attention may be easier at restaurants where there’s a relatively low volume of guests each night, but it’s not just the ultra-high-end spots doing this kind of detective work. “We do Google searches on guests—any information we can pull,” says Kimberly Galban, vice president of operations for One Off Hospitality Group, chef Paul Kahan’s ever-growing empire, which covers a wide spectrum of price points with Blackbird, Avec, the Publican, Nico Osteria, Big Star, and Dove’s Luncheonette. Lettuce Entertain You, which operates some 120 restaurants across nine states, has even established a department devoted to information tracking, though Melman says it pales in comparison to those in other industries: “Amazon has 3,000 people working in the data science department. A restaurant group is lucky to have one or two. … We certainly as an organization think data is important, but not in a scary way. We want to know where our customers are coming from.”
Lettuce receives diners’ purchase history information from Venga, which consolidates and analyzes customer data from OpenTable. Lord says Venga has tripled its business over the past two years and now serves more than 1,000 restaurants worldwide, including more than 100 in Chicago. When personal details are viewable on social media, Lord says, “we can certainly grab that information and tie it back and build those guest profiles,” ultimately linking customers’ social media accounts and purchase histories “at a very high level.”
Venga might report that a guest enjoyed a $75 Pinot Noir on a previous visit. The next time that person comes in, the restaurant—or a sister establishment—could use that information to offer Pinot Noirs in that price range. Knowing a guest’s preferences might allow a server to say, “I know you like Nantucket scallops, and they came in today,” explains Melman. “It’s just a great point of service to give someone something they prefer.”
Similarly, says Kokonas, when his restaurants know that you’re left-handed, they’re able to set your table accordingly. And if they’ve noted that you prefer booths, you’ll no longer have to ask for one every time. To forgo such information gathering, Kokonas insists, “would be like having a dinner party and not knowing who’s coming to your house.”
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Likes Tequila, Hates Mayo
Local restaurant groups compile startlingly detailed profiles on thousands of diners, but just how accurate are they? We got our hands on the printout of one for a frequent Boka Group customer, Nina Mariano, a public relations executive and the wife of retired grocery-store magnate Bob Mariano. Below, she points out what the restaurants got right—and wrong.
NOTES:GT refers to chef Giuseppe Tentori, [GT] to GT Fish & Oyster, [SAS] to Swift & Sons, [DDG] to Duck Duck Goat, and [PV] to Perennial Virant.
1 “Actually, it’s my stepdaughter, and she’s started eating meat again.”
2 “True! It’s a high-top that has screens around it—kind of like a private bar.”
3 “In fact, it was my stepdaughter’s birthday.”
4 “Pasquale is my son, and actually it’s his grandpa they’re talking about.”
5 “I didn’t tell them this specifically, but I guess it’s something our server picked up on and wrote down. Servers in Chicago never give me the side-eye for putting ice in my wine. But in Italy they sure do!”
6 “This is Meg Galus, the pastry chef. We featured her as a Mariano’s ‘tastemaker.’ I don’t know how they got that in the file. They just made the connection.”
7 “I used to get phone calls from Boka restaurants saying, ‘We’re just calling to confirm your reservation for two at 9 p.m.’ And I was like, ‘What? I don’t have a reservation tonight.’ It was always for 9 p.m. and always for two people. We never figured out if it was really another Nina Mariano or just someone using my name.”
8 “I always ask for four lime wedges, and, yes, I just love Fortaleza. Restaurants started carrying it around a year ago. Momotaro [another Boka Group restaurant] told me about it and asked if I wanted to try it.”
9 “They had these great curry udon noodles at Momotaro, and I just couldn’t pick them up with chopsticks!”
At 4:45 on a Tuesday afternoon in October, less than an hour before the first guests are to arrive, Michael Muser, Curtis Duffy, a couple of members of the kitchen staff, and approximately 15 formally attired servers and hosts are standing in a circle in Grace’s elegant, cream-toned front parlor. All of them clutch five-page printouts that detail everything that’s been gleaned about the evening’s clientele. Amy Cordell, the service captain, leads a rundown, reading a description of a couple with a 7 p.m. reservation.
“His wife’s name is Cheryl, and she does not like rabbit, and she drinks sparkling water,” Cordell says. “They always sit at table 12. He always sits position 1.” She gives the names of their two basset hounds.
Of a retired couple visiting from Colorado, Cordell remarks, “They are very vocal on Facebook about gun control, DACA, and Trump in a negative way. They went on an architectural boat tour today at exactly 1:19 p.m.”
Some of tonight’s guests, Cordell informs the group, participated in the Chicago Marathon over the weekend. One, who will be celebrating his 10th anniversary with his wife, finished in 4:19:19. Another was even faster: 3:55:01. A couple from Taiwan ran together, both finishing in 6:15:26. “He didn’t leave his wife behind,” Cordell says. “That’s really nice.”
I ask Cordell later how she knew these guests had run the marathon. She says either they had mentioned it when they made their reservations or she or another staffer spotted on Facebook or blogs photos of them participating in other marathons, so she checked whether they had run the one here.
As for why this information is useful, Cordell says: “People who run marathons, and especially around the world, also dine around the world, and they’re big eaters typically. We have a lot of people who run marathons that then go to Boston, then go to Paris, then go to Asia. That’s really important for us to know that they’re traveling that much, they’re eating that much in other countries, they understand different cultures.”
That’s not all she learned about these particular guests. Mr. 4:19:19 previously lived in Australia, currently resides in Malaysia, and, Cordell tells the group, “on Facebook he likes many wine publications, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants, so be careful there. He knows his shit.”
Mr. 3:55:01 served in the army, manages an IT company, and has a wife who owns a holistic rehab facility for horses. Little is known about the 6:15:26 couple beyond the fact that the husband has been a project manager for an export trading company for 13 years.
Continuing the rundown, Cordell flags one guest as a possible Spider, the restaurant’s term for someone who might be a food writer, restaurant critic, or rater for a guide such as Michelin. Why this suspicion? Because a scan of the guy’s social media connections indicates friends in the restaurant business. “He potentially resides in Chicago right now,” Cordell says, “as he has several petitions that he signs to stop horse-drawn carriages. He’s a big petition signer.”
The printouts show, among other things, the information that the Grace staff has entered into OpenTable’s notes section for each guest. Some entries are longer than others. One regular’s lengthy description details that he requires “NO STRAW in beverages,” “EATS FAST,” is “not big on food descriptions,” expects to be seated immediately “AT TABLE 2 OR 3,” and prefers the music low because he “NEEDS QUIET!”
Muser later tells me that his staff considers such fine-grained information just as useful for serving first-timers as it is for serving regulars. “You’re paying all this money to have an experience in my restaurant,” he says. “I feel like I owe it to you to see that you’re a school principal in Bolingbrook. But I feel like I owe you more than that: Oh, look, she graduated from MIT. What was her major? Is there something about her that we can learn to benefit her experience?” He goes on to cite the example of matching the Lenny Kravitz fan with a similarly inclined server. “Maybe you subconsciously bond. Maybe. I live in the world of maybes. I do all this stuff for maybes.”
Kokonas echoes that sentiment, recounting that when a notable London architect dined at Alinea, the restaurant assigned him a server who’d studied architecture and was a fan of his work. “You’re not going to have a big discussion about architecture right away, like, ‘Hey, I love your work!’ That would be terrible. But it’s aligning someone that thinks alike and has similar interests.”
Kokonas pulls up a Tock app on his iPad and shows me the profile of one of the many people named Smith in the Alinea Group’s index of 320,000 diners. “He logged in with his Facebook page, which is awesome because then we can see what he looks like. He’s had five bookings, one waitlist, no cancellations. Wife has an aversion to oxtail. She becomes intoxicated easily. The next time she comes in, they’ll give her lighter pours.”
He scans another random profile: “No coriander blossom, no cilantro, coriander OK. Does not do spicy well. Give milk and towel.”
Milk and towel?
“If something’s really spicy, they give him milk and a towel to mop his brow.”
At what point does all this info cross the line from helpful to creepy? Yes, you’re glad restaurants have learned to pour you still water instead of sparkling, but does it really benefit them to know the name of your pet?
In a 2015 essay for Wired, Kat Kane, now deputy director of speechwriting for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, framed the question this way: “How will restaurants treat diners who they know rarely eat out or can only afford the cheapest dishes on the menu? Will they be relegated to tables by the kitchen? There’s a real possibility that customer insights could further stratify patrons into haves and have-nots.”
Alpana Singh, the restaurateur behind the Boarding House and Terra & Vine, says she used Venga for a while, but the reports she’d receive every morning, including links to new online reviews, were “ruining my Zen. I just couldn’t take it anymore.” She says she understands why higher-end restaurants would subscribe to the service, but “for what we’re doing here, it’s just TMI.”
Singh also isn’t keen on poring over guests’ social media feeds. “You’re coming into Terra & Vine to get some meatballs before going to a movie. Do you want us looking at your Facebook page? I’m gonna guess no. What can I possibly get from your Facebook page for this type of experience?”
Other local restaurateurs have set similar limits on the information they receive. Erin Phillips, the operations and education director of the Boka Restaurant Group (which owns Boka, Girl & the Goat, and GT Fish & Oyster, among others), says her company uses Venga but has declined some of its services, such as tracking what diners consume. “Just because somebody ordered Lynmar Estate Chardonnay on the last visit they had here doesn’t mean they’re ever going to drink that wine again,” Phillips says. “In a lot of ways that becomes white noise.”
As for how much patrons routinely spend, Phillips says she doesn’t want to know: “I don’t really think it’s hospitable. It’s not like I’m going to have somebody in our corporate office just sitting there analyzing data all day instead of being in the dining room and actually making real connections with people.”
Phillips frequently has to scrub OpenTable profiles of duplicated, useless, or misleading information, she says. For example, the Boka Group’s restaurants ended the practice of noting which customers take a long time to dine, and she uses her own experience to explain why. Phillips likes to eat fast but recently had a drawn-out meal with her mom. “Now, if that host had gone [on OpenTable] and said, ‘Sits for a long time,’ every time I would come back to that restaurant, they would probably pace my meal more leisurely, and I would become annoyed.”
Sitting with me in front of a laptop in the swank dining room of Swift & Sons, the Boka Group’s steakhouse in the West Loop, she scrolls through OpenTable notes. “Sometimes we get really goofy things in here.”
She pulls up a profile and reads: “Lawyer for the guy who shot bin Laden.”
“I would delete this,” she says, and then does exactly that. “To me, that’s a host thinking that they’re funny, but it’s not useful.”
But it’s interesting.
“It is interesting,” Phillips acknowledges. “But I wouldn’t want the server to necessarily walk up to the table and say, ‘Hey, I heard this is your thing.’ ”
I ask her to pull up Scottie Pippen, who during his heyday earned the nickname No-Tippin’ Pippin among restaurant cognoscenti. What comes up is this: “Scotty [sic] Pippen of the Chicago Bulls. Won multiple championships with Michael Jordan and the team in the ’90s. PLEASE TAKE EXTRA CARE.”
How about me?
Phillips types in my name. “Maybe this isn’t the best … ,” she says, her voice trailing off as I read the description entered by someone at Balena: “Writer for the Chicago Tribune. Wrote a series on Charlie Trotter’s before it closed. It did not go over well, he was kicked out of the Trotter auction by Charlie himself.”
As I laugh, Phillips deletes the note. “Unfortunately, that’s an example of something completely useless to your dining experience.”
She deems the rest of my profile worth keeping: a note from GT Fish & Oyster identifying my wife (though not her job as a morning radio personality), a note from Girl & the Goat calling me “an editor from the Tribune. HUGE VIP” (I wasn’t actually an editor, but “huge VIP” beats “writer who pissed off Trotter”), and a note from the now-shuttered Perennial Virant identifying me as “Author of ‘Foie Gras Wars’ ATTN KITCHEN,” which makes sense because that restaurant’s chef, Paul Virant, is in my book.
Amid this abundance of data, says Phillips, what’s most helpful for restaurants to know is still the basic stuff: allergies, food intolerances, and likes and dislikes. “Maybe tonight you came in, you ordered the mushrooms, you’re like, ‘Uh, this really isn’t for me,’ ” she says. “If I don’t put that in OpenTable, the next time you come visit, what if I gift it to you? What a great failure that would be.”
All restaurants must deal with challenging customers and customers who present challenging situations. What’s a particularly sticky issue for front-of-house staff? Divorced couples, says Carrie Nahabedian, the chef-owner of Naha and Brindille, whose staff takes pains to alert divorced patrons to the presence of an ex-spouse in the dining room.
Tougher to deal with are the “slew of people who are nasty and rude and mean,” she adds. “We deal with them one on one.”
Such notes make for entertaining reading. From a profile of a Naha customer: “He ate here & also ordered a dover sole from brindille which they had to walk over here on Sat night. Also, had valet put gas in his car!”
This guy is labeled a PITA, or “pain in the ass.”
Another Naha diner profile reads: “Complains about everything & does a lot of take out orders & then complains that they are never right. … Doesn’t like to pay for valet. … There is an interesting dynamic between him and his family. Don’t worry, they are ‘fine.’ ”
Nahabedian says a couple once asked to see the notes the staff had on them: “They knew they were high maintenance, and we liked them, so we showed them their nine-inch printout, and they died laughing. They said something like, ‘Wow, we didn’t realize how bad we were until we saw it.’ ”
The fear that guests will see staff comments is presumably one reason many restaurants shy away from inputting anything that sounds bad. “We will only notate extremely negative behavior,” says Lucas Stoioff, a principal at DineAmic Group. “If somebody calls one of my servers something that’s racist or really bigoted, they’re gone.”
Ben Drescher, the general manager of the Publican, One Off Hospitality’s bustling beer hall in the West Loop, says he banned a couple for racist language. Kokonas says two Alinea Group guests have been “Tock blocked,” one of them former Esquire critic John Mariani, who, among other offenses, directed a Facebook crack about skinny chefs at Achatz, a cancer survivor.
What about smaller infractions, like last-minute cancellations and no-shows? Drescher acknowledges it’s a persistent problem. “Throughout my years in the industry, there are people that make reservations at dozens of places every night to just cancel or not show up, especially the busiest of nights in the busiest of times.” But he, like others in the business I’ve spoken to, stresses that his restaurant would never deny a reservation to a guest based on such a track record—though the mere fact that restaurants gather such information should raise a warning flag for you.
But being a frequent customer tends to trump reservation history—and helps your chances significantly if you’re a walk-in. Drescher cites one guest—we’ll call him K—who has made 75 reservations, canceled 14 times, been a no-show once, and walked in 24 times. K and his family have been rewarded for their enthusiasm with comped drinks, sides, and desserts. Apparently, a friendly disposition hasn’t hurt them, either. “They’re so superly duperly sweet!!” their profile reads.
Another Publican customer, F, has made 51 reservations for himself and his wife and walked in a whopping 216 times. “HARDLY MAKE RESERVATIONS,” the note reports. Drescher says that now, when the couple arrives on a Saturday night when there’s a big concert at the United Center and a 90-minute wait, the staff still will accommodate them—even if, as a last resort, it means booking them at another of One Off Hospitality’s restaurants, probably with some free dishes sent out. “Their perfect experience is coming in here on a busy night, being recognized and being accommodated,” Drescher explains. “And if I can’t provide that experience, then I’ve failed.”
In the end, says Boka Group co-founder Kevin Boehm, loyalty counts for a lot—or at least it should. “There are restaurants that I’ve gone to 50 or 60 times, and to this day no one’s ever said, ‘Welcome back,’ and there are restaurants where on my fourth visit I’m already treated like an old friend. At a certain point, you should be treated like an honored guest.”
If you’re not, says Boehm, the restaurant is probably doing something wrong.