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From Issue #23 August 15, 2013

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Unglamorous software may help restaurants keep patrons happy and returning.

By Joe Ray Twitter icon 

At Boqueria in New York City, Yann de Rochefort steps out of the office to work at the bar.

I meet Yann de Rochefort at Boqueria, his restaurant and bar on 19th Street in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. An employee slowly carves a cured hock of Iberian ham inside the front window, and wedges of cheese and Spanish tortilla sit under glass at the well-stocked bar. The atmosphere tells me that I could be lulled into blowing a lot of money here while having a very good time. While I was at it, de Rochefort could track every cent that leaves my pocket, track how often I return, and know my favorite drink. If I hadn’t been back in a while, I’d get an email and maybe even an incentive to encourage me to return.

For his part, de Rochefort is spending a good hunk of his money and a fair amount of his valuable time on restaurant software to support Boqueria’s branches in New York, Washington DC, and Hong Kong, along with his recently opened Manzanilla, a new project with chef Dani García.

I was sent by a buddy who cited de Rochefort as a counter-example to most restaurateurs who can easily capsize and often sink in the ocean of recordkeeping involved in keeping a restaurant afloat. “Yann’s got his shit together,” says my friend Bo Peabody, both a restaurateur and a partner in a tech-centric venture capital firm.

While there are a large and growing number of incredibly helpful business apps available to the people who run restaurants, they tend to be intensely focused on individual aspects of business and have their own learning curve. Each one is made by a different company, and each requires time to learn how to mine its captured data.

What’s worse is that there is a big hole in the industry: very few of these programs communicate their findings with each other, and what a restaurateur drowning in data might need most right now is a big, fat helping of consolidation.

Cooks’ books

Almost every restaurant seems to have a tiny closet that’s been converted into an office for use by the chef and manager alike. The space that should be the smooth-running nerve center for the whole establishment tends to look like an explosion of paper surrounding an outdated computer.

Restaurants generate incredible amounts of data, whether in receipts, bookings, or orders from the kitchen. The office is a dam that tries to hold back the floodwaters, but even the best-run restaurants can have a hell of a time making sense of it all.

Yann de Rochefort is one of the most on-the-ball restaurateurs I’ve ever met, and though I never see his office, even the staff storage room where I stash my gear is relatively neat, cluttered only with the requisite black-and-white headshot of New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells taped to the wall, little hand-drawn hearts floating in the white space next to his head.

The majority of restaurateurs lack a business degree. They wound up in the industry more likely because of a summer job 20 years ago that led to a love of working in restaurants. But a lack of formal knowledge can work against them, as restaurants have notoriously thin margins made worse by a recession and an extended period of economic recovery.

De Rochefort has managed to remain afloat using what he initially describes as four different apps, but as we talk, he reels off many more. He uses Compeat for accounting and inventory, Avero for data on sales and his servers’ performance, Dine Market for vendor price comparison and online ordering, and OpenTable for online reservations, and he’s in the middle of a pilot program with Venga, which tracks customer data.

He’s also considering Swipely (credit-card processing combined with payment data analytics), and he neglects to mention Boqueria’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare or its blog, Web site, and newsletter. He stresses the importance of getting to know the basics of all of these tools.

“We’re unusual in how many of these we use,” he concedes, but in terms of keeping his head above water, he’s one of the best swimmers in the pool.

Your regular, sir or ma’am?

A restaurant manager should be able to look at a screen and figure out her best and worst servers, her most profitable dishes, and a repeat customer’s preferences in wine. These capabilities seem to me — as a former cook and longtime food writer — no-brainers for software to handle.

Yet there are no go-to programs with interfaces that can look at all of the different aspects of running a restaurant — reservations, accounting, marketing, data crunching, food ordering, social networking, and so many others — to see what’s working and what isn’t. Instead, there are dozens of apps that each focus on just one aspect of running a restaurant.

My buddy Bo Peabody, co-founder of the Mezze Restaurant Group in the Berkshires and partner at the Greycroft Partners venture-capital firm, has a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on in the industry. He’s often the first stop for restaurant app creators when they’re looking for funding.

“There are a ton of apps out there and if a restaurateur wants to stay in the game, they’ve got a lot to keep up on, otherwise they’ll get left behind and the business will go elsewhere,” he says.

De Rochefort agrees that the software doesn’t necessarily expand business at the moment, but preserves it. “Is the pie growing? Are more people going out to eat? If three of us use the software, we’re all back to thirty-three percent,” he says, his voice momentarily trailing off, perhaps wondering if a more profitable career path might lie in software design. “But you have to. In a gold rush, you want to be selling jeans and mining pans. Not mining.”

It’s all in her head

“Airlines, hotels, casinos — they all have one system that they rely on, an all-in-one software package to help them figure out their business so they know what’s going on,” says Winston Lord, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Venga, a Washington DC-based company that tracks restaurant customer data. “Go to the Ritz in Georgetown and ask for a down pillow. Then go to the Ritz in L.A. a few weeks later and guess what’s waiting on your bed?”

But every time he goes to his favorite neighborhood restaurant, they invariably greet him with a smile and ask if it’s his first time dining there. His company, Venga, is working to solve that.

“Restaurants have outdated or multiple technologies that don’t connect. Maybe they’ve got data from their POS [point-of-sale] terminal” — the glowing ‘register’ that servers use to input orders — “OpenTable, Facebook, or just regular email,” he says, “and none of it connects. They’re behind the times.”

Lord and I have met at Manhattan’s Chez Napoléon, a bastion of old-school French food and décor, complete with a decades-old Paris Metro map, a French flag, and a matriarch presiding over the front of the house.

“She’s the restaurant’s CRM [customer relationship management] tool,” he says, referring to a class of software that emerged in the 1990s to let businesses combine customers’ behavior, transactions, and potential future needs. “The problem is, if she retires or, worse, goes to the restaurant across the street, Napoléon’s goose is cooked.”

Hypothetically, in a slightly more up-to-date restaurant, a regular customer named Jim might arrive and OpenTable might know he’s made a reservation for two at table seven. The POS terminal knows the guy at table seven had iced tea but doesn’t know it’s Jim, and the restaurant regularly sends Jim emails about their wine dinners. There’s no connection between the platforms; Jim could be a teetotaler and he’d still get those wine dinner notes. Along with Lord’s software’s ability to track customer data, it also connects a very small number of the dots to bring together a complete picture of a patron.

“The tipping point is going to come from the ground up — restaurateurs making their needs known. The winner’s going to be the service that gets it all in one place,” says Lord, who notes that there’s no 600-pound gorilla in the room, big enough to snap everyone up and consolidate the options.

Damian Mogavero of Avero Technologies behind the bar at Daniel in Manhattan.

Scraping the dishes for data

With a product now sold in 38 countries and a client base that runs the gamut from big Las Vegas restaurants to mom-and-pop establishments, Damian Mogavero’s company, Avero, is about as close as the food data industry gets to a hulking ape.

Avero analyzes billions of dollars of POS data each year to unearth national trends and can also scrutinize an individual restaurant’s data. Someone like de Rochefort can use it to ferret out information like which servers are performing best, how many tortilla dishes Boqueria will likely sell on Tuesdays in May, and which of his bartenders has sticky fingers.

Mogavero’s software business is not big enough to snap up other companies in the restaurant-data arena, but he acknowledges that he might want to under the right circumstances. “I have one client who told me he has 10 passwords for all of his different restaurant software,” he says. “The sheer number of options is getting in the way.”

As we talk on the phone, Mogavero seems particularly cagey and, mysteriously, has brought his product marketing director in on our call, but they slowly reveal that Avero is starting to partner with accounting software and reservation services to create a product they’re beginning to show to a handful of customers. The company is also looking into partnerships with scheduling and customer-survey apps.

“What’s it called?” I ask, a question that’s followed by a conspicuous amount of dead air, in which time it’s very easy to imagine the two of them going wide-eyed and scrambling for an answer.

“Um…” says Mogavero, “Avero Link?”

Whatever the name, it’s not yet the all-in-one solution that covers each facet of the restaurant industry. But it begins that process of consolidation with some business basics that will save back-office workers heaps of time getting disparate apps to play nice.

“There’s all this tech, but [the programs] aren’t designed to talk to each other. All that data…” Mogavero says, “it’s overwhelming.” The idea, Mogavero says, is to spend less time in the office and more time with guests. That’s something that every chef and restaurateur, from the corner diner to the highest-end hotspot in Las Vegas can agree with.

Award-winning food and travel writer and photographer Joe Ray's work has been featured in the New York Times, Agence France Presse, the Guardian and elsewhere. He's just moved to Lummi Island, Washington, to write a cookbook with James Beard-nominated chef Blaine Wetzel.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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