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Darden Uses Analytics To Understand Restaurant Customers

Data analytics project helps restaurant company, No. 5 on the InformationWeek Elite 100 ranking, gather information on every step of the guest experience.

The data analytics project that earned Darden Restaurants the No. 5 spot in this year's InformationWeek Elite 100 ranking is, in a way, a continuation of the work CIO Patti Reilly White started at the company more than 25 years ago.

White joined Darden in 1988, when it was a unit of General Mills, as a project manager on upgrades to the unit's point-of-sale systems. This was a decade after Darden, best known for its Red Lobster restaurants, had invested in one of the first POS systems capable of daily remote polling of stores, at a time when the technology was unheard of in restaurants and rare in the rest of retail.

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Founder William Darden, who opened the first Red Lobster in 1968, and Joseph Lee, the manager of that first restaurant and later a CEO of the chain, "always really valued understanding guests and understanding the business," White says. As the chain grew, expanding to include Olive Garden as its flagship brand, Lee recognized that there had to be a better way to gather data about what was happening in individual restaurants than calling around to them at the end of every day. So he instigated creating a simple modem-based means of transmitting results. "It was 'What were my sales?' and 'What menu items sold?' -- that was probably it at the time," White recalls. 

The Kitchen Display System developed by Darden tells cooks what to prepare and when, to pace the delivery of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
The Kitchen Display System developed by Darden tells cooks what to prepare and when, to pace the delivery of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.

Today, the goal is more ambitious. The technology in Darden restaurants has expanded beyond the cash register to include terminals that reception staffers use to check in guests and kitchen display systems that queue up orders for cooks out back. The goal of Darden's Check-Level Analytics project is to gather information from every step of the guest experience and use it to make better management decisions.

White explains: "We can capture when you enter the restaurant and either get seated right away or quoted a wait time. As guests are continuing through the experience, we're able to get data now on when the transaction is started in the POS, what items are ordered, and how much cook time elapsed. Cook times are calculated based on menu items so that we can pace the meal, pace the preparation of that food. We can track what server is providing that guest experience, when the guest settled the bill, and how long they were there. We can trace all that to the satisfaction survey, if they decide to fill it out. Now we can understand the total guest experience within the four walls."

Darden plans to go beyond those four walls. Check-Level Analytics is the first installment in a digital transformation strategy Darden began in 2012. Next, all of the company's 2,100 restaurants -- including LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, The Capital Grille, Eddie V's, and Yard House -- will use a common website platform designed to attract consumers. It will include online processing of takeout orders, an area in which Darden has lagged, White acknowledges. The new analytics approach tracks all eight Darden brands in a more unified way.

"We're still on a multiyear journey to understand our specific guests," White says. "We want to be able to see that this guest has come in this many times to this restaurant or this brand -- or to all eight of our brands. All of our initiatives in the analytics space and the digital space are aimed at how to capture and understand information about the specific guest."

From there, the goal is to better understand which menu choices tend to complement each other, as well as the character of those guests for whom affordability is most important compared with those who "really want to be pampered with a good dining experience," she says.

Darden plans to start rolling out the digital platform for its websites in the next couple of months. Meanwhile, the push for improved and more-integrated analytics is starting to show results. By using its customer information in

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David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and ... View Full Bio

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
4/2/2014 | 1:12:54 PM
Darden's customer analytics
Did you feel the love the last time you patronized Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, or one of the other Darden restaurants? The whole point is supposed to be to take good care of customers.
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