An app for restaurants where not everybody knows your name


If a restaurant books most of its tables through an online reservation system, it’s easy enough to notate that Mr. Green likes Splenda with his coffee and Ms. Gray is allergic to garlic. But restaurants that rely on walk-in traffic don’t have a high-tech way to keep tabs on their regulars – a problem that’s amplified by the job-hopping that occurs when the demand for servers outpaces supply.

“Human memory is imperfect,” says Mike Vichich, CEO and co-founder of Wisely, an app that proposes to help restaurants identify repeat customers and cultivate more customers like them.

In addition to providing restaurants with a way to store information about guests, Wisely allows its clients to create customized rewards programs to encourage frequent dining. In most cases, the schemes are considerably more elaborate than the punch cards distributed by coffeehouses and sub shops: Perks range from free sushi platters to farm field trips.

I first encountered Wisely at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the company is based. As our server explained, patrons who visit Mani four times in six months are designated as silver members, meaning they’re eligible for a free drink on future visits, as well as burrata instead of mozzarella on their wood-fired pies. Patrons who come back 12 times in six months are permitted to make reservations at the no-reservations restaurant.

Vichich imagines that kind of incentive would go over well in Charleston, where local diners are eager to distinguish themselves from tourists.

“I’m thinking of like at Husk,” Vichich says, citing a friend who responsibly made reservations two months in advance and was still dealt an undesirable 10 p.m. table. “For people who are regulars, having some sort of access to better reservations would be cool, right? And from Husk’s perspective, that might make sense to build up a local following.”

Wisely tracks customer visits with a Bluetooth beacon, which sweeps the dining room for smart phones on which the app’s been installed. Vichich stresses that it’s an opt-in system, meaning diners who don’t use the app are invisible to the transmitter. But when it recognizes a diner, it instantly conveys his or her identity to staff members, so they can greet the return visitor by name.

“There’s no shortcut to loyalty,” Vichich says. “But the real winning magic potion is guest recognition.”

Guests can choose to link their Wisely accounts to their Facebook accounts, which gives restaurants the opportunity to figure out their typical customers’ likes and dislikes. For example, a restaurant could glean from Facebook data that its patrons are inordinately fond of Sonny Rollins and reprogram their background music accordingly in hopes of luring more Rollins fans.

Currently, the one-year-old app is active in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Chicago; New York City; Orlando and Washington D.C. Vichich is looking to expand to other markets.

“At end of the day, the only way this fails is if we don’t get guests signed up,” Vichich says.