How Restaurants Are Using Instagram and OpenTable to Gather Data on Diners

June 22, 2016, 3:48 PM UTC
American Express Restaurant Trade Program, June 18
Photo by Steve Mundinger

The restaurant industry—like so many other industries—has been struggling with a big data problem. After years of having access to no data, there’s now too much of it.

To make sense of it all, restaurateurs are starting to turn to some non-traditional sources.

Michael Jacobs—a partner in Corner Table Restaurants, the company behind the Smith restaurants—says that he and his team look at analytics that categorize all the social media chatter about their brand by common themes and keywords.

Jacobs said Yelp was the No. 1 source of the company’s social media analysis two years ago; today it’s Instagram. “Yelp has shrunk in terms of comments that come through there,” he said during the American Express Restaurant Trade program at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen last week.

Maureen Cushing, vice president of technology at Union Square Hospitality Group—the company behind eateries like Union Square Café, Blue Smoke, and Gramercy Tavern—said her team uses OpenTable as a data mining tool, which is not something the reservation booking site was designed to be used for.


Cushing is also following new platforms like Resy and Reserve that are working on letting customers invite friends to a reservation. That would give the company a window into everyone who’s eating—not just the person who made the booking. “You’ll be able to understand everyone at the table and their preferences,” she said.

Cushing noted that one of the challenges for her team is determining how best to solicit feedback from customers—whether it should be immediate and through which medium. “You might want a text message from Sweetgreen but not Gramercy Tavern,” she said.

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At popular salad chain Sweetgreen, 20% of customers now order through its mobile app—a figure that should climb to 50% in the not too distant future. Sweetgreen co-founder and co-CEO Nic Jammet said that since “speed and frequency is everything for us,” the app helps “relieve that pain point.” It also gives the company a tremendous amount of knowledge about who’s placing an order.

That change in ordering practices means that Sweetgreen will have to rethink the layout of its restaurants. If 50% of orders come directly into the kitchen, locations would need bigger waiting areas. He didn’t rule out the possibility of having a store that will purely service orders coming in through the app.

All of the chefs on the panel talked about the importance of ensuring that technology doesn’t take the human element out of hospitality. Cushing, for her part, said she never wants to see technology on the floor of the restaurant. “Good technology doesn’t replace human connection,” Jammet said. “It enhances it.”

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