The “Cheers Effect”: Restaurants Know Much More Than Your Name

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In today’s hi-tech, information driven culture, privacy is an antiquated commodity. Even in our smallest towns, video cameras record us standing in line at the bank, shopping at the supermarket, or paying for gas at a convenience store.

Even your precise physical location can be tracked via your smartphone – the detailed records of which can be used by law enforcement without obtaining a warrant.

In a recent article, New York Times writer Susanne Craig explores how hundreds of restaurants are now carefully tracking and storing the minutia of their patron’s individual tastes and habits.

Craig notes that when Arnie Tannen, a health care consultant in Brooklyn, sits down for his regular Friday-night dinner at Gramercy Tavern, “his server always knows that he prefers a black napkin (less lint) and wants only the ends of a loaf in his breadbasket.”

Those details are carefully logged in the restaurant’s computer.

Craig says restaurant managers defend their actions because they claim their main goal is to pamper the customer, to recreate the comfort of a local corner spot where everybody knows your name.

“We call it the ‘Cheers’ effect,” said Ann Shepherd, vice president for marketing at the restaurant reservation service OpenTable, referring to the Boston bar in the 1980s sitcom.

Craig claims that restaurants are increasingly recording whether you are a regular, a first-timer, someone who lives close by or a friend of the owner or manager.

“They archive where you like to sit, when you will celebrate a special occasion and whether you prefer your butter soft or hard, Pepsi over Coca-Cola or sparkling over still water. In many cases, they can trace your past performance as a diner; how much you ordered, tipped and whether you were a ‘camper’ who lingered at the table long after dessert.”

“We will write if the person is kosher or can’t eat shellfish,” said Ed Schoenfeld, who owns RedFarm in the West Village. “And we take note of the people who sat for six and a half hours last time, so next time we are sure to give them an uncomfortable seat.”

Some places even log data on potential customers so that the restaurant is prepared if the newcomer shows up. Craig notes that in a cutthroat industry, this kind of intelligence gathering can make or break a business.

“The ability to know and read your customer is critical for staying on top, particularly at the power restaurants,” said Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant.

Info is Stored in Esoteric Acronyms on the Computer

Managers and employees at a number of high-end New York restaurants said in interviews that information is embedded in acronyms on the computer screen when a restaurant employee checks you in.

The wine whale may show up as WW. A free appetizer is coded as SFN — something for nothing.

FOM is friend of the manager, and PX is now used in place if V.I.P. because it offended non-V.I.P. customers who heard it being used. Some PX’s are also flagged NR, for never refuse.

HSM is short for heavyset man; LOL stands for little old lady — two types of diners who may need special seating. Customers with bad reputations are flagged HWC, handle with care.

And if there’s an 86 on your profile you’ll be making alternative plans for dinner.

Who Has Access?

As if all this isn’t enough, adds Craig, most restaurants, particularly those owned by big companies like the Altamarea Group and Union Square Hospitality Group, have a separate computer system that catalogs old bills.

Craig points out that Computer software and Internet companies, particularly reservation systems such as OpenTable and Rezbook allow restaurants to accumulate a massive amount of data.

And restaurants owned by large groups typically share the data with one another.

“In bigger establishments, the data is often printed on a slip that is shared with as many as a dozen people, including the pastry chef and the sommelier. The slip typically shows up in several spots in the kitchen, chiefly to let everyone know if the customer has a food allergy. The server also gets a peek.”

You can run but you can’t hide.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper


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