Ildefonso Jimenez, the owner of Si Tapas restaurant, wanted to present a slice of Madrid in downtown Dallas. That meant paying attention to even the smallest details. But, unfortunately—at least on one note—his efforts were being drained as quickly as the small wine glasses he was pouring wine into. “Customers were saying, ‘It makes your restaurant look real cheap,’” Jimenez says.

“Chato” glasses are common in tapas restaurants around Spain. This authentic touch, however, was getting lost somewhere between the cork and the first sip. Recently, Jimenez had a chance to remedy the confusion through old-fashioned means—he explained himself face-to-face with a guest. While this may sound elementary, the reality is often far more disconnected for operators. Online review sites, notably TripAdvisor and Yelp, allow consumers to express their thoughts mobiley. Whether that critique takes place at the bar or from their couch sixth months later, is another question entirely.

Jimenez was the first Dallas restaurant to test Original Review, a customer insight solutions platform that launched its app on Monday and will be demonstrating its capabilities at the National Restaurant Show from May 21—24 at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

In the example of the small chato glasses, Original Review allowed Jimenez to address the concern before the diner left the restaurant. “We approached the customers and talked about it, and explained to them the reason behind it. Then they understand it and they love it. A lot of people haven’t been to Spain and haven’t seen that. … We’re trying to create an atmosphere that when you come through our doors you’re not in Dallas, you’re in Madrid. Then they get excited about what we’re trying to do. So from that side, it’s an incredible tool to use.”

There are a few aspects to Original Review, but here’s how it solved Jimenez’s issue: The software is loaded onto a restaurant-branded Kindle tablet, which is handed to a diner with their check. A short survey, after being filled out, is uploaded immediately to an internal operations dashboard, where an operator can set the system to flag certain alerts. For instance, if a guest leaves a review under three stars, a notification is sent directly to Jimenez or a manager. In this case, Jimenez was able to answer why the wine was being served in smaller-than-normal portions—a common complaint he was receiving.

“It gives us an opportunity to respond right away to the customer. Because, again, we can respond before they leave the restaurant. We get a message and we can go and approach them and talk to them,” he says.

Co-founder Frederick Lightbourn, a restaurateur in the Bahamas who has been in the industry more than three decades, saw this pain point through a personal lens. In mid-December, he began testing it as his own venue.

Debra Lukacsko, the other co-founder, says the beta model was released in March in Oklahoma City and has grown to include four restaurants in the Bahamas, two in Dallas, two in Oklahoma City, and five in India, with plans to launch additional pilots in these cities within the coming weeks, including one in Michigan.

At its core, Original Review’s goal is to help the operator improve business practices through direct, real-time feedback. Jimenez explains that traditional methods can be frustrating due to their time gap, accuracy, and outside-the-door anonymity.

“With the other reviews, with Yelp and everything else, you get it like two weeks later and you don’t know if the person was there for a fact,” he explains. “Sometimes people just make comments because people tell them to make comments. I have restaurant friends with Yelp, when they see a bad comment they have college kids write in right away so that the comment will go down the list. People won’t see it. [Original Review] is real. Nobody can manipulate this, it’s the real thing.”

Original Review’s plan is to take the process even deeper. At the end of the survey, guests can decide if they want to share their contact information with the restaurant, and pick if their survey goes live to the consumer site or not. Lukacsko notes this latter point as an important detail, saying that it allows diners who want to inform the restaurant, not just join the social media discussion, speak their minds.

Jimenez agrees: “They like that we’re talking to them and whether it’s positive or negative, we’re able to take care of the problem right away,” he says. “They like to know the fact that their commenting is important to the restaurant.”

Lukacsko also says that the speed (“It takes about a minute”) and simplicity of the device, a far cry from pencils and comment cards, promotes interaction. At Si Tapas, Jimenez explains that Original Review has generated more than 100 reviews in five weeks. On the flip side, he’s received around 400 online on other sites in nearly eight years.

“We’re finding in pilot sites, probably half of them are filling it out, which is actually more than we originally thought and that’s going to vary by site, and of that half, we’re finding a range of like 35 percent all the way up to 66 percent are leaving their email,” Lukacsko says. “But you don’t have to. You can literally just give us food, service, atmosphere, value, all those stars and that’s all you’re doing and then you post it.

“That’s the simplistic side,” she continues. “And there’s also a comment section that we’re finding restaurants are getting unbelievable comments because it’s that free form, how you feel, right now.”

The rewards program will develop over time, but the initial module will include automatic promotions for a customer’s birthday. The consumer review site will also allow patrons to search through restaurants and read from-the-table feedback.

As for costs, Lukacsko says that’s currently a moving target, but the company has enjoyed Kindle tablets for their $50 price tag and seamless performance. However, the software will have the ability to adapt, working in existing iPads and other devices. She recommends one per server and is expecting to offer the service at an annual subscription.

“From the restaurant’s point of view, I’m excited to use it. I print the comments every week. I show it to my servers, my servers get excited. They even do a competition between each other to see who can get five star comments,” Jimenez says. “I think it’s a great motivating tool for the servers and it’s a great motivating tool for the owners to see it in their hands.”

“Restaurants have to embrace it and help make it part of their fabric, and have it happen organically,” Lukacsko adds. “They have to train their servers and say, ‘This is what I expect. I’m running a restaurant.’ Then it ends up being unbelievably invaluable once they get over that hurdle. Our alpha site has 1,200 reviews on TripAdvisor in 11 years, and he now has 1,300 in three months on one device. It’s amazing what a dedicated operator can do with that kind of information.”

Danny Klein

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