Recognizing regulars

Since we all want to be where people know our names.

Regulars are the lifeblood of any restaurant business, said celebrity chef Tom Colicchio during a panel discussion at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., this June. “The number one reason someone comes back to a restaurant is recognition,” he said. Fellow panelists Sean Brock of Charleston, S.C.-based Husk and Stephanie Izard of Girl & The Goat in Chicago shared this sentiment. But with hundreds of names and faces filtering through the door every day, committing guests to memory isn’t so simple. Here are some steps to follow to boost recognition.

Don’t take reservations? Skip to Step 3.

Step 1: Turn to tech

Open Table
Many operators use the platform for more than just holding tables. It keeps the notes they take on guests—from food and beverage preferences to personal details—to build a diner profile. It also can link to other systems that store additional info, such as previous table numbers and party sizes, to help trigger servers’ memories, says Graceanne Jordan, director of operations for Colicchio’s New York City-based Craft Restaurants.

Restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park in New York City spend time Googling the names of guests on their reservation list to learn more about them ahead of time. Deep digs may uncover photos with wine, say indicating a potential wine geek.

Step 2: Pre-shift meeting

Craft’s sites print reservations each evening for chefs and managers to sit and discuss who is coming in for what. “We might decide to send out their favorites or an extra course with our compliments,” says Jordan. Brock follows the same system. “We track everything, and we talk about it every day,” he says.

Step 3: At the hostess stand

Use guests’ names. “People love hearing the sound of their own name,” says author Steve Curtin in his book “Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service From Ordinary to Extraordinary.” “It affirms their importance as customers—and the value they bring to the business through personal spending, referrals and loyalty.”
He suggests three tricks for remembering names:

Come up with a mental cue, such as a phrase, acronym or pattern.

Relate the guest’s name to someone or something familiar.

Repeat the name several times during the initial introduction.

Step 4: Server hand-off

“It’s about servers getting to know guests as much as possible. Asking personal questions. Not to just saying [their] spiel, but really wanting to listen to the response,” says Izard. Craft’s servers are encouraged to take it one step further, says Jordan, using what they learned to help better market to those guests in the future. 

If they've dined before

  • Recognize them. If a  guest ordered sparkling water the last five times in, just bring it out, don’t ask, says Jordan. Brock says he loves when his favorite spots plop a gin and tonic in front of him without him having to order it. 
  • Make food and beverage recommendations, noting what they’ve ordered in the past.
  • Bring up allergy issues. When people have dined often, they are less forthcoming, trusting us to remember. Specific, detailed notes take the error out of it, Jordan says.

Step 5: Post-meal

Every night, Brock’s servers take any kind of notes they can once the guest leaves the table: whether or not they were happy, what they seemed to like, how much they ate. “It takes five minutes at the end of the night to type [information] into the computer,” he says.

Parting shot

“It’s the service provider’s personal commitment to recall names and preferences that means the difference between an ordinary transaction and an extraordinary service experience,” says Curtin. “This requires initiative and willingness to expend discretionary effort.”


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