Do Restaurants Blacklist Low-Spending Customers?

I’ve been reading and enjoying Super Crunchers, the new book by Ian Ayres that we excerpted earlier on the blog. One section of the book deals with the data that firms gather on their customers, and how the firms can use that data to address customer habits:

Hertz, after analyzing terabytes of sales data, knows a lot more than you do about how much gas you’re likely to leave in the tank if you prepay for the gas. … Best Buy knows the probability that you will make a claim on an extended warranty.

This made me wonder further about a situation I’ve wondered about in the past: do restaurants ever blacklist their low-spending customers?

Let’s say you call to make a reservation at a fairly high-end restaurant. It can’t be that hard for the reservation agent to access the data on your past visits. Imagine that the last few times you went to this restaurant, you and your spouse ordered salads, split an entrée, had no cocktails, drank tap water instead of Panna or wine (click here for a discussion of wine markups), and had coffee with no dessert. And, for added effect, let’s say that you lingered for a while over your coffee, tying up the table for a potentially more profitable customer. Maybe you even registered a fairly serious complaint about your meal, as I once did.

What does the data-savvy restaurateur do with customers like these?

Perhaps someone out there in the business can answer the question: do restaurants turn down reservations for customers who have proven themselves to spend too little money? Perhaps it never happens (but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does); perhaps restaurants don’t have fingertip access to past-spending data (but I would be disappointed if they don’t).

If restaurants do engage in this practice, they certainly wouldn’t want to make it publicly known … or would they? If they did, word might get around that if you don’t order a bottle or two of wine, then you don’t get a table next time you call. Which might be the kind of strategy that makes a cold-hearted profit maximizer’s heart sing.

Seth Mangan

Similarly, I often get concerned over what some businesses do after I've made a legitamate complaint. Do they record it and in turn treat me like "the guy who complains" or an otherwise problem customer?

There was a Seinfield epsiode that addressed the concern over what doctors note on your record that you never see. You really wonder what they're jotting down about you!


casinos do this all the time- if you're a low-rating gambler and call for a room early, they will say they're booked, but they're really just waiting to see if any bigger fish want a room- so ironically, the best time to reserve a room if you're penny-ante is to call as late as you can- the interesting decision for the casino host is how long to wait for the bigger fish- if they wait too long, the room will be vacant and they lose that money- and if they reserve too early, they risk missing out on the cash customer, as this post points out


How common is it for restaurants to collect enough customer data when making a reservation to test it against a database. Where I live, they ask for a last name. It doesn't need to be your real last name, just something easy to spell that's unusual enough to be the only one at that time. That's pretty useless marketing data. Are practices different in other areas?

John Smith

Thats why I always use an assumed name.

Mark S.

I have friends with unusual,hard to spell, last names who use generic names when making reservations (e.g. Smith, Jones, King). It would be fairly difficult to profile the customer based on the reservation name.


Ever since high school, I've used the name "Idi Amin" when ordering pizzas or making reservations. Until now, I always wondered why I got bad service!


At the pizzeria i once worked for we accepted deliveries until 3 am. we were usually swamped by 2:30, running late deliveries to drunken hotel guests (or just hungry night owls). Some nights were so profitable and busy we ignored orders after 2-ish. Also, pizza quality and service definitely depended on past attitude, order amount, and tip. Customers that ordered often, a lot, and tipped well with a smile got much better service. And we definitely had a black list.

Becky Cooper

You should ask the guy from Waiter Rant:

The Idea Of Progress

I can't speak for New York, but I can for Chicago. The computerized reservations system that most places use is called Open Table. To the best of my knowledge, it doesn't have customer's past spending as a part of its database (although I don't see why it couldn't).

There are a few factors making the denial of reservations unlikely.

A restaurant busy enough to have an Open Table system (they're not cheap) is also likely to be too busy to have the host or hostess entering each table's check total into their entry. The idea is Turn and Burn, get 'em in, let 'em spend, get 'em out. If they're not big spenders, the waiters will 'encourage' them to finish up more quickly, as they are taking up real estate better served by big spenders.

Secondly, you don't need a computer system to tell you which regular diners spend money and which are cheapskates (note: not spending money is not the same thing as a cheapskate. Asking for four extra baskets of bread, having every dish split in the kitchen for you...these are the signs of a cheapskate, who is trying to eke out every free thing thing they can get). If you dine at a place once or twice a month, chances are they know exactly who you are and how much you'll spend.



The restaurant doesn't track that information, but every waiter, and sometimes the hostesses, sure do. I haven't waited or bar tended in ten years, but I can still remember the big spenders, cheap customers, and mostly the bad tippers!


Wow. I live in DC and the opentable program is pretty popular and useful.

Now, I actually wonder if it's something restaurant owners all agreed to incorporate so to check with real names the cost-benefit of having a bigger spender reserve a table.


Here in Brazil, the gathering of customer data by restaurants using a computer application is fairly common: any restaurant that delivers food will do it.

There are many, many computer applications for restaurants that, when provided with a telefone number, will pull the data from the customer associated to that telephone.

The restaurant than checks if the link between number and customer is still valid (usually by verifying the name of the person calling). If it's not valid anymore, they ask for the usual information (name and address).

After that, they can store your order information or purge it. There's a bunch of associated information there. What are your usual orders, what's your favorite payment method, do you tip, etc.

Also, many restaurants here use computer applications to manage your tab when you're having dinner at the restaurant. Linking that information with the delivery information by way of a common piece of data (for example, if you pay with credit cards or a check - by the way, a telephone number is mandatory when paying with check) is easy.

And they could go even further: we have to major credit information services called SPC and SERASA. If you're paying with a check, many restaurants will use your CPF (the Brazilian equivalent to a social security number) to check your credit status.

If you stiff them with a bouncing check, your name will end up into those credit verification services.



I don't think most restaurants are savvy enough to gather or do anything with this data. As #9 and 10 pointed out, though, the service staff usually remembers (I know I did when I waited tables). I don't think most restaurants mind if a patron spends less than the average, it's the people that #9 describes that are the bane of the restaurant business. Those are the ones that cause a greater loss, because not only do they spend less, they also take up valuable time of the service and kitchen staff. In general, no matter what industry I have been in, it's the smaller clients who spend less that are the most demanding and difficult to deal with. Someone should study that.


The cost of gathering all that data such as:

setting up sophisticated enough data mining software
training staff at all points of customer contact to use the software

seems to be too high for an unproven payoff for most managers to risk time and resources


In terms of blackballing customers who complain, I think Yelp has changed that dynamic by creating a place for the masses to rant. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a piece a while back about restaurants monitoring the negative feedback from their patrons. Article available here:


I had a terrible experience with one of the famous steakhouse in Manhattan before. The service was absolutely poor and they were snooty to the point of being really obnoxious. Anyway, I tried to ignore it and after the meal instead of complaining to the manager, I left a real big tip for the waiter and told him that it should compensate for the abuse he was getting from the manager.

They do remember because when I returned several weeks later, they were calling me by name and were giving me a royal treatment.

Anna Turtle

Even if restaurants did attempt to blacklist low-spending customers, as soon as the customers figured it out, they would start using false names to make reservation.

Robert Stein

I used to get unhappy looks when I ordered tap water, but now I just say off-handedly that bottled water is destroying the environment and, when pressed, go into a boring, lengthy explanation:


Lots of businesses employ this tactic. It's openly practiced in the travel industry. I used to work for a rental car company. While not customer specific, we would deny reservations for a 1 day rental if we were forecasting heavy demand for weekly rentals. A crowded restaurant with a low supply of tables is no different than a hotel or airplane at full capacity. Restaurants could really maximize their profits if they controlled their reservations. Even if customer specific data is not available, I'm sure there are behavior patterns that could be forecasted by time or day. Why accept reservations for parties of 2 on a Saturday night, when you know that you have parties of 4 or 6 wanting the same space?


I used to work for a local pizza chain with a centralized call center for incoming orders. Problem customers would not get blacklisted (to my knowledge) but their orders would be marked as "manager make" - as in, "the manager better make this order so that it's 100% correct without a doubt."

In contrast, the sit-down restaurants I used to work in did not have computer systems set up to track individual customers. That was almost 10 years ago, so it might be different. But, in my experience, servers and hosts are usually too busy to look up someone's dining history before serving them. (Of course, I never worked at a place fancy enough to have a maitre'd.)