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Brinker's Market Research

In season one, we heard several guests discuss Norman Brinker’s strategy for obtaining consumer insights. Perhaps we should have expected this when we signed on two S&A Restaurant Corp. and Brinker International alumni as guests.


In Theory of Evolution, Chuck Winship talked us through the basics of Norman Brinker’s strategy: he would approach random guests, ask them about their visit and not reveal his identity. It was as simple as that.


“I remember hearing multiple stories of him standing outside restaurants…just talking to people...People would come walking out and, ‘Hey was your dinner any good? Is this place any good?’…That’s what you called unfiltered…You need unfiltered feedback sometimes.”
-Chuck Winship

And in Grady’s Not-So-Good Times, Lane Cardwell told us about a time he put Brinker’s approach to the test while scouting Grady’s Goodtimes. It set the stage for an unparalleled experience that led to Chili’s acquisition of Grady’s Goodtimes.


“I remember Norman Brinker saying if you ever want to get the truth about a restaurant, as you’re walking in ask someone who’s walking out, ‘Is this a good place to eat’...So, as I was walking in this couple were walking out and I said, ‘Hey, is this a good place to eat?’…And he says, ‘I wish I could be you, and eating at Grady’s again for the first time.”
-Lane Cardwell

Anonymity was a crucial component of Brinker’s rustic market research approach, as people often tailor their words to an audience. If a guest knew that the man in the parking lot asking about their meal was the owner, would it change how they talked about the brand? What if they found out that man was scouting the concept for an acquisition?

In the market research world, we’d say yes, and there are plenty of terms we use to explain why: sponsor bias, demand bias, social desirability bias, and so on. It’s smart to avoid these.


Likewise, we have to ask similar questions about other data sources. Just how representative are attitudes toward a brand on Twitter, where 80% of tweets come from 10% of users? Are Yelp reviews an accurate representation of the typical guest experience, or does it skew to only the most passionate guests? Is an algorithm involved?


This isn’t to dismiss these sources – it’s important to understand how consumers are talking about a brand regardless of the platform or audience. But, it’s important to remember that, amid the growing number of data sources available, it still pays to anonymously approach a customer to get their true, unfiltered feedback on whether your restaurant is a good place to eat.