In a city jam-packed with fine eating establishments, a number of Charleston restaurant owners have turned to the World Wide Web to give them an edge on their competition. In fact, the variety of ways web sites are currently being used to promote area restaurants is as vast as the variety of menus found downtown.
For example, Maverick Southern Kitchens, which operates Slightly North of Broad and other local restaurants, offers recipes on its site (www.mavericksouthernkitchens.com) to help enlist their potential patrons’ taste buds in the decision-making process. At 82 Queen’s site (www.82queen.com) diners can find a money-saving click and print coupon, plus an e-commerce store featuring the restaurant’s own condiments, cookbooks and apparel. A visit to a site like Charleston Grill’s at www.charlestongrill.com can even capture the restaurant’s ambience, with strains of jazz pulling the web surfer right into the experience.
Hospitality Management Group, which owns and operates Cypress, Magnolia’s and Blossom Café, all located downtown on East Bay Street, has ventured where few others in the Charleston restaurant market have dared to tread: online reservations.
“We just updated our web site (www.magnolias-blossom-cypress.com),” says Michael Nickell, operations manager for Hospitality Management Group, “but we’ve taken online reservations for probably the last five or six years.”
Nickell’s company is part of OpenTable, a leading reservation, seating, marketing and customer relationship management software system for restaurants. More than 1,200 restaurants nationwide use OpenTable’s products to streamline their operations, drive revenue and cut costs.
OpenTable features a profile of each of its member restaurants. Reservations made on the OpenTable web site (www.OpenTable.com) are free-of-charge and available 24-hours-a-day, in real time, with diners receiving an instant confirmation via e-mail.
Diners are not limited to making reservations exclusively through the OpenTable site. “A large majority of my online reservations come through our own web site,” reports Kim Kent, reservations manager for Hospitality Management Group. “Using the OpenTable software, reservations show up directly on my computer screen. I enter the reservation in my database and send an e-mail confirmation, which diners receive within 24 hours.”
Reservations made online have steadily increased for Kent’s company as more and more consumers turn to the web to help them make dining decisions. Kent says she receives about 30 online reservations per day, or 10 per restaurant per day. She estimates that about 80% are made by visitors and 20% by local residents. “The number of online reservations we get for our three restaurants usually increases for holidays and during the peak tourism season,” notes Kent.
Tristan, which opened just over a year ago in the historic market, is the only other South Carolina restaurant listed on the OpenTable web site (www.tristandining.com). While banquet manager Rory Welsh only receives a handful of online reservations daily, she shares Kent’s views on the other benefits the software affords user-restaurants.
“We have a concierge incentive program, which we track using the software,” says Welsh. “When a concierge makes a reservation, we can just click on their hotel and then on that person’s name so they can receive credit for it. At the end of the month we print a report.”
Another benefit of using the program is that it helps restaurants develop an e-mail list that can later be used to notify regular customers of promotions and special events. “I probably have 300 to 400 e-mail addresses for each of our restaurants,” says Kent. “I can send my marketing flyer out to all those people. It’s wonderful, but we try to use this feature sparingly because we don’t want our e-mail to be considered another piece of junk mail.”
One of the most important features of the software for Kent and Welsh is its ability to track important information about its restaurant’s guests. In an instant, the reservationist knows how often a particular customer has dined with them over the months or years—and even if that customer has a habit of not showing up after making reservations.
“When we pick up information about our regular guests, like table preference or which server they like best, we enter that into our database for the next time,” Kent says. “If Mr. Smith likes Pine Ridge Merlot, for example, we make sure it’s available for him when he comes in. If we know it’s his wife’s birthday, we note that too, so we can invite them back next year. Collecting any information like this over time allows us to take our customer service up several notches.”
Welsh agrees. “When our hostess sees this information on her computer screen, she passes it along to the server. It’s important for the server to know if the guest likes chocolate desserts or if he is allergic to peanut oil. It makes our service more personal.”
“We’ve been able to build a history with our guests,” concludes Nickell. “It’s really pretty slick. We kind of like technology around here.”