Not so private dining

Diners' information could be stored, tracked

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It used to be you had to be a real VIP to get recognized at your favorite restaurant. But now, thanks to new technology, everybody knows your name, your favorite table and maybe even how much you tip.  These days it's all being stored in databases for instant access the moment you walk through the door.

"There was a time when it was all in the mind of a maitre de or an owner and they knew what you wanted to eat, what you wanted to drink, all by memory. Now it can be in the computer," said restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, President of Clark Wolf Consulting.

Many restaurants around the country are starting to keep detailed records of their customers in computer databases, ready to pull up and use the moment you walk through the door.   The idea is simple-the more they know about you-the better they can serve.  

"Who doesn't like to go into a restaurant and be recognized, greeted by name, and maybe shown to their favorite table," said Anne Shepherd, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Open Table.

Open Table is one company that provides  database software to restaurants. they say the information collected can run the gamut.  

"They might contain dates like birthdays or anniversaries. They could contain notations about allergies or dietary restrictions. Or things like favorite cocktail, favorite bottle of wine," said Shepherd.

But it doesn't always stop there.  Experts say these records can also contain information on how much you tipped or how long you stayed at your table.  Not every diner wants their details documented.   Even the restaurant consultants acknowledge there are privacy issues to consider.  

"There's a fine line between knowing all about you for the benefit of giving you good service and being a stalker," said Wolf.

But they insist the intent isn't to be intrusive.  it's about using their knowledge to get the customers they want to return. 

Wolf said or, "You an also get people to never come back again without them even knowing it. What you do is you make a decisive mistake. If you know they're coming with their girlfriend instead of their wife, you mention the name of the wife. And that person will never come again."

But most of the time, restaurateurs tell us, the data is used to enhance the dining experience.

"Is it a quiet table? Is it a booth? Do they want to be seen in the center of everybody," said Umberto Gibin, Owner of Perbacco.

So how can you tell if your favorite restaurant is keeping tabs on you?  Experts say if they are doing it right, you'll probably never know.

"The best way to use data is to make it basically seamless and invisible," said Richard Coraine with Union Square Hospitality Group.

Here's what you can do:  Tell the restaurant what you want and be clear about it.  Also, if you book online through a website like Open Table or Rezbook, you can add special requests to your reservation which can be on file for future visits.

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