My epiphany with OpenTable struck in the fall of 2008. Mike Vucurevich and I had just opened our first Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C. The restaurant opening had all of the usual panic, fear, and excitement, but magnified by the world dangling over the economic precipice as markets cratered and the Great Recession set in. I knew we were birthing our little company in a recession. I knew that meant our odds of failing as a business just went into the stratosphere. We were going to need to think differently, act differently, and we’d need to challenge ourselves to develop new playbooks to survive. I also knew that some amazing companies were born during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, so I had some role models, and I knew it was possible.
We didn’t (and still don’t) have a large marketing department or budget. We didn’t have a ton of resources, but we sure needed to grow sales and get butts in seats.
The epiphany: I shuffled our P&L format to move Founding Farmers OpenTable invoices from the expenses category to the marketing category, and I told myself this is our marketing team, our marketing engine, our search engine optimization (SEO) expert, our advertising director, and our table-turn optimization analyst. We never could have afforded all of that individual expertise, but we got it from OpenTable.
I committed to learning the software from the inside out. I knew we couldn’t just accept the usual approach to software – being self-taught – which might work for Word, Excel, and surfing the web, but if we were going to treat OpenTable like an investment and a support department, I knew we needed fluency with the software. We needed mentorship from those who had real expertise.
We became power users. We harnessed the marketing engine and the guest engagement platform. We analyzed data, and we put these ingredients into our overall recipe. The epiphany led to double-digit sales increases every year for our first eight years, more than doubling our sales from where we started. We never could have grown from $8mm to $17mm in annual revenues without the insights, analytics, and marketing engine of OpenTable.
I recently joined the OpenTable Advisory Board with the hope of helping more restaurateurs find ways to connect with OpenTable, and helping OpenTable find ways to effectively connect with their clients, the operators, as I know firsthand the benefit when the relationship is maximized.
It’s not just OpenTable’s network, newsletters, Diners’ Choice lists, and massive draw for VIP diners as locals and travelers. OpenTable has invaluable relationships with Google and Facebook, as well as broad expertise with the seemingly endless and evolving social media channels. We could never keep up with all of this on our own. With OpenTable’s resources, it’s like we have little magnets all over the internet, drawing guests into our restaurants. Sure, our brand names are also drawing diners into the OpenTable ecosystem, sometimes booking with us or with other restaurants. But I’m good with that. The network effect is still a big winner for us overall, as OpenTable brings more people to the top of the potential diner funnel than we could ever do on our own. When traveling diners are visiting the DC area, OpenTable’s expertise creating a massive digital footprint is a value-creator for us, and I’m happy to pay for that.
OpenTable lets us tell the story of our restaurant brands and control our messages. We can boost our listings, highlight offers or unique aspects of the dining experience, all the while getting the data and analytics to tell the impact of the decisions we’re making. We can decide to focus on a symbiotic organic search strategy, or pay-per-click, or engagement. OpenTable also helps us attract and engage diners directly, through the Founding Farmers reservations process and after they have dined in our restaurants. We can thank them when they give us a good review. We can apologize when they are unhappy. We can find out what happened and why – linking their reservation back to the table, the servers, the chefs.
The guest experience, with food, drink, and stimulating their senses, is what motivates me. But I’m a fanatic about return on investment, and thus a fanatic about the data that tells me how we’re doing. I know it from the looks on guests’ faces, but I can’t be in all of our restaurants at the same time. We need the data. It’s the data that gives us insights, which allows us to raise our game. We can study turn-times by table, day part, or even by server. We can see the impact of marketing offers and SEO strategies. We can measure re-targeting conversions and see the impact of the reservations widget sitting on our homepage.
My list could go on and on. Here’s what I know for sure: we have an incredible team cheff’ing and serving great food every day, and we have a proven partner in OpenTable that ensures we have over 10,000 guests per week at Founding Farmers DC, so our team can wow them and inspire them to return.