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Service with a Smile and Some Very Sophisticated Software: How Farmers Restaurant Group Uses Big Data to Better Serve Their Guests

David Wither

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October 15, 2016

As almost anyone who eats out these days knows, the easiest way to make a reservation is usually online. With a few clicks and some quick typing, you have an email with your dinner plans reserved. What you may not know is that some of those reservation software systems can also help the restaurant manage their traffic flow, almost with the precision of air traffic controllers, and keep track of everything from staffing needs to customer ratings to even your preferences if you offer them.

Open Table is the most used of these software programs, and we spoke with their most booked restaurant for five years running--Founding Farmers in Washington, DC--to find out more about the ins and outs of this software and others, and how it helps them run their restaurants.

Founding Farmers, and its sister restaurant, Farmers Fishers Bakers, as well as the upcoming Farmers & Distillers, are all overseen by the Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG), which is owned by over 42,000 farmers in partnership with two highly effective and management savvy restaurateurs, Mike Vucurevich and Dan Simons. Having both run high-volume, well-known restaurants, they know what it takes to get the job done well, even when it is very busy. The old days of writing reservations and occupied tables down on a white board or a legal pad at the hostess station do not lead to having four of the Top 10 booked Open Table restaurants nationwide.

Managing the Hustle and Flow for Every Guest
At FRG, their sophisticated management is supported by Open Table, in collaboration with a handful of other software systems, which produce a vast array of highly coordinated analytics and oversight tools that allow these restaurateurs to have a very human touch with an average of 2,400 guests per night across their existing four restaurants. "Restaurant efficiency should be under the hood," says owner Dan Simons. "We don't want our guests to be burdened or even aware of how we keep our restaurants running smoothly. We just want them to be able to sit back and enjoy themselves, from their first inkling to make a reservation to the day after when they can't stop talking about what a great meal or experience they had."

To create this, chefs and restaurateurs often look to the food, the drink, the ambience. There is no question this matters, but for FRG, they realized they also needed to put a similar commitment into their systems, which meant they needed to better understand and invest in their software. Their overall outcomes began to improve once they started to do 'table management' electronically and learned how to analyze dine-time, table turn speed, ticket times in the kitchen and the bar, and a variety of other "speed of service" components, all of which were reconciled with figuring out how servers can better read how the guest wants it. This data drives the frequency with which they can offer a table available for a reservation, while still balancing the demand for walk-in guests. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg for what big data in the restaurant world can offer its managers and owners.

The intention of this high tech management is not to turn tables or rush diners out of the restaurant so new customers can rush in and take their place. "We want our restaurants to be as efficient as our guests want and need them to be," says owner Dan Simons. "This means if you want to get lunch in 40 minutes or grab a quick dinner before a show, we can accommodate you. If you want to linger over dinner with friends for the whole night, we are also happy to have you, and the software helps us manage all of these scenarios. And more."

Software Blends Made From Scratch
FRG's team often works hand-in-hand with the programmers at Open Table to learn exactly what their software can offer, and even to tweak parts to make it more accommodating to their particular needs. "Farmers Restaurant Group really gets it," said Open Table CEO Christa Quarles. "They've been dedicated to learning our systems and figuring out how best they can be used in conjunction with their smarts and their staff. They are making the software work for them to provide a better experience for all of their guests. This is our end goal, to not only serve restaurants in helping them run and grow their business, but to help each individual diner who comes to our site looking for a great meal and a guaranteed table."

Farmers Restaurant Group made the decision early on to run a robust technology platform. While Open Table is one of their primary sources of data, they use a whole host of other software programs, rolled together through API's. For example, they collect data to measure how menu changes affect reviews, timing, and even profitability. They also track down to the server level and know who gets the bigger tips and brings guests back to dinner again. When there is a problem, a customer complaint in house or online, they can track it back to the server, the chef, and everything else that happened. They can use the software for marketing, specifically targeting previous customers who express interest, or reaching out through social media channels connected to Open Table.

Some of the additional programs FRG uses, include Aloha, a point of sale software; Venga for detailed table analytics, connecting guests with the food they order, and looking specifically at frequency of visits and customer satisfaction; UpServe, previously known as Swipely, which sits on top as a credit card processing software that can also be used for marketing; as well as Compeat and Ultimate, the combination of which handle accounting, HR, and payroll. They also recently created a contact center bringing all phone reservations and oversight of online reservations away from the hostess stand and into their office, offering the company a real time bird's eye view of everything that is going on in their restaurants at any given moment.

Great Tech Boils Down to Great Ratings
To some, all of this may seem to be a technology backbone for a restaurant, but when you are serving thousands of meals a day, having systems in place is smart business. According to Dan: "We are a company that is majority-owned by farmers. We see technology as a critical tool. We aren't doing this to geek out on software, but to use it well, so that every guest gets what they want at our restaurants, when they want it. And if they don't, we can figure out why and fix it. For us its always about the food, drink, and vibe. We've just learned that great tech helps us truly care for the guests."

With 25,000 Open Table reviews in the 4-5 star range, whatever they are doing, it is working. The software even helps them know these ratings are real and connected to the customers who have actually dined in the restaurant. That is service with a smile and some very sophisticated software.

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