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7 surefire ways to turn your restaurant customers into regulars

7 Surefire Ways to Turn Your Restaurant Customers into Regulars

Working as the assistant general manager of Blackbird—an esteemed, Michelin-starred restaurant that blurred the lines between casual and fine dining cuisine—was a pivotal point in my 10-year hospitality career. Not only because of Blackbird’s reputation as an industry leader, but because it was where I truly came to understand that the purpose of restaurants was more than just to serve good food.

The truth is, a major driving force behind customer loyalty and retention is quality hospitality. While guests are sure to remember that their food was tasty, the feeling that will stick with them after they leave your establishment will derive from how they were treated throughout their experience. Provide guests with the utmost level of hospitality, and they’ll walk out the door feeling valued and appreciated, a vital part of turning customers into regulars.

To help you put together your customer service game plan, here are six key tips I learned from my time at Blackbird that will keep your guests coming back.

01. Go the extra mile

During one dinner service at Blackbird, we had a guest come in with very specific allergies. Her table opted for the tasting menu, but because of her dietary restrictions (which included allergies to gluten, dairy, and several vegetables), she wasn’t able to participate. Although our usual policy was that all members of a party had to take part in the tasting menu, I wanted the guest to feel welcome and comfortable, so I offered her the option of ordering off the à la carte menu with specific modifications. The chefs altered her meal in a way that was not only safe for her to eat but also truly enjoyable.

An image of champagne and oranges next to "celebration."

02. Offer complimentary treats

While I know it may seem counterintuitive for the sake of your revenue to give something away at no extra cost, just hear me out. At Blackbird, we offered free glasses of champagne to guests who were celebrating their anniversaries, which always put a smile on their faces. Now, of course, the champagne we used was not top-shelf (it was actually a mid-level brut that cost us $4 a bottle), it was good-quality and tasty. This practice can also be useful when you have a few ingredients in your walk-in that are reaching their expiration date; consider using them to create an appetizer or amuse-bouche that your servers can gift to their tables. These little add-ons require little of the team, and they can help you create an experience that is sure to be remembered.

03. Get to know your customers

Hospitality is more than just serving people food; it’s about welcoming people into your restaurant as if it was your home and making them feel special. You want your customers to know how appreciative you are that they chose your restaurant over others. Taking the time to chat or banter with them will help establish more intimate relationships with guests that will keep them coming back.

04. Keep a detailed CRM

Not only will you want to get to know your customers personally, but it can also be extremely helpful to keep track of their specific dining habits and preferences. At Blackbird, we kept meticulous notes in our CRM about each guest’s favorite dishes, table preferences, allergies, along with any other information that would help us serve them better. Then, when they would make a reservation, we could plan our service accordingly.

It’s also worth noting in your CRM if a guest has a negative experience. Summarize what happened, what they didn’t like, if there were any extenuating circumstances, and what you did to compensate them. That way, the next time they come in, you can be prepared and ready to take extra special care of them so that it doesn’t happen again.

05. Offer promotions to your email subscribers

Email marketing is one of the best ways to communicate with your guests. Because promotions build loyalty and keep customers engaged, they’re a great way to boost sales. By offering something of value, such as discounts or free items with a purchase, you can retain customers and even bring in new clientele. You can include them in your restaurant email marketing campaigns or offer them at the bottom of checks so that happy guests have extra motivation to return.

Charitable partnerships are also appealing to customers, as being an active member of the community and giving something back is a powerful way to establish personal relationships and incentivize people to choose your restaurant. One way to do this is by donating a percentage of the profit from a single menu item to charity. Blackbird often partnered with the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation and would donate $1 every time we sold a certain cocktail. If you opt for this type of promotion, mention it in the menu description.

An order that earned the customer 50 loyalty points on sushi and a happy couple at a restaurant.

06. Start a loyalty program

Loyalty programs provide two primary functions: they incentivize your customers to keep returning to earn something for free, while also providing a psychological feeling of accomplishment. Whether your customers accumulate points every time they dine or are rewarded with a gift card after a certain number of visits, this marketing strategy keeps customers coming back. If this is in keeping with the tone of your restaurant, it’s definitely worth considering. After all, 78% of customers are more likely to continue spending their money on businesses that have a loyalty program.

07. Correct mistakes

As hard as you may try to always get it right, there will be times when mistakes occur. Human error is only natural, but what’s important is how you handle these mistakes when they happen. Something I often noticed when working at Blackbird was that customers base their impression of your restaurant on how they feel when they leave. So, if the first 20 minutes or even half of someone’s meal doesn’t go well, you can usually come back from it if you work hard to recover. Keep an extra close eye on their table moving forward and consider discounting their bill or offering a round of free drinks.

It’s also important to remember that people like to be heard. Allow guests to explain the issue at hand and vent their frustration. The best thing you can do is to acknowledge their feelings, show them you’re on their side, and convey your dedication to making up for the mistake. If they’re waiting over 15 minutes past their reservation time, acknowledge their irritation and offer something to compensate. By taking this approach, you not only allow them to voice their disappointment, but you humanize yourself and your staff. This alone can help calm down an angry customer.

Just remember: If your guests are happy when they walk out the door, they’ll most likely be back.

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