By David Wither
Biz & Co

The Simple Yet Complicated Recipe for One Restaurant Group’s Success

DC-based Founding Farmers has been the most booked restaurant on Open Table for five years running. According to co-owner Dan Simons, the real recipe for their success is simple: give the guests what they want. But don’t go off and open your own restaurant yet. Learning and knowing what your guests want is a fairly complex process.

This high performing DC-based restaurant not only trains their employees well, they use a handful of integrated data systems, including robust function of OpenTable, to learn about their guests and manage the flow of guests in and out of their restaurants. “It isn’t about turning tables quickly, which was the old model of successful restaurant management for casual, high-volume restaurants. First and foremost, it’s about providing memorable service. This means meeting the guests where they are, knowing what they want and need, and having the systems in place to provide it,” says Simons.

As we all know from our own life experiences, sometimes you want to gather for a long, luxurious chatty meal with friends, and sometimes you need to get in and out. How Founding Farmers manages this begins with well-trained staff who work to figure out what each guest is seeking in their experience. But it doesn’t stop there.

These restaurants have learned that smart technology helps them truly take care of their guests. They gather a vast and complicated array of data, including information on servers and who generates the most tips and why, what they served, and the timing of the service. If the reservations are made via OpenTable, they track who writes a review, connecting what the review said to the meal eaten and the service provided. They track when there is a problem or a complaint to figure out exactly what went wrong so they can fix it, within their own management systems and often directly with the guest. They can also analyze how menu changes affect reviews, kitchen execution, and even profit.

All of this is done with a combination of staff observation and software programs, rolled together through APIs. For example, in addition to OpenTable, they use a point of sale software program (via Aloha) and detailed table analytics (via Venga). They also run their own contact center in their office headquarters, which has centralized oversight for phone and online reservations, as well as walk ins, giving management an ability to see what is going on in their restaurants at any given time. In addition, they make it a priority to read and respond to about 1,500 reviews a month on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google+ and their many social media platforms. They work hard using multiple approaches to learn what their guests like and what they don’t. And they use it to build and manage their restaurants around what their guests want, not what they or the critics want, or what they assume their guests want.

This includes the food and drink, and the vibe of their restaurants. “We cater our food and our environments to our guests. This means we provide many seating options, nooks and crannies for those who want privacy, and tables in open areas for those seeking a more social scene. We serve the scratch-made comfort food people sometimes need and ask for, as well as simple salads and light fare, the decadent desserts or simple freshly-baked pies, the interesting craft cocktails, and the more traditional milkshakes with house-churned ice cream,” says Simons. “We provide a lot of variety on purpose. That way, our guests can gather, regardless of their dietary desires and needs, and still have a meal together. This works for people. Rarely does everyone in a group want and need the same food.”

Whatever their formula of food, service, and software, its working. Founding Farmers is one of a handful of farmer-owned restaurants within an umbrella company called Farmers Restaurant Group. This includes several Founding Farmers restaurants in and around the DC metropolitan area, as well as a new one opening in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the beginning of November and one in Reston, Virginia in the new year. They also have other brands within the group: Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers & Distillers, which houses their very own distillery, Founding Spirits.

While this company is definitely not running a restaurant chain, as there is at least 30 percent difference in all of their menus and each location has it’s own flair and focus, they maintain a consistent culture and vibe and it shows in their bookings. Their flagship store is still number 1 on Open Table, but their Tysons, VA restaurant is a close second. With over 1,000 employees, steady growth, and serving over 35,000 guests per week, Farmers Restaurant Group has clearly developed a successful recipe for continued success.