All customers are special and should be served with equal measures of warmth, graciousness and hospitality. But frequent guests — those who return time and again, sometimes get special treatment — the perks of being a regular.
With clarity, gratitude and surprise that still linger, Ann Cary remembers when, as a customer, side dishes of steamed broccoli and sautéed Lyonnaise potatoes were placed before her at a restaurant; items that hadn’t been ordered at the table. It was at a steakhouse she visited several times a year and always during the holidays.
The manager had greeted her party when they arrived, welcoming and thanking them for the return visit. And apparently, he also exercised a discretionary privilege of comping a few extras.
“The cost of the two dishes was immaterial. What mattered and had the value of gold was being recognized as someone who had been to the restaurant many times over the years,” Cary recalled. “You go back to places you enjoy but something like this totally cements that loyalty,” adding that she also related the story to many friends, thus providing coveted word-of- mouth praise and publicity.
Regular customers are the foundation upon which many successful businesses are built, their appearances welcomed, appreciated—and sometimes recognized in tangible ways.
At the three Chicago-area Gloria Jean’s Coffees locations of franchise partner Muddassar Alvi, he is a familiar presence, overseeing the operations on the business end and extending a sense of warmth and hospitality to the guests.
“By their nature, coffee shops become a regular part of people’s lives. They have regular routines and hopefully we become part of that,” says Alvi, adding that all three shops and especially the two in suburban locations, count many guests as daily visitors. The downtown unit, he says, has more-varied clientele, many from nearby businesses but also tourists and occasional visitors. “We are fortunate enough to have one customer who visits twice a day, once in the suburbs, close to home and again downtown, where she works.”
Alvi believes that the most meaningful recognition for regular guests is just that— personal recognition. He says that a free beverage, a slice of cake or a gratis flavor shot added to a drink are common practices. “We are fortunate to have people come in all the time. The most important thing we do is get to know them as people beyond the tall caramel-nut coffee, sit down with them and exchange stories. That’s when the relationships can really develop and solidify. It’s part of our culture here,” he says. “And like with family, you occasionally share a special treat with them.”
Lagomarcino’s is pretty much a landmark in Moline, Ill. The soda fountain, confectionary and café celebrated its 100th anniversary eight years ago and has many customers who recall coming in with their grandparents and now visit with their own grandchildren.
“That’s one of my favorite things to hear,” says co- owner Beth Lagomarcino. The family-owned business has brought on board the fourth generation to carry on its sweet legacy.
“Our employees tend to stay a very long time and the group we have now has really jelled as a team. They get to know our customers very well,” says Lagomarcino. “One waitress has been with us for more than 20 years and she pretty much knows what some of our customers are going to order before they do. We aim for a strong connection between our staff and guests. It helps, too, that the family is here. We’re not just checking in from Arizona. We’re here, bussing tables and talking to guests.”
Noting that there has been a revival in the downtown area in which the restaurant is located, Lagomarcino says there are lots of regulars who live and work close by. “We get to know people by name and they appreciate the friendly feel. If someone doesn’t come in for a while, we check up on them to make sure everything is okay.” She notes that the personal touch is the most powerful tool in their arsenal.
“I just had someone call to try to sell us on the idea of adding a loyalty program. To be honest, the best program we can have is the feel of the place. There is a sense of family among the staff and that emanates to the guests as well. We’re the real deal, a unique place people seek out. I guess that’s our loyalty program.”
Perking Up Business
The easiest way to recognize regular guests is via a free food or beverage item but it’s far from the only way to strengthen bonds with valued customers—and it may not always be the best approach. Says Beth Lagomarcino of Lagomarcino’s, “Really the best way for us is to recognize them and make them feel special as a guest.” With the restaurant in operation since 1908, it appears to be a winning strategy.
Here are some ideas
- Do your best to make sure they always get a prime table; if they have expressed a preference in the past about booth, window or center-court, try to accommodate that for their visits.
- Business meetings often are conducted in restaurants and seamless, intuitive service keeps things running smoothly. For regular guests, it helps to know if they like bread on the table, order bottled water, how quickly they like service to proceed and when to present the check.
- When it makes operational sense, stock an item that a regular guest requests, say a brand of gin not normally kept on the bar. It will make them feel special and chances are it will sell to other guests as well.
- Keep a record of their visits, their likes, dislikes and habits and then strive to execute on them. Often this is done in a database, although some operations make notes in a guest ledger. There also are programs that search online for information about guests. Many restaurant managers find ways— without prying or seeming intrusive—to learn small details about guests such as names of children, where they graduated and so on; the information can strengthen ties.
- Send advance and early notice of special events—say a wine dinner—that have limited space.
- If it’s appropriate, make a note of birthdays and anniversaries then send a hand-written note. Work to ensure that the entire team knows the guest is a frequent diner and any preferences. At Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where service always exudes Southern hospitality, a ribbon is discretely placed flat across the table of VIPs, ensuring that staff is aware.
- Not to be lost is simple gratitude for their patronage. Says Gloria Jean’s Alvi, “Don’t assume they know you appreciate them. Thank them for coming in and make it personal and genuine. That’s what people remember.”