Big Brother's Diner

Online reservation systems are catching on, but at what price to privacy?

Gilbert Garza starts his day at Suze by clipping a wireless phone to his belt. He then slips on a lightweight headset--the kind that doesn't disturb your hair--complete with mouthpiece. He looks vaguely like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, if Hanks were a chef preparing for another 14-hour day.

All of this fancy stuff helps the chef-owner of Suze take reservations while he preps the kitchen. But he hopes one day soon that customers will handle much of that work for him online.

Online reservation systems are sprouting up all over the Internet: foodline.com, menus.com, etc. People can even place home delivery orders online through such sites as food.com, assigning a day, time, and place for delivery far in advance. But Garza foresees a system that maps the restaurant, allowing patrons to select a particular table while giving restaurateurs the option to block out certain sections or reconfigure the seating arrangements--almost like a doll-house--in real time. "We had hoped to have everything in place at this point in time," Garza says. "In three weeks we'll talk to a couple of companies, and if they can't do it we'll create a system on our own."

The benefits of an online reservation system outweigh the costs for Suze chef Gilbert Garza.
Peter Calvin
The benefits of an online reservation system outweigh the costs for Suze chef Gilbert Garza.

Garza long ago outgrew doll houses. Now he seems determined to revolutionize his restaurant. Companies already offer online employee-timekeeping databases, inventory control, credit card authorization, and other point-of-sale data systems. He expects online reservations to be the next big thing.

"The value for us is that you give people another option when making decisions, and it should eliminate a certain amount of human error," he claims. Smaller restaurants--Suze seats up to 80 in a cozy and unpretentious setting--cannot afford to employ daytime reservation staff ("working the books," in restaurant parlance). They rely instead on voice mail and notes scribbled by a busy chef. Every restaurant working under these conditions makes reservation errors from time to time, including overbooking seats or forgotten calls. And while reservation systems cost between $180 and $400 per month, such systems justify themselves on one table, according to Garza. "A great deal of time, effort, and money is spent assembling personnel and ingredients based on the number of reservations you have," he points out. Errors cost money.

According to Garza, "online reservations are intriguing because of continued technological innovation." For example, as the wireless Web matures, hungry people may turn to their cell phones or navigation systems to find nearby restaurants and reserve a table. Online systems would allow restaurateurs to check table availability from home, check daily sales while on vacation, or even become absentee owners. "There are a ton of possibilities," he says.

Of course, those possibilities include a certain amount of Orwellian intrusion. These systems include databanks linked to point-of-sale software, the systems that gather and process information from each sale at the restaurant. They provide a comprehensive file on loyal customers, for example. Restaurateurs could potentially pull up reports on individual customers (their favorite foods or wines, dining patterns, etc.). "That's the scariest part," admits Garza. "Along with all of this technology comes the collation of information that can be invasive. I really prefer old-fashioned relationships." However, the tried and true methods of analog days cannot compensate for the benefits Garza envisions. With a reservation system integrated with POS software, he can quickly discern the greatest profit margins, peak demand periods, popular (and unpopular) menu items, effective menu mixes, and so on.

Still, Garza fully expects problems with reservation technology as it seeps into the marketplace (a dose of reality that somehow escaped the majority of last year's dot.coms). What happens when patrons place online and phone reservations in rapid succession? How do you prevent pranksters from setting false reservations? Who do you seek out and pummel into an unrecognizable smear on the sidewalk when the system crashes? "There's a learning curve with everything," Garza says.

So it's a trade-off. In the near future, patrons will set their own reservations online, from the comfort of office cubicles (added to the other Internet-related distractions that already cost companies millions of dollars each year--but that's an aside) and select a suitable table. Couples driving aimlessly through the streets of Dallas with rumbling stomachs and overstuffed wallets may punch up an establishment on their Navistar (before careening off the road--another aside). But at the same time, restaurateurs will be able to look deep into our souls, collecting data on our habits, likes, dislikes, and secret desires.

Let's hope they use the information for good rather than evil.

 
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