A High-Tech Maitre d'
March 22, 2001
Online restaurant reservations services allow diners to make a reservation at the hottest place in town without having to deal with snooty maitre d's. However, some restaurateurs worry the new technology will thwart their ability to provide a tailor-made dining experience.
After all, white-tablecloth establishments want to provide as many opportunities as possible for diners and staff to interact, because that interaction leads to improved service, greater customer satisfaction and, ultimately, repeat business. OpenTable, which handles electronic reservations for 1,200 restaurants in the U.S., caters to restaurant-goers who don't want to talk directly to a reservationist, collecting information from them that could boost a restaurant's ability to improve and personalize their dining experience.
While one could argue that human interaction can't be replaced by technology, rapid staff turnover these days makes it difficult for many restaurants to develop long-term relationships with diners. In light of this turnover, Janet Fouts, CEO of OnTheRail, an online forum for restaurant workers, says electronic reservations books may help restore an old-fashioned graciousness that maitre d's once brought to high-end establishments. "They knew everyone who walked in the door, where they sat, what they drank – and gave them very personal attention," she says. "Now it's more likely that the job is held by a college student or someone who hasn't been there long – people who tend to come and go."
The information OpenTable collects comes directly from diners, who, while making a reservation online, can type in whether they are celebrating a birthday or anniversary, or need some help buttering up an important business client. OpenTable also tracks customer names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, seating history and credit card numbers.
Even restaurateurs who initially hesitated before collecting such data say they believe electronic reservations books can help them satisfy repeat customers. Patrick Kellaher, a partner with Basque Restaurant in San Francisco's South of Market district, now uses OpenTable's electronic reservations book to identify "star" guests, potential investors and friends of the owners, so the restaurant can better serve them. He notes the service has been particularly useful in helping the kitchen staff accommodate customers with special diets. "For strict vegans, we can make them something ahead of time," he says. "It's difficult to replace chicken stock with vegetarian stock in the middle of service."
And serving customers better may not be the only result of the new technology. In the next phase of restaurant data mining, restaurants may be able to integrate information gleaned from electronic reservations books and other online services with a restaurant's point-of-sale system, which tracks the food orders and financial transactions. This type of inventory management tool could discern trends in consumer habits, and make the process of ordering supplies and inventory more efficient for the restaurant.
There's always the concern that diners might regard the service as invasive. Fishbowl, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that provides Web services for restaurants, plans to glean specific customer purchasing data that would be used to create e-mail offers tailored to individual diners. Regan Daniels, spokeswoman for OpenTable, says the company isn't planning to go that route because diners might view it as a privacy violation, a concern that is not lost on least one of its restaurant clients.
"That is excess information," says Quinn McKenna, director of operations for the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, which owns several high-end establishments in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We want to protect the privacy of customers."
By Zillah Bahar
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