In 2013, the scourge of entitled Yelpers reached its peak when a man invented the “ReviewerCard” — a black credit card that allowed reviewers to have a “lifetime of upgrades” by scaring businesses into giving them good service. Don’t want to wait for a table? Flash a ReviewerCard. Feel like your server is ignoring you? Just carefully slide out your shiny black card that tells the world just how important you are.
The card didn’t go far, yet the feelings that caused a man to create this blackmail-note-in-credit-card-form are familiar to most restaurant-goers. “Everyone wants to feel important,” says Israel Morales, co-owner of Kachka restaurant in Portland, Oregon. “Every restaurateur would like to treat everyone the same way — and it looks good on paper to say that we do — but it’s not really the case.” Though restaurants aim to give everyone good service, regulars, big spenders, and friends of the staff often get special treatment in the form of a better table, free cocktails at the bar, or maybe even a few surprise courses courtesy of the chef.
And the best restaurants make their VIPs feel important without ever letting their other guests know that they’re second tier: Preparing for VIPs is a quiet dance that happens largely behind the scenes.
Before a VIP even sets foot inside the restaurant, most establishments have been anticipating their arrival for hours (that is, unless someone has made a reservation under another name to preserve his or her privacy). At the beginning of each shift, the manager at Hugo’s restaurant in Houston, Texas goes over the night’s reservations with the host, making notes on incoming VIPs or celebrities.
For those who don’t make reservations, restaurant staff is left to try to recognize VIPs in person. Few restaurants have an all-knowing maître d' on staff anymore. Host or hostesses are entry-level employees with high turnover rates (in the hospitality industry as a whole, the turnover rate was 72 percent in 2015) — either because they leave or are promoted to better-paying positions. Though few restaurants quiz their employees on VIP recognition, many have some version of a “most wanted” board with faces of prominent restaurant critics. Some even offer prizes like free food or better sections to the employee who is the first to spot one. But in general, it’s the manager who is responsible for recognizing VIPs and often has final say on just how much special treatment they receive.
Hugo’s manager makes sure VIPs are assigned an appropriate table (a.k.a. the best or most private one in the house) and notifies the kitchen in case the chef wants to prepare something special. Usually this is an off-menu item or an item coordinated with the guest’s meal. These foods are rarely chosen ahead of time. (If the entire table is ordering fish, few kitchens would send out red meat without knowing more information on the guests’ dietary preferences.) “After that, we have a pre-shift meeting with the servers,” says Manuel Ponce, Hugo’s general manager. This is when the people who will be waiting on VIPs find out their night’s fate.
Most restaurants keep track of their who’s-who of the night’s reservations through a (hopefully) secret series of acronyms. Instead of writing “VIP” next to a guest’s name, Kachka uses “HP,” meaning “high profile.” Some restaurants may refer to VIPs as “soigné,” a French term meaning someone who is elegant or well-groomed and in restaurant lingo means, “don’t make a mistake with this table or else.”
At Balthazar and Keith McNally’s other restaurants, service is especially en pointe with guests whose reservations are marked with “AAA,” though an “AA” guest is also of note, a New York Magazine article reported in 2010. At the time, only 15 guests ranked “AAA” status — Anna Wintour among them. (A Balthazar representative couldn’t be reached to confirm whether they still use this system, but someone from the restaurant did call back and leave a message with a helpful “VIP-only” phone number to use for future reservations.) In other places, VIP status is conferred to those who are “F.O.O.,” friend of the owner, or even simply a “reg.”
“Our VIPs are people who we know very well who come in a lot,” says Justin Aprahamian, the chef and owner of Milwaukee, WI restaurant Sanford. Though the restaurant often attracts baseball players and musicians during the summer and will usually send them something extra, those people may not visit Milwaukee again. “We take care of those VIPs but don’t make it a show,” Aprahamian says. “We don’t want our local guests watching a celebrity get special treatment while they’re getting ignored.”
Like most restaurants, Sanford has a system of tracking regular guests. Unlike most, their reservation book is still done by hand, and distinguished guests are tracked using a system of files and notes on a bulletin board kept in the office. “If people do the tasting menu every time they come in, we want to keep track of what they’ve had in the past.” Aprahamian explains.
Kachka also keeps dossiers on its regulars. “We try to recognize the details with everyone who comes in as much as we can,” Morales says. In some cases these are obvious things like dietary preferences or whether or not someone drinks alcohol. Other times, Kachka has noted that a guest is left handed and might organize the silverware differently on the table. “Our VIPs have less to do with whether they’re known in the public sphere or not,” Morales says. “It’s that we recognize them as having been here before and know the things that they’ll notice.”
If this is done well, guests are left with the feeling that they are both important and memorable. It’s important to not be so eerily specific that guests wonder whether there’s a physical memorial of what they’ve ordered during their other visits (although, usually, there is). Kachka describes its receipt collection as looking like “one of those murder detective maps of the city with pinpoints all over the wall,” Morales says. And it’s certainly not the only restaurant that has a meal-tracking receipt wall taking over a back office.
But in recent years, guest-tracking software has become a major industry. Since OpenTable created a reservation system that could track guests’ information, visits, and cancellations, other companies have stepped in with software that can turn any computer into a professional maître d'. The most well-known of these guest trackers is SevenRooms, which was founded in 2011.
The program can track over 50 different data points automatically — anniversaries, birthdays, allergies, or favorite bottles of wine are just a few. Even more useful for giant restaurant groups is the ability to share this data between locations. If John Smith is a regular at Hip New Restaurant in New York and then goes to its sister locations in Los Angeles or Miami, his VIP status will go with him. But SevenRooms aims to be about more than just making sure big spenders are always recognized.
“It changes how people think about VIPs,” says chief technology officer Kinesh Patel. “At the mom-and-pop restaurant that lives and dies by their regulars, VIPs aren’t the person who spends $1,000 on a bottle of wine one night,” Patel explains. “It’s the person who spends $1,000 every week.” While SevenRooms maintains that they can be just as useful to a small restaurant as a culinary/nightlife behemoth, so far its publicly listed clients fall into the latter category. It charges restaurants a monthly fee for the product, which, on the tight margins of the average restaurant, is an expense most would rather not take on.
But all this information restaurants collect on VIPs have to be wielded carefully. One of Kachka’s regulars “came in with who we thought was his wife for quite some time,” Morales recalls. “We had lists of notes on their likes and dislikes but when he came in with his actual wife, we had to get rid of those. We couldn’t offer the same types of drinks of even recognition that he’d ever been here before.” (It’s worth noting that some version of this story came up multiple times while reporting this article, and would almost seem like an urban restaurant legend if it weren’t true.)
Morales notes that it’s an impressive vote of confidence that the gentleman “who will remain unnamed” didn’t worry that Kachka’s staff would say something as simple as “welcome back” and blow his cover. “We rely on the information we collect about our regulars,” he says, “but it can all change with the flip of a coin.”