Even the best food could use a dash of ones and zeros. Geek out with us as we explore the intersection of food and technology this month.
It used to be that you had to know a guy to score a table at a hot restaurant.
But in these tech-centric times, that restaurant is just as likely to have dug up info about its diners before they've even stepped up to the host stand and have a complete dossier on their habits by the time they've walked out the door. But how does all this preemptive profiling affect what actually happens at the table?
A few years back, the dining public was mildly gobsmacked to discover that the staffs of high-end restaurants were googling their customers ahead of time, ostensibly to customize their experience. While this is still part of their arsenal (and the practice has trickled down to restaurants where mere mortals dine), restaurant-specific apps and software have made it easier than ever for front-of-house staff to track their clientele's preferences and quirks—and head any potential problems off at the pass. But it's only one part of a solid hospitality strategy.
"I'm still kind of a Luddite when it comes to this sort of stuff," Adam Reiner admits. He spent a decade on the floor at Mario Batali's Babbo before working at Major Food Group restaurants in Hong Kong and New York. He's seen a seismic shift in the industry in that time.
On the back end, he says, it's much more efficient.Trend-tracking software lets a restaurant know if, say, people are ordering a full three-course menu or if they'd be better served by one that emphasizes an appetizer-and-entrée format. If the restaurant is using the Resy app, Reiner says a chef or general manager can track the diner's meal in real time and figure out exactly when to pop by the table to say hello.
Guest notes kept in OpenTable might indicate that Mr. So-and-so tends to order from a particular wine region, likes his fish with fra diavolo rather than the listed sauce or got a special gift from the kitchen last time he dined. They might also include restaurant-specific codes indicating that on the last few visits, he was a high-maintenance guest who sent his entrée back three times, so it might be best to staff his table with extra care and caution.
"It allows the restaurateur to have more diagnostic and analytical tools, but I don't see very much emotion going on at all," Reiner says. "We live in a digital world, but restaurants are something that play better in analog."
He's learned over the years not to be too reliant on preexisting data—and suggests the same for prospective guests. "There are many times when you look at the ticket and see a diner is 'crazy,' and they tend to ask for special things. Then if you're nice to them, you find out they're really not that bad, they'd just had a shitty day," he says.
"It's very reductive. The restaurant seems to know you as a person, but it doesn't. The person is trying to research the restaurant to find out what it's all about before they actually go," Reiner says. "I don't want it to be something that encroaches more than it already does. Just sit down, open the menu, talk to the waiter."
John Winterman has googled a customer or two in his day, both as managing partner at Manhattan's Bâtard and before that as the longtime maître d' at Daniel. Though it can help put a face or a job title to a name, he doesn't see a whole lot of payoff in the practice. "You don't know what their dietary restrictions are, their tastes, their spending habits. You don't know any of that until they sit down."
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And once they do, while it can be valuable for the staff to have a heads up on fundamental facts—like birthdays, anniversaries, allergies or seating preferences—Winterman cautions against pigeonholing guests. "If a person comes in and they decide they're going to have a glass of Champagne to start, I never assume that means every time they come back they're going to want to start with a glass of Champagne. I hate making assumptions about guests unless they have a really established pattern. One or two visits is not an established pattern," he says. "I like a guest who's a little unpredictable."
He's also well aware of what information should remain whispered and not on a printed ticket seen by the floor staff—for instance, a celebrity's phone number or a regular's tendency to canoodle in the corner with someone other than one's spouse. "You want to be careful what you put in the notes. It could be very embarrassing if it got out."
Reiner and Winterman are both of the notion that technology, while great for reservations and a little bit of social media (no restaurant is going to object to a gorgeous Instagram of a dish, especially if it's been tagged), can get in the way of real human interaction, both with fellow guests and with the staff, who are there for the purpose of providing guests with a pleasurable experience. "I see people sitting at a table, on their phones, not talking to each other. It takes something that's supposed to be special and interactive and turns it into something cold and removed," Reiner says.
Reiner is doing his part to bridge the divide via his website, The Restaurant Manifesto, where he shares essays demystifying restaurant practices for civilians. "Technology puts a sheen over all of this. If you understand these kinds of human dynamics, you should be a better diner, more sensitive, more compassionate," he says. "And you'll get better service."
Winterman gets especially frustrated when he finds that a guest has turned to tech, rather than addressing an otherwise solvable issue while still at the table. "Now people go through their entire dinner, and everything is fine, fine, fine, and they don't say anything. Two days later, they completely hose you on Yelp or OpenTable for a problem that you probably could have solved when they were still in your restaurant." He jokes, "I wish that restaurants had Yelp but for rating diners."
His staff makes copious notes in the system after each meal and will go back and analyze them, so the guest has a better experience should they decide to return. Bad behavior won't get you barred from the restaurant (unless you are especially crass with the staff or other customers), but a great reputation might get you a little something extra from the kitchen or the reservationist.
"The biggest benefit of just being a good person to the staff is that if a restaurant is difficult to get into or certain nights are difficult, they're going to do a little bit more on their end to make sure you're accommodated," Winterman says.
And he'll even make sure to personally greet you at the door. "I've never seen an application that can shake somebody's hand and welcome them back."
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