Copyright 2000 The New York Times 

	March 1, 2000

          Every Bite You Take, They'll Be Watching You

          By AMANDA HESSER

            As you savor your tuna
               tartare in an elegant
               dining room, your
          companion may not be the only
          one to notice you are ignoring
          the sesame toasts the chef has
          made to accompany it. The
          chef may be fretting about it,

          While he observes you on a
          video screen in the kitchen. 

          As you blithely eat your meal,
          he may be watching for the
          moment you put your fork
          down, so he can get your next
          course rolling. And you may
          never know it, unless you look
          up to the ceiling and spot the
          cookie-size lens of the camera above your table. 

          Even in restaurants that have not invested in video technology, your name,
          phone number, address and even where you work may be stored away on
          a computer hard drive without your knowledge. Computers have been in
          restaurants for years, but until recently they were mainly used to convey
          orders from the dining room to the kitchen. Now, they can track how much
          wine you drink, how often you order the foie gras, how much you tip and
          how many times you didn't show up for a reservation. 

          In a city where people prize anonymity almost more than fame, restaurants
          are increasingly adding surveillance and information gathering to their
          functions. Chefs and restaurateurs say that the better they know their
          customers, the better they can serve them, monitoring the pace of a meal,
          for example, or always "remembering" to deliver your martini with olives
          rather than onions. 

          But restaurateurs aren't exactly boasting about their new technology. 

          The cameras at Daniel are an open secret in the restaurant world, though
          most diners are unaware of them. In 1993, Daniel Boulud installed them
          around the dining room at the former Daniel, now Cafe Boulud. They're
          still up and running, and he has installed a video system in the new Daniel
          as well, where the monitors are in plain view for any visitor to the kitchen.
          Although Mr. Boulud did not return calls to discuss them, his publicist,
          Georgette Farkas, said the system is essential. "He can keep an eye on the
          front of the house and the kitchen at the same time," Ms. Farkas said. 

          The cameras are positioned around the dining room and capture three to
          four tables each. In the kitchen, Mr. Boulud has several screens set up
          next to his station, so that at a glance he can switch from viewing the
          employee locker room to seeing how a table is progressing on its first
          course. The images are a lot like those on the surveillance cameras in a
          7-Eleven: you can see what diners are wearing, but not their jewelry, for

                                          At Aureole Las Vegas, Charlie
                                          Palmer, the chef, said he
                                          installed a video system to keep
                                          track of all that goes on in the
                                          restaurant, which is much
                                          larger than Aureole in New
                                          York. His system is more
                                          advanced than the one at
                                          Daniel: 16 cameras are
                                          positioned around the dining
                                          rooms. The image quality is
                                          nearly as good as a television

                                          "You can zoom and see they're
                                          almost done with the first
          course, actually zoom in and see the plates," Mr. Palmer said. Though they
          are essentially surveillance cameras, the clarity is good enough, he said,
          that you can tell, "if the fork's on the plate." Or if a celebrity is misbehaving
          with a date, as Mr. Palmer said he and a few cooks observed on a recent

          Mark Stech-Novak, a kitchen designer, is installing cameras in the Roy's
          restaurants around the country, starting with the new Roy's in San
          Francisco, which is to open in July. 

          Rocco DiSpirito, the chef at Union Pacific, expects to have video cameras
          installed there by this summer. The newer digital cameras will be clearer
          than the others, and have better zooming capability and remote access --
          which means that if Mr. DiSpirito goes on vacation he can log on to his
          computer, and look into the dining room. 

          Though just a very few restaurants have invested in cameras for their
          dining rooms -- a system costs $15,000 to $100,000, Mr. Stech-Novak said
          -- many, many more are using their reservations computers to monitor their

          New software allows restaurants to build a much larger and more detailed
          database -- and offers them countless ways to use the information. 

          Credit card companies also gather information for restaurants. American
          Express, for instance, can come up with lists of card members who spend
          above a given amount, or card members who dine frequently in a particular
          restaurant. Then, that restaurant can, through a third party, send an offer to
          these card members, either in their credit card statement or in a restaurant
          newsletter. The Diners Club card provides similar services to restaurants. 

          Of course, keeping close tabs on the customers isn't just the result of new
          technology. Good restaurants have always been savvy about recalling the
          drinks or tables that regulars like. Often, that data was written into a
          captain's or waiter's notepad. 

                                          For example, at Oceana in
                                          Midtown, Felix Marrufo, the
                                          captain, keeps a detailed black
                                          book. His notes read like
                                          formulas, specific to diners. For
                                          one man, there is "menu
                                          immediately, Pellegrino, likes
                                          Maine oysters, no mignonette,
                                          elderly man with young Asian
                                          companion." For another, it's
                                          "tap water, espresso, rush." 

                                          Now, the restaurant is entering
                                          Mr. Marrufo's notes into a new
                                          computer database, so all of its
                                          employees will know diners
                                          almost as well as he does. 

          Some restaurants are buying software like RSViP and Perfect Host,
          specifically designed to handle reservations, and using it to track
          customers. But many more are joining one of the new online reservations
          services, which provide the software as part of the package, even if the
          restaurant has not gone online. Oceana, for example, is using the software
          supplied by 

          "The primary value is definitely the database and being able to record the
          history of your guests -- no question," said Paul McLaughlin, the
          restaurant's general manager. 

          All the software works essentially the same way: when diners call or go
          online to make a reservation, they are added to the database, with their
          telephone numbers and any other information they share. On some
          programs, each diner's file has categories for address, e-mail address, food
          preferences, date of first visit, profession, favorite server and V.I.P. status.

          "There are so many restaurants out there," said Massimo Felici, the owner
          of La Nonna in Manhattan, who uses software from to track
          patrons. "You don't want to lose any customers." 

          The software helps in other ways, too: It allows restaurants to track
          patrons who do not honor reservations. 

          A reservationist might not recognize a no-show's name, but databases
          always do. They keep track of the number of times a diner has not shown
          up for his reservation; that information comes up when the diner calls and
          the reservationist taps the name into the computer. 

          "If I have to squeeze you in on a booked Saturday night and I see that you
          didn't come in when you made a reservation, I'll give that table to another
          customer," Mr. Felici said. 

          Some online reservation programs, like, have more
          elaborate no-show features: the program counts your no-shows, and if you
          reach three, sends you an e-mail pointing it out. The idea, said Andy
          England, OpenTable's vice president for marketing, is to shame the diner
          into changing his ways. 

          Steve Hanson, an owner of several Manhattan restaurants, including Ruby
          Foo's Dim Sum and Sushi Palace and the Blue Water Grill, uses Perfect
          Host to integrate information from all his restaurants, so that if you're a
          regular at Blue Water Grill and go to Atlantic Grill, another of his
          restaurants, you'll be treated like a regular there, too: the manager might
          greet you by name, for example. 

          And if you're not a regular, you will also be marked. When Marshall
          Goldberg, a senior director for housing of Project Return, a social services
          group in Manhattan, tried to make a reservation at Ruby Foo's on the
          Upper West Side a few months ago, the reservationist asked for his phone
          number. Mr. Goldberg gave him the number. 

          A moment passed, and he was told he was not in their system. When Mr.
          Goldberg asked what would have happened had he been, the reservationist
          informed him that it would have shown his rating, and that had his rating
          been high enough, they might have been able to take care of him. 

          Mr. Hanson denies rating his customers, although his system does keep a
          count of the number of times a diner has visited. "This was just an
          uninformed host," he said. "We were obviously full. If it had been a regular
          customer who comes in all the time, I would have wanted a manager to
          see if they could find a way for him to get in." 

          Danny Meyer, a restaurateur who is known for personal service, has
          installed software from at Eleven Madison Park.
          Eventually, it will be installed in his other restaurants -- Union Square Cafe,
          Tabla and Gramercy Tavern -- said Nick Mautone, the general manager of
          Gramercy Tavern. 

          If you're a regular at Eleven Madison Park and you're put on the waiting
          list, Mr. Meyer said, "I would absolutely want to see it help you on the wait
          list." He added that a new feature of the software will soon allow him to
          organize the wait list based on customer profiles -- for instance, to keep a
          50-50 balance between new and returning customers. 

          At Jean Georges, the Perfect Host software allows the restaurant to print
          up a card for each party coming in that day. On it are the name of the host,
          table number, number in the party and any important notes on the diner
          who made the reservation. When the host arrives, a staff member records
          on the card a symbol for the person's sex and attire and sends the
          customer to the bar. The captain is then given the card and is able to
          identify the person at the bar without having to ask his (or her) name a
          second time. There are other notes, too, like "likes small table" or "wine

          A few weeks ago, Ken Yeh, a vice president at Christie's who advises
          Asian clients, went to Jean Georges for dinner. His card reads: "Super
          regular customer at JoJo. Was in JG for tasting menu on Monday night this
          week. Third visit in 10 days for Mr. Yeh." (It also noted him as a PPX, for
          personne particulièrement extraordinaire, a restaurant term for V.I.P.) 

          "That's quite amazing," Mr. Yeh said when he was read his restaurant
          dossier. Though astonished at the detail, Mr. Yeh said he wasn't offended.
          But it did lead him to reminisce about the years when he dined on long
          tasting menus at the former Bouley in TriBeCa, which were customized so
          that no course was ever repeated. 

          And there was no computer to keep tabs. 

          While most restaurants are subtle in how they gather their information,
          some are aggressive. The Kimpton Restaurant Group, which owns
          restaurants around the country, including Mossant Bistro in Chicago and
          the Grand Café in San Francisco, gives servers a form for collecting
          information on guests. 

          "There is no expectation they have to fill it out," said Andrew Freeman, a
          public relations representative for the group. "They can write down the
          name, the table they were at and whatever you get on them." That might
          include what wine you drank or where you work. Then the information is
          entered into the computer. "It gives us the opportunity to personalize almost
          every guest experience," he added. 

          Or to be a little nosy. 

          Restaurants have always thrived on the see-and-be-seen appeal. At the
          Brasserie in Midtown, a camera is placed at the door so that images of
          entering diners are transmitted to screens above the bar for all to see. 

          "That was all part of the design elements that the architects wanted,
          because they see dining as a voyeuristic experience," said Dana Madigan,
          the general manager. 

          But being watched from the kitchen with a hidden camera lacks the same
          kind of honesty. The people who serve you in restaurants have always
          been able to see your every move, but the new technology is colder, more
          efficient, sneakier. 

          "I think the great part of the whole dining experience is intimacy, and that
          blows it," said Drew Nieporent, an owner of Nobu, Montrachet and other
          restaurants in New York. "If you know there's going to be a camera
          anywhere in the restaurant, the next thing is going to be a microphone
          under the table, and that's not fair." 

          Chefs like Mr. Palmer of Aureole and Mr. DiSpirito of Union Pacific
          defend the use of cameras as a practical measure to get around unreliable

          "It's not the same as the chef being able to flick a switch and verify himself
          that it's time to fire the foie gras, bake the soufflé or whatever," said Mr.
          Stech-Novak, the owner of Mark Stech-Novak Restaurant Consultation
          and Design in Oakland, Calif. "You can't rely on people's words. A picture
          is worth a thousand words." 

          Roy Yamaguchi, the chef and owner of Roy's restaurants, is considering
          cameras not just to monitor the dining room, but also to allow chefs in one
          restaurant to show others at another location in the chain how to prepare
          new dishes. 

          Dpon Netmedia, a company in Houston that makes digital monitoring
          systems that can be linked to the Internet, has recently begun marketing
          them to restaurants. With its system, a chef can move the cameras and
          zoom in closely. Very closely. Mark Kelley, the sales director, said a
          camera 10 feet above a table can zoom in close enough to see what you
          are writing on a check. 

          The images, which show up on a computer screen placed in the kitchen,
          can be saved, and if the chef is away from the restaurant, he can log on
          and see what is going on in the dining room, kitchen or wherever the
          cameras are pointed. 

          Dan Yeh, the owner of the company (and no relation to Ken Yeh), said
          restaurants could also set up Web sites and allow real-time viewing of the
          dining room or kitchen on the Internet. It's a possibility that makes sharing
          an evening on a restaurant's kitchen monitor seem private in comparison. 

          This is the system that Union Pacific plans to install this summer. Mr.
          DiSpirito estimates that cameras will increase the restaurant's efficiency
          by 35 to 40 percent. By being able to see how a table's meal is progressing
          without waiting for a server to tell him, he said, he can keep the meal
          better timed. And, Mr. DiSpirito added, he can avoid delays, such as when
          a waiter forgets to set down the proper flatware, and the kitchen has to
          wait before sending out the food. 

          But if the cooks have an eye on your table, who's watching the fish on the
          burner? So far, no one has invented that technology. 

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company