Stevan Premutico, chief executive officer of dimmi.com.au Photo: Louise Kennerley
Are you a cheap tipper? A fussy eater who sends meals back to the kitchen? Whether you're a dining dream or nightmare (and let's be honest, the worst customers are probably the last to admit it), the internet age means for better or worse, now more than ever, your reputation precedes you.
When a diner walks into a restaurant these days, there's a good chance the maitre d' knows more about them than they realise, says Stevan Premutico, chief executive officer of online reservation website dimmi.com.au.
"What they look like, their job, their title, where they live, their social connections, any special celebrations and whether they are an avid foodie are all key things," he says.
Last laugh: Restaurateur Darran Smith (pictured here, second from left, in 2009) always researches his guests. Photo: Domino Postiglione
"It’s all part of getting to know your customers."
Keeping notes on customers is hardly new. But as social media continues to knock gaping holes in the divide between personal and public, restaurants that bother to do their research are reaping bigger rewards for their efforts.
Shared online reservation systems like Dimmi's ResDiary, as well as social media sites liked LinkedIn and good old Google searches, can be a double-edged sword. Systems can be used to track dining 'performance' - how much you ordered, whether you tipped well, how pleasantly you treated staff or whether you continued to camp out at the table long after you'd finished dessert.
The five most common pieces of information restaurants share, Premutico says, are customers' food and wine preferences, notable habits (e.g. likes to have a drink at the bar before being seated), seating preferences (corner booth, window seat), allergies and – last but certainly not least – if the customer is a good or bad tipper.
But the Dimmi system goes even further, allowing restaurants to codify diners with attributes such as wine connoisseur, adventure eaters, quick eaters (good for table turnover) or friends of the chef or owner.
On the flip side are codes for loud talkers, frequent no-shows or PIAs – pain-in-the-ass customers with excessive demands.
Other tidbits restaurants note include postcode (you can infer a lot from four digits, Premutico says), whether someone is an 'upgrader' (diners who go for the works, like coffee and cognac) and, controversially, whether or not the diner is good-looking (some places may seat a diner differently based on their looks, Premutico says).
Restaurateur Darran Smith, who has worked in the industry for 20 years at venues including Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, the Hilton's Glass restaurant and Hemmesphere at the Establishment hotel, says he always researches his guests.
"Whether it’s politicians or movie stars, lawyers or whatnot, I do my research," Smith says.
"I remember Owen Wilson was coming in and finding out he really likes tequila so I made sure the bar was stocked up with tequila … It paid off."
It’s the little things, which a restaurant can do without the customer even realising, that can make a good experience great or an excellent venue exceptional, he says.
Improved customer service and that personalised dining experience is the ultimate goal, restaurants say. And of course there are mutual benefits. (Smith recalls another experience when he discovered via Google that an Icebergs diner had sold his company the day before. "He came in and spent $5000," he says.)
But Smith also admits that restaurants sometimes use online reservation systems to prepare themselves for the "one per cent" of customers who "just hate life".
"With Dimmi, you do some research and you know they only like sitting at a particular table or they only like their salad with the dressing on the side," he says.
"You know that if you go outside a certain circle they … will just be the worst customer in the world."
Premutico says the practice is entirely justified. It's a competitive industry and every bit of intelligence counts – whether you're in front of the cash register or behind it.
"A customer that is rude, obnoxious, complains and doesn't tip should be noted. A diner who appreciates the food concept, respects the staff, dines often and leaves tips should be given the better tables and taken care of more."
As for the impact on customers, perhaps diners will learn to mind their Ps and Qs so as not to be labelled PIAs. After all, restaurants have been riding the rollercoaster of social media and user-generated ratings for years, Premutico says.
"This passes some of the power back to restaurants," he says.
"Diners will behave better, tip better, treat staff better. It will help improve the industry and may help the diner get that all important upgrade next time."