by Meridith Levinson

Restaurant I.T. – Data Mining for Carbs

Apr 15, 20043 mins
Enterprise Applications

T.G.I. Friday’s used to be a casual dining chain known for its big burgers, mixed drinks and suspender-wearing waiters sporting buttons that promised sweet desserts. But if you’ve dined there lately, you may have noticed the variety of entrŽes and appetizers on the menu that are labeled “Atkins approved.”

The logo indicates that if you’re following the popular and controversial low-carbohydrate, high-protein Atkins diet, you can safely scarf T.G.I. Friday’s Tuscan spinach dip, buffalo wings, sizzling New York strip steak with blue cheese and six other main courses without guilt, knowing they’ve been jointly designed by T.G.I. Friday’s and Atkins Nutritionals’ chefs with a view to reducing carbs.

What’s interesting about this carb-reducing campaign is that it’s more than an effort to latch onto a hot diet trend. T.G.I. Friday’s was able to uncover the low-carb demand among its patrons’ special-order requests last summer. Negotiations with Atkins were done by November, and the new entrŽes appeared in December 2003.

Deborah Lipscomb, CIO of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, T.G.I. Friday’s parent company, says that business analysts studied the special instructions that patrons had given waiters. They noticed that a lot of guests were asking servers to hold the fries or to replace mashed and baked potatoes with salads and vegetables. “The data told us that people were trying to eat low-carb,” says Lipscomb. “When we noticed the trend, we thought it would be a good idea to explore putting low-carb items on our menu.”

Using a business intelligence tool from Cognos, the IT staff at Carlson Restaurants captured data on patrons’ orders that waiters and waitresses had entered into the restaurants’ point-of-sale systems and put it into data sets that business analysts could dissect quickly and easily.

Since Hollywood hunks such as Brad Pitt and screen sirens Sarah Jessica Parker and Renee Zellweger attributed their sculpted abs and pared-down proportions to high-protein regimes, millions of Americans began pooh-poohing pasta, potatoes and pain. Even the executive team at T.G.I. Friday’s is meticulously monitoring its carbohydrate intake, Lipscomb says. “Low-carb just happens to be a trend at T.G.I. Friday’s,” she says. “Because we live it, we saw the relationship between how we’re eating and what our customers want in the [point-of-sale] data.”

The business analysts who made the discovery took their findings to the executive team, whose members knew competitors were offering low-carb meals. Competitor Ruby Tuesday rolled out its selection of 30 low-carb menu options on Nov. 11, 2003, 28 days before T.G.I. Friday’s followed suit. Others following the trend include P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.

Wanting to one-up the competition, Carlson Restaurants approached Atkins Nutritionals, the company founded by the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins to provide food products and nutritional supplements in support of the eponymous diet, about jointly developing low-carb lunches and dinners, and licensing the Atkins brand. “We felt the best way to communicate to our guests that we are here to help them in their lifestyle choices was to have a brand-name partnership,” says Lipscomb.

While Lipscomb admits to being a little lax in her personal devotion to the diet, she proudly notes that by last February, her executive team has collectively lost almost 90 pounds.