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Restaurants have a file on you....

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posted on Apr, 24 2003 @ 08:29 PM
Now, restaurants are putting together a file on you, what you order, eat, drink, say and do....

They have a file on you
Restaurants are using computers to record what diners eat, drink, say and do. All in the name of service.

By David Shaw, Times Staff Writer

Like a rapidly increasing number of restaurants, the Brentwood Restaurant & Lounge maintains a computerized database on its customers' preferences, habits and idiosyncrasies. Although these notations are designed primarily to provide better service, they also include such entries as:

"Please provide prompt service. He believes he's the biggest writer in Hollywood and has told us so."

"Don't seat at [table] #19. He tried to have sex there last time he was in."

"Never take this person's reservation. Ever ... ever ... if you value your life."

These directives -- which become a permanent part of the customer's dining history, instantly available to the restaurant staff with a couple of touches on the computer screen -- are made possible thanks to software developed by, an online restaurant reservation service. has more than 1,400 member restaurants in more than 30 cities -- including 88 in Los Angeles. Most tend to be upscale -- Bastide, Spago Beverly Hills, Melisse, Michael's and L'Orangerie among them -- but some are much more modest (Bombay Cafe, for example, and Pete's Cafe & Bar, World Cafe and Barefoot restaurant).

Although OpenTable initially emphasized online reservations in its marketing campaign, that function accounts for, on average, only about 5% of the total reservations at member restaurants. A more important element of the service -- to restaurants and customers alike -- is the data-tracking capability of the OpenTable software for all customers, no matter how they made their reservations. OpenTable enables restaurants to collect and access quickly such information as their customers' favorite wines, waiters, water and tables, their food allergies, their birthdays and anniversaries -- everything they need to know to "treat every customer like a VIP," in the words of Thomas Layton, chief executive of OpenTable.

Making customers feel pampered

In Los Angeles, where egos seem especially large -- and especially fragile -- and where dietary habits often range from the merely exotic to the obsessively ascetic, the ability to make customers feel pampered and important is especially useful.

"OpenTable lets us give customers the feeling that, 'These people know who I am and they care about what I want and what I like and don't like,' " says Harvey Friend, general manager of the Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles.

"If a guy comes in for the fifth time, and he likes his crab taken out of the shell, we should know that and do it and not have to ask him," Friend says. "If he's allergic to onions or garlic, we should know that and not have to ask him."

Some information that restaurants enter as "customer codes" or "customer notes" are far more personal -- and not always complimentary.

"Orders and eats at a snail's pace. Schooled in hell and graduated with honors," reads the note on one woman who dines regularly at Michael's in Santa Monica.

"Very cheesy guy," reads another. "Always drinks Veuve Cliquot but pronounces it 'Vave Click-it'. Always comes in with a different girl. Doesn't tip well. Usually pretty soused by the time they leave."

Don't such records raise questions about invasion of privacy and whether Big Brother is now watching you eat?

"I was concerned about that when we first started with OpenTable," says Danny Meyer, who owns five New York restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. "But I used to keep track of regular customers' seating and waiter preferences and birthdays and favorite wines and all on 5x7 cards; now we use computers to do the same thing, only better."

I agree -- and I realize I may be in a minority. In our cyber age, many people worry increasingly about how much information the government and corporate America gathers about them. I worry about that too.

But the OpenTable data gathered by individual restaurants is not available to any other restaurant, and I think it's perfectly legitimate -- and ultimately beneficial to most customers. I also think that if you're obnoxious, if you're rude, if you repeatedly make reservations and fail to show up, if you're a lousy tipper, well, why shouldn't the restaurant make note of that -- and act accordingly? Even if that means refusing your reservation.

Why shouldn't people be accountable for their behavior -- especially in a public place, like a restaurant?

Besides, the vast majority of customer notes I've seen are informational, not negative, and they're designed solely to help restaurants serve customers better, to meet their various needs and desires and -- yes -- to cosset and coddle them.

If you prefer a certain table or a certain waiter, if it's your wedding anniversary, if you prefer olive oil to butter, why shouldn't the restaurant keep track of that and cater to those preferences?

I, for example, appreciate restaurants knowing that my wife wants a Chivas on the rocks, with a water back, as soon as she comes in and that I enjoy a glass of Champagne, usually bring my own wine and like most everything cooked rare.

"A customer may not have been in for eight months but we can still say, 'Hello, Mr. Johnson. It's so nice to see you again. Happy anniversary,' " says Jon McGavin, a food and beverage director for the Ritz-Carlton hotels. "And then, without his asking, we bring him a vodka and tonic, made with Absolut, his brand."

Paul Einbund, sommelier at Melisse in Santa Monica, recalls an evening when "a customer came in whose wife just had a baby, and I couldn't remember the baby's name. I knew we'd entered it in OpenTable so I ran over, tapped the computer screen, got the name, walked to their table and said, 'So, how's little Madison Brianna?'

"They were thrilled."

OpenTable also enables restaurants to follow customers' progress through dinner, to know what course they're on and whether service is appropriately paced -- and to build an e-mail list for special events and reservation confirmations (although they don't have customers' e-mail addresses unless the customers provide them).

Restaurants generally pay about $1,300 to have the OpenTable computers installed, then pay an average of $300 a month for the service. (The figure varies greatly, depending on what software they order and how many terminals they have.) Restaurants also pay $1 for every seat reserved through

The computers are generally installed at the reservation desk so that when customers call, the reservationist can instantly find their names in the database and respond accordingly.

"If you have a new hostess, she might not know your regular customers," says Michael McCarty of Michael's, "but she can use OpenTable and suddenly she can see that the person on the other end of the phone is a 'VIP, friend of Michael's, likes Beefeater martinis on the rocks, with a twist, likes to sit in the garden, usually brings his own wine and shouldn't be charged corkage.' "

Restaurants customize their own codes for customers.

At Chaya Brasserie in West Hollywood, "X" stands for VIP. At Grace, also in West Hollywood, "NL" is "needs love," while "NLL" is "needs lots of love" and "NATAL" is "needs amazing total amounts of love" -- all for customers whose behavior embodies varying degrees of difficulty.

Spago Beverly Hills uses "TLC" ("tender love and care") for any customer who was kept waiting on the phone or who says, as Spago customers often do, "I hear you're only nice to the top Hollywood stars."

Spago is well-known for its celebrity clientele, and the last name of any VIP customer is thus listed in all capital letters in the computer, says Tracey Spillane, the restaurant's general manager.

In the case of especially important guests, the "customer code" might say "Notify Tracy" or "Notify Lee" (chef Lee Hefter) or "friend of Wolf" (owner Wolfgang Puck), so they can be alerted as soon as the customer arrives. Or the note might list the number of times the customer has been in (more than 600 times in the past year and a half for Marvin Davis, former owner of 20th Century Fox).

"We print out our lunch reservation list, complete with all the notations, at 10 every morning, and we print the dinner list at 4 every afternoon," Spillane says. "The lists are given to the chef and the maitre d' to be sure they're prepared to attend to any special requests" ("massive peanut allergy," for example, or "must be table 34, only bumped to 24 by" so-and-so).

"OpenTable also makes it easier to trace and respond to complaints," Spillane says. "We know when they came in, where they sat, who their server was, what they ate and drank, how much they paid and what time they left."

OpenTable began in San Francisco, where it's still headquartered, in the fall of 1999, quickly added New York and expanded rapidly to other cities -- too rapidly for its resources. In late 2001, the company decided to back off, to focus its sales and marketing efforts in those two cities, plus Chicago and Washington, D.C. Then, in mid-2002, it resumed marketing in five other cities, including Los Angeles. Most of its member restaurants are now in those nine cities.

Early this year, OpenTable added to its client list the French Laundry in Yountville, widely thought to be the best (and most-difficult-to-get-into) restaurant in the country.

Unlike most other restaurants, which have their entire inventory of tables available for reservations, the French Laundry makes only two tables available for each meal.

A database for details

Although general manager Laura Cunningham is happy with the reservations, she clearly values most highly the system's data management capabilities.

"We have a customer coming in soon who proposed to his wife here and is coming back here on his wedding day. Another customer always orders caviar, doesn't eat fried food, lobster, onions or foie gras, took six smoking breaks last time and always wants his coffee and dessert outside, no matter what the temperature is.

"Having all that in our database, readily accessible, lets us treat him properly."

The French Laundry has one of the most sensitive and sophisticated customer service operations of any restaurant I know. They have a concierge whose full-time job is handling information on individual guests, and, every night, the wait staff is expected to file "table reports" on anything of interest or concern that happens at any table.

The French Laundry has had its own database with information on 5,000 customers for years. Now the staff merges that information with OpenTable and adds to it every night.

"We just had a woman come in say she only likes the inside of her bread, " Cunningham told me when we spoke last week. "She said she doesn't even like to see the crust."

The staff entered that information in OpenTable, and "the next time she comes, we'll have the kitchen cut the crusts off six or eight slices of bread as soon as she gets here."

David Shaw can be reached at

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