How Vandal Built a Community-Centred Restaurant Brand Using Guest Data
When the guilt — and the smell — of cooking more than 1,000 kilos of meat a week began to overwhelm vegan eater and career restaurateur, Peter Varvaressos, he gave back the keys to the corporate steakhouse restaurant and doubled down on his goals to grow Vandal, a vegan restaurant concept in Sydney, Australia.
Peter is no stranger to the restaurant industry, having worked for decades in various aspects of corporate restaurants. So, he knew that to create a successful vegan venture, he’d need to leverage guest data to define his brand and audience in a way that would keep customers coming back. As Peter says, “Data is currency.”
But building a successful, on-target restaurant brand is not a set-it-and-forget-it task. It takes work to define, and even more time to evolve and adapt it to your customers’ wants. Done right, it will inform your messaging, marketing, menus and so much more.
Preparing to launch a new vegan restaurant business in Sydney, Peter Varvaressos thought he knew what to expect. Turns out, his assumptions were all wrong — and thank goodness for that.
Like many restauranteurs who ditch the shackles of corporate restaurant management for the freedom of entrepreneurial eateries, Peter’s journey toward building unique establishments was a learning curve. Not because he lacked experience, but because he knew that what worked in past environments wouldn’t work in a hip and adventurous plant-based restaurant with a no-food-waste policy.
This meant that he and his team needed to toss every assumption he had about what they thought their brand identity would be and start building a dining experience based on what was actually happening in front of them.
Peter laughs as he recalls the guests that showed up on Vandal’s second night: young, 20-somethings in floral pink dreadlocks, blue-tipped mohawks and Avatar-style get-ups. A far cry from the suit-and-tie crowd he was used to.
“I saw what they ordered, and I saw what they were drinking, and I saw their bill at the end; Their per head was higher than a corporate white male, aged 45, from the wealthiest street, the most expensive street. [I realized this crowd] would spend more money.”
When building any restaurant brand, it’s dangerous to make sweeping generalisations about who your guests are (or will be). Peter’s clientele — and their spending habits — were well beyond his initial expectations.
Thinking his cheque average would be lower after leaving corporate, “I deliberately priced myself low because I thought, ‘I’m not going to get the dollars I did in the city.’” Peter says. “I’m selling vegetables — sweet potatoes and mushrooms — and they’re spending the same per head they would if they had bought a really expensive steak.”
This realisation was a welcomed wake-up call to start studying who his guests really were, then use that information to create an unforgettable, profitable brand.
Data Insights Help Define Brand Identity
To better define its brand voice and identity, Vandal first studied its surroundings and the type of diner attracted to the restaurant. Then, he created a menu, interior design and mission centred around their potential customers to generate a more loyal base.
Play to Your Surroundings
After chatting for nearly an hour, it comes as no shock to us that Vandal’s food and ambiance are as experimental, fun and bold as its owner. The restaurant represents Peter’s personality perfectly. But Vandal’s offerings also fit with the community in which it sits.
For one, Vandal is nestled on a road that’s been voted Sydney’s coolest street. The cultural competition is high, as the area has no shortage of food, retail and entertainment options.
From his interview location, Peter told us he could see what he dubs a “high-class brothel” (seriously!), a high-end wine concept, an expensive Italian joint, a picture frame business, a lawyer’s office, a hotel, and several other eclectic venues. His surroundings suggested that potential customers would be willing to spend more on experiences they deem worth it. For example, Vandal offers a $35 set menu groups can order to experience a range of menu items.
He also knew that most who travel here are young people attracted to the thriving events and arts scene. As a result, Vandal’s restaurant logo, graphics, colour palette, copy and website design have an artistic, fiercely independent vibe that speaks to the community.
Continually Adapt Your Menus to Guest Preferences
Restaurants, new and old, must be willing to evolve as they learn about their customer base and community. Peter and his staff leveraged SevenRooms’ hospitality CRM to profile its guests as they dined, which later, allowed them to make key adjustments that skyrocketed revenue.
In the beginning, Vandal’s menu presented all the traditional beers you’d expect at a Mexican restaurant. As more customers visited, the staff was able to establish order histories and guest preferences, which uncovered an invaluable piece of data: 90% of Vandal’s customer base is female.
With one (huge!) data point, Peter updated his food menus to cater to who he served. The staff removed what he, and most restaurateurs, would dubb as traditional “dude food” and made its menu more appealing to his customer base. (Think: fried zucchini flowers stuffed with creamy ricotta and smoked mozzarella.)
Research shows that a growing number of Australians, especially women, now opt for a booze-free lifestyle, so he also tackled his cocktail list by expanding Vandal’s non-alcoholic cocktail options.
Case in point? Vandal now sells more non-alcoholic beers than Coronas … in a Mexican restaurant.
Peter tells us that it’s unwise to rely on “feeling” anymore. “It’s all analytics now,” Peter says. “All of our cocktails, off that one data point, are more feminine. I keep a couple of ‘dude ones’ — but of the 15 cocktails, 13 are now female-friendly.”
For example, after learning the restaurant’s trueaudience demographics, Vandal’s marketing transitioned from an edgy, rule-breaker vibe to something much lighter. Peter credits a 30% growth in social media followers and a huge spike in engagement rates on Instagram to something as small as adding different songs to his Instagram reels. It seems women respond better to Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa than N.W.A.
Loyalty Is a Personal, Often Emotional, Decision
Vandal isn’t active on Facebook, and yet somehow, the restaurant is marked as a “safe space” in community Facebook groups. For a restaurant located in a community with large LGBTQ+ and non-binary populations, this information is vital to the brand. Personally, it’s even more fulfilling for Peter to know that his employees, some of whom also identify as non-binary, feel safe and supported in the community.
Peter’s honest when he says he doesn’t know why Vandal is regarded as a safe and inclusive space. However, if we were betting people at SevenRooms, we’d credit his customer and employee success to his social awareness and his staff’s commitment to delivering authentic experiences at every single touch point.
Building a brand identity that establishes an emotional connection with people isn’t just about marketing and menus but also about service and experience. Some might say his team built a brand using a perfect mix of data and human intuition.
Evidence suggests that Vandal’s commitment to personalising every customer service interaction has helped establish a sense of community at Vandal because data makes building meaningful rapport with each guest easier.
A large percentage of Vandal’s customers are non-binary. Throughout the booking process, staff noticed that guests started to book under different names (SevenRooms attaches phone numbers to names and profiles, so it can catch the same bookings filed under different names.) Peter is proud of this because it suggests that guests feel more comfortable with how they are presenting in his restaurant.
“Once a sensitive community feels safe, you’ve got them for life,” Peter says. To retain his customers, Peter has encouraged his staff to use this information to be more inclusive.
For example, Vandal employees write reports on each customer after every visit. When guests reserve a table, staff can pull up a detailed dining history to personalise the service. Some of Vandal’s guest histories are 17 entries deep.
By storing this information in one platform, employees can access it from anywhere, which means that repeat regulars who bring their dogs don’t have to ask for a water bowl; it’s already waiting there upon arrival.
Use Guest Tags Strategically
When customers book a table, Vandal attaches guest tags to their profile, like “no show,” “five-star review” and “last minute cancel.”
Peter says, “The people who are [historical] no-shows, we seat them next to the toilet. Seriously. If you go to my website, it says that I’m going to do that.”
It’s an interesting strategy to be so transparent about keeping notes and tracking order histories. But modern diners appreciate restaurants that personalise their experience.
Done right, guest tags can help identify opportunities for better, unforgettable service. For example, Vandal’s use of creative guest tags like, “Loves Margaritas” or “Booked for Taco Tuesday” helps equip staff to surprise and delight right off the bat.
Your reputation hinges on how you respond and engage with guests. Creating a process for responding to reviews is an important part of your reputation management strategy. Vandal uses SevenRooms’ review aggregator to monitor all of his online reviews — and he responds to each one. In just six months, Vandal went from less than 200 reviews to 638 at the time of our interview.
Sure, Peter thanks each five-star reviewer for their kind words, but he proactively tackles guest retention and reputation by paying special attention to the four- and three-star reviewers as well.
Vandal asks customers who gave less-than-stellar reviews for a second chance. After reaching out to them, employees will put notes in their profile for staff to pull up during their next visit, such as flagging them as VIPs so they get seated at the best tables or offering a free drink based on their previous order.
“One hundred percent of the time, we get those customers back. You can make a negative into a double positive.”
It’s all about experience and hospitality, Peter says. “Don’t do one thing positive, do two things. You just shower them with hospitality until they have no choice. You’ll get them back.”
SevenRooms Does All The Things So You Don’t Have To
If our conversation with Peter taught us anything, it’s that building a successful restaurant brand isn’t an overnight effort. But the notion that the right branding strategy is actually more like a continual rebranding as data dictates can be a tough pill to swallow for busy restaurant managers with to-do lists a mile long.