Oenophiles may be buzzing with opinions after the release of Cork Dork, a book following one wine amateur’s year-long quest to uncover the realities of the NYC sommelier community. But author Bianca Bosker also slipped in a bit of restaurant intel. During an evening spent shadowing a sommelier at two-Michelin-starred Marea, Bosker discovered the practice of “coding” returning guests, keeping meticulous notes on their preferences, habits, and willingness to spend. It’s not the first time that this information has come to light. A 2012 New York Times article and a piece in Grub Street previously revealed some of the codes used at New York’s top restaurants, for example, “f.t.d.” for first-time diner or “H.B.” for Happy Birthday; or, more scandalously, “o” for plump guest, “S.O.E.,” for “sense of entitlement,” and “L.O.L.” — “lots of love” — for a difficult guest who needs lots of attention from the staff.
Bosker takes all this much further, though. She writes in detail about Marea’s most important code: “PX,” or personne extraordinaire, used to note a guest who has a history of dropping serious cash, particularly on wine. This information alone comes off as interesting but harmless, until Bosker elaborates. “They are to be coddled, spoiled, humored, and upsold at all costs,” she writes. “These wine PXs earned privileges beyond the personal touch or hard-to-get reservation.” She goes on to describe an ill-behaved PX who was continuously welcomed back to Marea despite having thrown up in the dining room and acted inappropriately to female servers on previous occasions, all because he spent so much money that the restaurant would not refuse him.
Is this story true? Likely. Is the practice of coding and noting guests standard in top restaurants? Definitely. But is this system a way for restaurants to force guests to spend, and punish them if they don’t? Absolutely not. The notion that Big Brother is keeping tabs on guests for selfish, money-hungry reasons is misguided. Yes, top restaurants record notes on their guests – but guests should actually be happy about that.
Because the truth is, a restaurant that maintains detailed notes on returning guests is a restaurant that truly values hospitality. Above and beyond service, great hospitality is the focus on those extra touches that affect how a dining experience makes a guest feel. When a guest steps into a top restaurant, they want to feel welcome. What makes a guest feel more welcome than a restaurant that anticipates their preferences and habits? The ultimate asset that a hospitality-driven restaurant can have is readily available information, which just so happens to be conveniently noted (and perhaps coded) in a reservation system.
“From the moment a guest steps into one of these restaurants, the staff is collecting information about them”
From the moment a guest steps into one of these restaurants, the staff is collecting information about them. While this may sound a bit creepy, the reason is simple: to give the guest the best experience possible. This task largely falls on the team member spending the most time at the table – the server, or if the table wants a lot of wine attention, the sommelier. However, while the server spends time providing excellent hospitality, there are also a number of service priorities to juggle at the same time – timing out food, pouring drinks, communicating with the back-server, maintaining water glasses, running food to other tables, cleaning spills, remembering guests’ allergies, and more – all while juggling five other tables. (For a frighteningly accurate picture, read Bosker’s dizzying account of a busy service at Marea – it will give any restaurant professional heart palpitations).
Does it really make sense for all of the information that this server gleaned to be discarded when the guest walks out the door, only to require another server to repeat the dance when the guest returns weeks or months later? And how much better would the experience be if, for instance, that server or sommelier is prepared to point out the new bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon before the guest can even open his mouth to profess his love of Napa Cabs?
As a floor sommelier, there’s nothing better than getting to the point with a guest where I know exactly which wines on my list he or she will enjoy. At my previous position, two regulars of mine always wanted a specific style of wine: red, medium- to full-bodied, a touch rustic, but with excellent fruit and acidity. During my last night on the floor, they asked me (in that joking-but-actually-serious way), “Will we have to explain our style of wine all over again to the new sommelier?” No, I assured them – I would tell the team exactly what kind of wine they liked. In fact, we kept a detailed list of every wine this couple had tried during their many visits, just to ensure that we never repeated the same wine twice.
Those are the benefits of the coding system. But maintaining detailed guest notes, while used to improve hospitality, certainly can be a tricky practice, and in fact, it creates an additional challenge for restaurants that choose to take it on. How will the guests sitting next to the PX receiving dishes personally delivered from the executive chef feel if they are not also receiving such special attention? Ideally, a restaurant would have notes about each and every reservation, but short of requiring each guest to fill out a detailed questionnaire prior to dining, that’s simply not feasible. As Ed Schoenfeld, owner of RedFarm, says in a follow-up New York Times article, “We try to take good care of everyone, and we take better care of some people.”
If a restaurant is willing to code certain guests as PXs, they must be willing to treat every guest with the kind of hospitality afforded to a PX. Danny Meyer, a pioneer of the hospitality-forward concept, notes in his memoir-meets-manifesto Setting the Table, “I swore always to treat the guest who orders Soave exactly as I would the one who orders Chassagne-Montrachet.” In the end, it’s not worthwhile to sacrifice the experience of one guest in favor of another, regardless of the amount they spend. Contrary to a certain school of thought – one that seems to be underlined by parts of Bosker’s book and subsequent media coverage – restaurant professionals are not all in it for the money. As Bosker discovers that same night on the floor at Marea, many servers and sommeliers alike take their guests’ experiences quite personally. “I got into hospitality because I want to make people happy,” says Victoria James, the sommelier that Bosker trails at Marea. “The hardest part is not being able to do that sometimes – when a table doesn’t like you or they don’t want to be helped or you’re just not good with them…That sucks. And to get your heart broken, like, all the time – that’s the worst part.”
Rest assured: If you’re dining at a restaurant that takes the time to code their guests, your experience is guaranteed to be above and beyond the one you would have at a restaurant that can’t be bothered – regardless of what your code is or isn’t.