You’re Being Researched Before You Dine

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor

GIF: diasmelhoress, Tumblr

Here’s a reality: Restaurants are looking you up on the Internet before you go out to eat

Maybe not everywhere, and definitely not every time. The folks at the hole-in-the-wall burger joint where you’re a regular probably don’t care how much money you make, what type of wine you always order, or How Much of A Bigshot You Are. 

But an attentive restaurant—one with a publicist, or a Twitter account, or a few stars from a major newspaper—sure might. As we’re reminded by Australian site GoodFood in a story about the phenomenon, everything from your birthday to your tipping behavior is being chronicled by all sorts of restaurants, all the time. It’s (mostly) in the interest of making you feel extra-special and getting you back in the door. But there’s a good bit more going on.

Do you give your name when you make a reservation? Do you let an online service such as OpenTable gather all sorts of data on you (including no-shows, tsk-tsk)? Or do you ping a place on Twitter, Foursquare or Facebook before coming in?

Then you’re partly responsible for opening that door, and restaurants are taking advantage of it. Sometimes it works in your favor: Who—introverts aside—doesn’t love being wished “happy birthday” by the maître dwhen walking in the door of a fancy place, or being sent a gratis dessert without having breathed a word of the occasion?

But sometimes all that information can be used against you: “Restaurants sometimes use online reservation systems to prepare themselves for the ‘one per cent of customers who ‘just hate life.’” It’s tough to say whether a reservationist would look up your name in the database, find that you lingered way past the time you finished dessert and were handed the check, and subsequently give you only the options of 4:30pm or 10pm for a table. But it could happen. 

Been tipping well? That could make it on to your dining report card, too. One publicist we interviewed said that one of her clients “adds a new note to the guest description each time they visit.” It could be “good tipper;” it could be “rude to waiter.” That part is up to you.

An informal survey of restaurant publicity companies revealed the gamut: One rep told us “more than half” of her clients google guests. But a senior director for corporate communications at OpenTable emailed that although “we haven’t formally surveyed our restaurant customers on this particular question,” “based on my anecdotal experience in this arena [it’s] likely to be lower than 30 percent.”

Want to stay on the safe side? Use a pseudonym, or go someplace that doesn’t take reservations. There certainly are lots nowadays.