How Joel Montaniel Helps Restaurants Find and Keep Their Best Customers

“Restaurants are a sanctuary and a place that can remind us all that we are all human," SevenRooms CEO Joel Montaniel tellsl Observer.

Joel Montaniel. SevenRooms

“We started by really trying to focus on the consumer side,” SevenRooms CEO Joel Montaniel tells Observer of the CRM (customer relationship management) company he co-founded in 2011. “I was working in finance, working 100-hour weeks. I never knew when I was going to have off until Friday at 8 p.m., when my boss decided to be nice and be like, ‘Hey, you have the weekend off.’ I didn’t know anyone who could get me in at these places I was reading about. And I certainly didn’t make a reservation well in advance.”

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Montaniel, who was born in Oklahoma, lived in Texas and grew up with a big food-loving Filipino family, wanted to transform the hospitality industry. He succeeded in a different way than what was originally planned. 

Instead of creating a marketplace that would allow customers to get into hot spots, Montaniel and SevenRooms co-founders Allison Page and Kinesh Patel built a data-driven company that has helped restaurant and nightlife powerhouses like Union Square Hospitality Group, Tao Group Hospitality, Nobu and Groot Hospitality better understand their guests. Hospitality clients use SevenRooms to manage their reservations books (with more than 1 billion customers seated at more than 10,000 venues in more than 1,000 cities), put together targeted email campaigns and optimize their operations and revenue. With the right data, restaurants can immediately identify high-value customers and know what they like to order and where they like to sit.

Kinesh Patel, Allison Page and Joel Montaniel. Stephanie Mann

In April 2024, SevenRooms was in Las Vegas for its first customer advisory board meeting. Influential executives including MGM Resorts International chief hospitality officer Ari Kastrati, Union Square Hospitality Group chief technology and supply chain officer Kelly Macpherson and Black Sheep Restaurants co-founder Syed Asim Hussain (whose Hong Kong portfolio includes an outpost of Carbone) pondered how AI can help set up seating charts and write marketing copy. They also discussed the importance of keeping things human.

“One thing that people came back to is this beautiful concept of how hospitality should be a sanctuary,” Montaniel says. “Restaurants are a sanctuary and a place that can remind us all that we are all human. I really love that concept. And so we found that some of the operators were like, ‘I don’t want AI to come in at all.’”

Montaniel and SevenRooms are here to help operators balance automation and a personal touch. Restaurants can use technology, for example, to send customized emails that feel personal (and might purposefully include jargon or misspellings), are signed by a manager or maitre’d and are sent at, say, 2:08 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. 

Because restaurants use data to send different messages to regulars than they send to first-timers, customers tend to react positively to these targeted emails. SevenRooms, of course, has the data that shows that these messages are working. 

“The open rate for these emails is 65 percent,” Montaniel says. That’s compared to an industry average of 46 percent. And restaurants can expect that about 30 percent of guests who open the email will make another reservation.

Montaniel, who comes from a family of doctors, has had a “windy journey that doesn’t really make a lot of sense.” He had planned to go pre-med, and got a bachelor of arts in English and biology from Georgetown before working in finance at Credit Suisse and then diving into the technology industry as chief of staff at LivePerson.

SevenRooms.

At the beginning of what would become SevenRooms, Montaniel and his team would put what he calls a “douchey investment-banker financial mindset” to it. 

But as Montaniel learned more about the hospitality industry (including what he gleaned during nights he spent standing at the door of buzzing restaurants and studying interactions with customers as he built his company), he realized what SevenRooms could actually become. 

“We talked to all these operators and we asked them, ‘How do you decide who to give the reservation to? How do people get in touch with you?’” Montaniel says. “The systems they were using had no customer data in them.”

SevenRooms has helped solve this problem for restaurants, nightclubs and private clubs (including Soho House and Zero Bond) all over the world. SevenRooms has also become a source of information that lets restaurants and nightclubs find the right customers and market opportunities.

“So a restaurant is thinking about where to open up their next location by understanding what’s the customer demographic, how much are they spending, how many turns you can get in,” Montaniel says. “Looking at data that exists is really helpful to them as they think about, ‘Should I open up in Miami or L.A.? Or should I go to Dubai or London?’”

Data can also help businesses quickly evolve menus after opening.

“Most restaurateurs in the past would get there through gut feel,” Montaniel explains. “Now, they’re able to get there a lot faster because they can really look at the data.”

Vandal, a popular vegan restaurant in Sydney, Australia, is one success story. It started off with more of a masculine focus as it set out to upend the idea of plant-based dining, but early data made owner Peter Varvaressos (a veteran of steakhouses) pivot to female-focused and crowd-friendly food and cocktails, according to Montaniel.

Senior vice president of marketing Marybeth Sheppard and Joel Montaniel. Stephanie Mann

When restaurants add a new item, they can see how well it is selling but also who is ordering it and when those guests visit. Is that new shrimp Parm dish or bottle of Barolo popular with regulars, VIPs, tourists, journalists or hospitality professionals who work at other restaurants? Having information like this allows operators to make decisions that drive profitability and buzz.

It’s funny how things sometimes go back to the beginning. Even the name SevenRooms (a nod to Graydon Carter’s theory that there are rooms that get more and more exclusive as you navigate yourself through a social scene) ties back to Montaniel’s original idea of securing access to a coveted table. 

Now, SevenRooms is going full circle and creating a solution for consumers. This summer, the company will debut what it’s calling a dining passport. 

“What we envision now is: Imagine we could turn the entire world into your private members club,” Montaniel says. “So how do we do that? There will be a singular login across all 11,000 locations [on SevenRooms], where you don’t have to re-enter your information every time. You have a global profile, and we’re building in three things: access, communication and commerce.”

Joel Montaniel. Stephanie Mann

Let’s say you’re traveling in Paris and see a 6 p.m. and a 9 p.m. reservation at a restaurant you’ve wanted to visit. But you’re looking to dine at 7:30. Your dining passport will allow you to send a message to the restaurant, which will immediately know that you’re a valuable customer at many New York destinations. If the Paris restaurant likes what they see about you (and has availability), it can hit you up on WhatsApp and offer that 7:30 reservation.

“The last part we’re building is a house account,” Montaniel says, so you don’t have to worry about taking out a credit card at the end of the meal. “You go there, you order what you want, you leave. And the whole reason everyone is comfortable doing that this way is because you have a vetted profile and they know who you are. That’s kind of the problem we were trying to solve from the very beginning. Why is it so hard for the restaurant to know this customer and why does the customer have to work so hard to be known by the restaurant?”

How Joel Montaniel Helps Restaurants Find and Keep Their Best Customers