Getting the answer to ‘How was your meal?’


Justin McAdam dines with a friend at Nando's Peri Peri in Chinatown. Customers are encouraged to fill out questionnaires on paper or using their smartphones and rate the establishment while they are in the restaurant. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 15, 2013

Chef Geoff’s swapped out cantaloupe for berries at breakfast. Le Diplomate sound-proofed its dining room. And at Five Guys, managers added small fries and a lettuce-wrapped burger to the chain’s menu.

All three were responding to online reviewers, whose requests are increasingly driving area restaurants to tweak their menus and improve service to keep customers satisfied.

District-based NewBrandAnalytics is the company behind many of those efforts. The firm’s software scours Web sites such as Twitter, Yelp and OpenTable, as well as blogs and forums, to distill customers’ reviews into daily reports.

“There’s no way that a restaurant today can completely ignore the chatter about themselves, the chatter about their competitors and the opportunities to develop loyal guests,” said Kristin Muhlner, the chief executive.

NewBrandAnalytics’ clientele has grown two-fold since last year to more than 10,000 retailers and restaurants. Muhlner said revenue is also on track to double this year. Last year, sales were up 600 percent. She declined to give precise numbers.

“There is real insight to be gathered from Web sites,” Muhlner said. “Restaurants are far more influenced by the content of reviews than they used to be.”

Just ask Nando’s Peri Peri. The company has begun adding smartphone-scanning QR code images to its comment cards in hopes that guests will fill out surveys on their mobile devices while they are dining in the restaurant.

The feedback is “an important piece of the puzzle,” said Burton Heiss, the District-based chief executive for Nando’s U.S. operations. “It helps us decide why we might make one change over another.”

To box or not?

Founding Farmers, which has locations in the District and Potomac, used to keep track of online reviews in a Google spreadsheet. Employees spent tens of hours a week updating the document and sorting concerns by priority.

But it quickly became too much.

After we opened our third restaurant last November in Georgetown, the volume of feedback increased so exponentially,” said Jennifer Motruk Loy, a spokeswoman for Founding Farmers.

This summer, the company hired a full-time employee to oversee consumer feedback and comments on social media. And, with the help of NewBrandAnalytics, it began tracking online reviews on daily, weekly and monthly bases.

Clients pay a monthly fee to NewBrandAnalytics based on the number of locations and the volume of customer feedback.

“It’s about immediate feedback,” Loy said. “If people keep writing in to say that there’s something wrong with the fried green tomatoes, then we know that’s something we need to address very, very quickly.”

Often, Loy said, customer feedback is more subtle: Reviewers may chime in with opinions on the soup of the day or the preparation of a particular type of fresh-caught fish.

“When we’re working on the next menu roll-out, there are always some items that come off because they weren’t as popular,” she said.

And, from time to time, customers will give feedback on other matters, such as whether they would prefer to box up their own leftovers or leave it up to the servers (District customers tend to pick the former, Loy said, while diners in Rockville choose the latter.)

Unpopular fruit

At Chef Geoff’s, a particular melon wasn’t faring too well.

“Cantaloupe, for whatever reason, kept getting a lot of bad feedback,” said Chris Tracy, president and chief operating officer of the District-based restaurateur. “It wasn’t working. We switched to berries for a while — we’ve really tried everything.”

Chefs at the company’s five area restaurants rely on weekly reports from NewBrandAnalytics to guide their menu offerings.

“Over the years, those ratings have become a really, really important part of our operations — everything from our bonus structure to weekly meetings and promotion decisions are based on part on that data,” Tracy said. “The more information we have, the closer we get to assessing the truth of our operations.”

But, he said, there are certain internal decisions that take precedence.

“There are times people will say, ‘I didn’t particularly care for this dish,’” Tracy said. “We’ll dig in, we’ll look into it, we’ll consider other feedback and we might conclude, ‘You know, it might just be a matter of guest preference. We think we’re doing it well.’ ”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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