How Founding Farmers Became The Most Booked Restaurant In The U.S. For 5 Years Running

The D.C. restaurant scene has taken off in recent years, with new restaurants opening weekly and celebrity chefs and food stars from across the globe attempting to grab the attention of the Nation’s Capital.

But one of the town’s true blue originals, Founding Farmers — from the days before the restaurant boom — is still booming and has been the most booked restaurant on Open Table, not only in D.C. but across the U.S., for the past five years. For those suspecting “tourist trap,” think again.

It isn’t just their flagship restaurant near the White House that is ranking high, but their Tysons Corner location in the suburbs of Virginia is the country’s second most booked restaurant. To understand how Founding Farmers and its sibling restaurants stay current in changing times, we connected with one its owners, the down to earth, yet sharp as a tack, restaurateur Dan Simons.

1. Getting To Know Your Guests

Farmers Restaurant Group, owned by 42,000 American family farmers that make up the North Dakota Farmers Union, operates five restaurants in and around the D.C. metropolitan area, with two more on the horizon. They have made it their mission to unbundle the industrial food chain and serve scratch-made, source-matters food that contributes earnings back to family farmers who invest in the restaurants.

They have also been working green since the start and their corporate social responsibility is not a marketing ploy. LEED-certifications, innovative recycling and composting programs, and even educational programs and research support for honeybees, are essential parts of their brand.

There is no question that their guests come for all of this. Their brand works. But these restaurateurs also work hard to stay current and really understand their guests on a day-to-day, meal-by-meal basis. It isn’t magic. It boils down to smart development, careful management, an eye for details and pretty sophisticated software that begins with a centralized call center that is usually a guest’s first and sometime last (via follow up reviews) touch point with the group.

Their call center staff oversee reservations and reviews, and help with the front of the house pacing in each of the restaurants, getting people in the door and eating, all of which is instrumental to brand loyalty and customer satisfaction.

While they have received some criticism for the size of their menus, servings and restaurants, the truth is, that is exactly what their guests want. And they know it.

Certainly their Open Table reservation statistics and number of guests served are important indicators, but they also keep tabs on everything from the amount of food that comes back on the plate uneaten to other data gathered on guest satisfaction.

Some of this is done, very simply, with staff observation and communication, some of it reading and responding to approximately 1,500 reviews per month on Google+, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Open Table, Venga, online website feedback forms and social media reviews. In addition to these feedback channels, they use software that speaks to their point of sale system as well as their reservation system to gather information.

This software aggregates the data into a more digestible format and from here, with some support from the marketing team, the leadership team learns what is working and what isn’t, by location, and they’re able to adjust as needed. The most movement happens within the first year or two of a new restaurant. Since none of the restaurants are exactly the same, there is always new ground to cover.

For example, there are three Founding Farmers, but approximately 30% of their menu actually differs from location to location. In their newest venture, the three month old and entirely new brand, Farmers & Distillers, they are watching closely to see what guests are gravitating towards and what they may want to consider changing.

There are endless avenues to gather data these days. As any business owner knows, the challenge is not in getting data, but in the analysis and ability to gain insights that are actionable.

If you’re going to invest time and resources into responding to reviews, analyzing information and then compiling it to share with the management teams, you had best be sure you can see a return on this investment, and that there are action steps to be taken by learning about this information.

“Of course, all of our restaurants are built based upon our vision, on what we believe, and our farmer-owned brand. We know this is a lot of what brings our guests into the restaurant. But we also pay very close attention, using smart tools, to specifically understand what they like about us and what they want,” says owner Dan Simons. “We are always learning, growing, and adapting. It is about exceeding the expectations of our guests every day.

2. Variety Is The Spice Of Life

As more and more people are dining out for a broadening cast of reasons, successful restaurants are learning to be multi-functional. Some are still designed for certain types of guests and occasions, and around particular trends, but for the Farmers Restaurant Group, variety is the spice of life.

The data they collect tells them that their menus and dining rooms cater to a vast array of people and functions, from families with sticky-fingered kids looking for a neighborhood brunch to colleagues needing the space and efficiency for a working meal to gussied up couples seeking an anniversary dinner before a show to friends wanting to laugh and linger over drinks and appetizers.

A large and varied menu is important to meet this range of guests. “We design our menu with approachability in mind for the many versus the few. Our menus have proven to be a popular draw,” says Simons. “Part of our brand is classic American food, from meatloaf with gravy to shrimp and grits, but with our own unique spin on each dish. We want everyone to be able to get something that they will like.”

Founding Farmers — and its sibling restaurants, Farmers & Distillers and Farmers Fishers Bakers — are known not just for the great food and craft cocktails but also for their incredibly comfortable and beautiful dining rooms, complete with booths and cushy chairs.

The warm and environmentally-friendly lighting is always spot on for the time of day and while the acoustics are bustling, they seem to be just right to give guests privacy for a conversation without distraction.

All restaurants have unique design elements and original artwork, including quirky sculptures of animals, which add to the ambiance and they hope offer conversation starters about family farming. In addition, each of this group’s restaurants are different, but each has what they call “microclimates” that give guests multiple seating options to meet differing desires for vibe.

For restaurants like these that can serve as many as 600 plus guests a night, floor plans and furnishings that provide nooks and separated areas offer guests a lot of opportunities for that just right location to match their occasion.

3. Catering To Your Guests

“We want our guests to feel that we are taking care of them, all the while taking care of this land we all call home and our family farmers,” says Simons. “We meet them where they are, in the complexity of their lives and give them a comfortable seat, tasty food and drink, and good service. It’s that simple, regardless of how complex it might be to execute.

We innovate, but we don’t chase fads, and we never lose sight of value. It is all possible because our team does the work to get to know who our guests are and what they want, and how they feel about their experiences at our restaurants.”

Leveraging services such as Wolfie can even allow businesses to directly interact with and meet guests needs via real time requests. Technological innovations improving customer experience and businesses awareness of guest needs are more prevalent every day and quickly becoming expected by consumers.

This principle can be applied to any business, not just restaurants. Understanding your audience, your specific customers, ensures your appeal. For the Farmers Restaurant Group, it appears to be one of the keys to their continued success.