First time guests are a precious commodity. If you don't have a program in place to acknowledge and welcome them, you're missing a great opportunity to make a positive first impression and create a loyal, regular customer.
The challenge is to train your staff to identify first time guests and communicate that information to the manager on duty. From there, the sky's the limit. Your policy could be as simple as a personal visit to the guest's table or offering a gift certificate, complimentary drink or dessert.
Keeping the K.I.S.S. philosophy in mind, here's how we implemented the system in my restaurant. When a host or hostess took a reservation or seated a party, they asked a simple question like "Have you dined with us before?" or "Is this your first visit with us?" If so, that information was recorded and given to the manager on duty.
We used a simple 18" x 24" white board, or dry erase board, mounted on the wall near the line. After seating a first-time guest, the hostess would walk by the board and write down the time the party was seated and table number. You can just as easily use a sheet of paper on a clip board, or make notations at the host/hostess station. Some of my clients include the guest's name and the number in the party. Then, when a first time guest is listed, the owner or manager goes into action. Once the guest has been welcomed, simply erase or draw a line through the entry.
This might seem insignificant within the totality of the guest's dining experience, but you'll be amazed at the response you get from a program like this. I suggest you introduce your staff to this idea and get some feedback before establishing a protocol. Good service employees develop systems like this with each other, so why not take advantage of their experience and expertise. Theamusing anecdote on the next page about the CEO of a national hotel chain and his solution for identifying first time guests might be an inspiration.
Brainstorm ways that you might identify first time guests, or any other guest status that you could convey to fellow employees. For instance, in the bar we always place a cocktail napkin in front of the guest when we take their drink order. This is any easy way for managers and other servers to spot guests who need service rather than approaching guests who have already been taken care of. And don't forget to acknowledge their good ideas. They may just have saved you a bundle!