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Restaurant "codes" for diners

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NY Times has an article today about the expanding use by restaurants of codes to mark various types of diners.


For example, a profile marked NR means "no refusal", whatever that client wants is OK. Another code is WW for "wine whale" a person who buys $600 bottles of wine, while PX has replaced VIP. An 86 is somebody whose reservation might just get lost (every time). Seating preferences for regulars, such as instructions not to sit Mr X near Ms Y, or special bread requests, or black napkins only, also end up in the lists.


Many restaurants integrate their own lists with OpenTable. That allows them to generate sheets on prospective diners that can be reviewed by the staff, and may signal any known allergies or seating preferences. The waitstaff, headwaiter, chefs, and general manager may see the sheets for some clients. One restaurant even constructs lists of prospective guests and builds sheets for them, too.


Increasingly, restaurants are recording whether you are a regular, a first-timer, someone who lives close by or a friend of the owner or manager. They archive where you like to sit, when you will celebrate a special occasion and whether you prefer your butter soft or hard, Pepsi over Coca-Cola or sparkling over still water. In many cases, they can trace your past performance as a diner; how much you ordered, tipped and whether you were a “camper” who lingered at the table long after dessert.


“We will write if the person is kosher or can’t eat shellfish,” said Ed Schoenfeld, who owns RedFarm in the West Village. “And we take note of the people who sat for six and a half hours last time, so next time we are sure to give them an uncomfortable seat.”


Even a single visit can prompt the creation of a computer file that includes diners’ allergies, favorite foods and whether they are “wine whales,” likely to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle. That’s valuable information, considering that upward of 30 percent of a restaurant’s revenue comes from alcohol. Some places even log data on potential customers so that the restaurant is prepared if the newcomer shows up.


That a waiter you have never met knows your tendency to dawdle or your love of crushed ice may strike some diners as creepy or intrusive. But restaurant managers say their main goal is to pamper the customer, to recreate the comfort of a local corner spot where everybody knows your name.


“We call it the ‘Cheers’ effect,” said Ann Shepherd, vice president for marketing at the restaurant reservation service OpenTable, referring to the Boston bar in the 1980s sitcom.


Restaurateurs are also looking after their own bottom line. In a cutthroat industry, this kind of intelligence gathering can make or break a business.


“The ability to know and read your customer is critical for staying on top, particularly at the power restaurants,” said Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant.


Much of this information is discreetly embedded in an alphabet soup of acronyms that pops up on the computer screen when a restaurant employee checks you in, managers and employees at a number of high-end New York restaurants said in interviews. The wine whale may show up as WW. If a free appetizer lands on your table at Osteria Morini in SoHo, chances are your file says SFN — something for nothing.


The restaurant may have given you the freebie because you are a FOM (friend of the manager) or a PX, a person extraordinaire. PX used to be V.I.P., but most restaurants stopped using that label years ago because it was so widely recognized and offended non-V.I.P. customers who heard it being used. Some PX’s are also flagged NR, for never refuse.


At some restaurants, HSM is short for heavyset man; at others, LOL stands for little old lady — two types of diners who may need special seating. Customers with bad reputations are often flagged HWC, handle with care. And if there’s an 86 on your profile, chances are you will be making alternative plans for dinner. There are also some more profane acronyms, though most managers say they have been all but phased out for fear of lawsuits.





[quote Chloe Nathan Genovart, who worked at the elite restaurant Per Se for seven years, including several as headwaiter, said the details that restaurants log can be powerful, but the trick is in knowing how to deploy them. For instance, a headwaiter may know the name of a customer’s wife, but should never use it unless he or she knows the woman.


“Sometimes a man will come in with another woman, not their wife,” Ms. Nathan Genovart said. “You have to be very careful about what you say.”


Mr. Meyer said that out of curiosity, he recently examined the profile his restaurant group keeps on him and his wife. Hers is fairly straightforward, he said; it notes that she is his wife, an actress, allergic to crustaceans and left-handed. Mr. Meyer is less certain how he feels about his own profile, which points out that he is “the” Danny Meyer and likes extra cheese with his pasta.


“I am happy that someone cared to note I want extra cheese on the side,” he said, “but I don’t necessarily want to be that predictable.”


Mr. Clark, the restaurant consultant, said the information restaurants have should remain invisible.


“If you say, ‘I know you like a white Burgundy from the 1970s,’ that is creepy,” he said. “Instead, you ask them what they like and point them in the direction of that white Burgundy.” ]

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  • 10 years later...

Heavenly Buffaloes, a chain of restaurants with locations in three North Carolina college towns, would seem tailor-made for QR-code menus. Its customers tend to be young and tech-savvy. Most come in hungry, many tipsy. And the menu isn’t exactly complicated.

“It’s chicken wings and beer,” said Bo Sayre, the company’s district manager. “That’s what we do. Not a lot of people are asking, ‘What beer pairs well with this chicken wing?’”

Like other restaurant owners and managers around the country, Mr. Sayre put digitalized menus on all his tables in the early, don’t-touch-anything stage of the pandemic, when contactless service was considered essential. But over time, fewer and fewer diners have paid them any notice.

“If they had a choice, I would say, 90 percent of customers would say: ‘I’d just rather place my order with you.’”


Heavenly Buffaloes may be at the vanguard of a shift in the national experiment with online menus, an invention that not long ago seemed like the way of the future. Today, even though many restaurants still have “scan the code” cards tucked into napkin holders or pasted onto the corners of tables, customers seem to be ignoring them. And many restaurants have returned to using only paper menus.

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For me, there's two stages to this. There's scanning a QR code to read the menu. I actually don't mind that. It's the further step, asking you to then place your order on your phone rather than with the server who is six feet away. I've done that and it can be a bumpy ride (I didn't click on that, I clicked on this, etc).

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