There are reasons local customers become regulars at restaurants, and it’s not solely based on the menu, or how pretty your storefront looks. A recognizable sense of appreciation for consistent patronage also does the trick, and there are ways to harvest that type of environment.
If you want to be the local spot that’s frequented by regulars, consider some of the ideas below. These come from direct experiences that have led to ongoing relationships between restaurateur and restaurant-goer.
1. Share your knowledge and get into storytelling
I developed this tip when frequenting Empire Tea & Coffee in Newport, Rhode Island.
The first time I walked into Empire, I immediately noticed that not only was the staff friendly, but the owner also was very knowledgeable on coffee and tea and would generously share his knowledge on the latest products in his café.
Chances are, your customers have an interest in the type of products you have to offer; so sharing interesting information will create a stronger appreciation for what goes on at your establishment.
A newfound interest in your products also encourages them to try different items. Instead of a typical order, regulars may opt to purchase the newest product they just learned about. I would often buy a half-pound of the newest coffee or a new latte after learning about the local ingredients or expert process of roasting the coffee beans.
You can easily enhance your business and the products you sell providing stories with the products.
If you’ve ever been wine tasting, use wineries as a primary example of this. You never leave without knowing what grapes are in each of the wines, where the vineyards are located and how long they’ve been in business. Stories form attachment and relationships. Strive to keep your customers close.
2. Address your regulars by name
Email marketers have been following this tip for years while sending email campaigns to their recipient list. Using a person’s name shows a personal touch, and tells the customer that they’re important enough to be remembered.
Email marketers have an easier time setting this process up. They insert the customer’s name into their database and it’s set. In the real world it’s much harder because some employees will seek to find out the name of regular customers while others don’t.
We recently visited a small business in Portland, Maine, Coffee By Design, who keeps a handmade scrapbook of their best customers.
On the individual pages of the scrapbook, they’re asked funny questions like what their favorite Gene Wilder movie is, what their nickname in highschool was, the name of their pet and other fun questions, like their favorite brand of socks. They become mini local celebrities of customer loyalty.
In addition to suggesting your staff learn the names of regular customers, openly introduce regular customers to employees. This way the familiarity will be created and your employees won’t feel uncomfortable with informal introductions.
Have you ever watched Cheers? Be that place where everybody knows your name, and you’ll earn loyalty quickly.
3. Inquire about “the usual”
Some regulars will order the same meal or drink most of the time they come to your restaurant, but they won’t do it always.
When I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts as a teenager, we had “regulars” at the drive thru every morning. Some of them we’d see their car coming and instead of asking, we’d just say, “Large Iced French Vanilla, Extra, Extra, no ice?” They were always impressed, especially at the way we learned to calculate at what time they’d reach the drive thru with no windows or camera for precision.
When the opportunity arises, ask the customer if they will be having the usual and specify what that is. This way you can show the customer that you recognize their usual selection but you won’t be jumping to conclusions and making them feel awkward if they decide to get something else.
This, of course, is a tip to pass on to all your wait staff.
4. Be transparent and say "I don't know" when you don't know
Have you ever been to a busy restaurant where it appears your order has been forgotten? I have (and you probably have, too) and it can be frustrating, especially as your stomach growls louder and louder.
Everyone make mistakes and many reasonable people are accepting of this fact, particularly if you’re up front about the error.
If this happens in your restaurant, how do you deal with it? Do you share the information and make a peace offering by giving a free dessert or drink? Or do you supply a discount for a future meal at your restaurant? Either option shows appreciation for the customer and attempts to fix any hard feelings.
The same goes with questions. We’ve written before about how to make gluten-free diners feel safe when they dine with you, and the biggest pet peeve I’ve heard from a friend of mine with celiac disease is when it comes to questions. If a customer asks if a product is gluten-free, or has a certain allergen, it’s OK to say you don’t know and ask the question. When it comes to allergies, patrons would rather you say you don’t know than say “I think so” or “I don’t think so”.
In the comments, I’d love for customers to drop their advice to restaurants and retail stores. What makes you loyal? Do you have a particular experience where a business owner turned you into a total loyalist?