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Won’t you be my regular?

Customers who keep coming back are worth a lot more than just their contribution to the bottom line. Here’s how to go get them—and keep the ones you have.

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine your dining room or service line during a typical busy shift. Smile. Now, keep that scene in mind but take all of your regulars out of the picture. Still smiling? Probably not.

Take away regulars and you take away what for most operations is the heart and soul of the business—not to mention the bulk of revenues. Whether you’re fast food, fine dining or the taco cart on the corner, regulars keep you humming and pay the bills. Consider the following stats from the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 Operator Survey: Repeat customers account for an average of 75 percent of sales at family dining and quick-service restaurants; for 70 percent of sales at casual dining restaurants; and for 60 percent at fine dining operations.  It’s a pretty safe bet that during the past year, with consumers extra-skittish about spending money on unknowns, those percentages have increased.

“Regulars pay the rent. From a bottom-line standpoint, they’re critical,” says Joan Simon of Full Plate Restaurant Consulting based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Simon notes that beyond the obvious revenue contributions that regulars make, they provide other important benefits. Top among them is positive word-of-mouth advertising. “You can spend a lot of money on advertising, but if you pay close attention to keeping your current customers happy, they’ll do a lot of advertising for you and you’ll spend a lot less money,” she says.

Regulars also act as a sort of built-in focus group. “You build a personal relationship and if you’re smart, that relationship extends from the greeter to the manager, the bartender, the chef,” Simon says. “The regulars are recognized and appreciated, their preferences are known. The relationship that results enables the operator to get critical feedback. It’s great to be able to go to your customers and say, ‘We’re thinking of doing x,y,z. What’s your opinion?’ Or, ‘We’ve just added something new, have you tried it? What do you think?’ They’ll tell you what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, what you could be doing that you hadn’t even thought about. That type of feedback will come most reliably from your regulars.”

In a very tangible but often unrecognized way, regulars also contribute to staff morale, says Simon. That’s particularly true where job functions can become rote, as can be the case in limited-menu fast-food operations. “What makes a job worthwhile is often the social interactions with your co-workers and also with your customers,” she says. “Regulars who recognize you, who chat a bit while they’re there can really brighten your day. It’s what humanizes the staff and keeps them happy, and a happy staff is always your best sales tool. So cultivating regulars creates a full circle of positive benefits.”

13 ways to win regulars

  1. VIP them Regulars influence others to come to your place, so who better to lavish with perks? Pair them with your best staff members, give them plenty of special treats, make sure that managers stop and chat, send them hand-written thank you notes and do follow up e-mails.
  2. Know them Collect information on their likes and dislikes, where they’re from, what they do, where they vacation, how old their kids are, etc.—any information that can be used to personalize service and build relationships. 
  3. Hire cultivators Look beyond basic service capabilities and personality traits when assessing job applicants to include memory skills. “You want people who have a good memory for faces, names, little details,” Simon says. “When guests are treated like regulars, they start to think of themselves as regulars and the bond is strengthened.”
  4. Do a newsletter It’s an easy way to reach guests who’ve been in your restaurant or on your Web site. Collect business cards, do check stuffers, run a contest or enable subscriptions on your Web site to gather e-mail addresses and make sure your regulars are signed up. Use the newsletter to publicize menu specials, insider information, special events or special deals for regulars. 
  5. Hit them early Go the extra mile before even starting to provide regular service. “This is doing something really nice and really positive that we can surprise customers with before they get into the meat of their experience with us,” says Ari Weinzweig, founding partner of ZingTrain consulting and the Zingerman’s family of food businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It could be the gift of an appetizer before their meal arrives. It could be a bag of brownies delivered to a catering client’s office a few days before the actual order with a note thanking them for their order.” Being pre-emptive surprises, gets people talking and sets a positive tone for the experience to come. It also increases the odds of them coming back.
  6. Hit them late On the flip side, initiating an additional interaction with a guest long after they were expecting you to do anything is a great way to cultivate regulars, he adds. “Sending a thank-you note to a regular customer a few weeks after they came in; an anniversary card to a guest whose wedding or birthday you’ve catered; or bringing a coffee cake to a client with a thank-you note attached a few weeks after an event. Little time-lapsed extra miles like these can have a huge influence on making a customer into a solid promoter for life.”
  7. Feature secret specials Regulars love feeling like they’re insiders. One way to help them feel that way is to tell them about unadvertised specials that only your best customers know about. Have some things that only those who come in often or whose servers let them in on the “secret” know about, Weinzweig suggests.
  8. Set aside freebies “Distributors often have deals like buy a case of wine and get three bottles free, or really special case prices,” Simon says. “Put those items aside and when regulars come in with something to celebrate, pour them a free drink from that stock. That way you’re able to make them feel appreciated without it affecting your bottom line.” 
  9. Follow up Do what you commit to do as part of providing good service, but take it a step further. Some things Weinzweig suggests: “E-mail or call to make sure a promised gift card arrived; go back and check to make sure that a re-made item was actually delivered to the table as promised; ask if a specially designed cake got to its destination as planned.” 
  10. Use social media In addition to diligently responding to positive and negative comments, monitor your social media accounts for other opportunities, as well. For instance, a Facebook fan who posts that she’s bringing her wedding party in for dinner soon provides an opportunity to reach out to her, find out when they’re coming in and do something special. “A client did this, providing the group with free desserts,” says Simon. “They were so happy, the customer posted again afterwards to say they had a great time and were coming in again for their one-month anniversary. A simple, inexpensive gesture created a happy regular.” 
  11. Support their causes When budgeting charitable contributions for the year, find out where your regulars would like the money to go.
  12. Think beyond locals Out of town regulars who come in just once or twice a year deserve regular treatment, too. “Business travelers are a great example,” explains Simon. “They may come to the annual convention or be in town a couple times a year visiting clients. You can track that type of information on your reservation system.”
  13. Make a strong last impression A nice extra mile at the end of an interaction makes a powerful last impression, one that can create a feeling that usually lasts far longer than the actual encounter itself, according to Weinzweig. “Maybe you walk them to the car on a snowy day, send them home with a fresh coffee refill in a to-go cup, drop a handwritten thank-you note in a carryout order. These are small but really positive ways to end interactions in ways that will keep moving people along the road to being regulars.”

What regulars think

John Feltman, owner of AJFTravel.com; age 40
Restaurant: Moe’s Southwest Grill, Altamonte Springs, Florida (400 units)
Visits: At least once a week
Why a regular: You get a five-star experience at a value price: Tasty, fresh, high-quality food; a well-designed space; positive-attitude employees; comfortable noise level; ideal location. There aren’t many restaurants that star in all five areas. I often stop here with my wife and 8-month-old son Nathaniel. This Moe’s is located in a beautifully landscaped shopping area next to Crane’s Roost Park, so afterwards, we can take a nice walk.

Don Lee, film producer; age 55
Restaurant: Bar Henry, New York City (1 unit)
Visits: Twice a week
Why a regular: The extended hours fit my filming schedule. It’s also very convenient to my neighborhood. I love French wines and they have an outstanding list that is available by the bottle or by the glass. Ordering by the glass gives me access to wines that other restaurants would charge me $100 a bottle.

Marimar Torres, winery owner; age 64
Restaurant: Poggio, Sausalito, California (1 unit)
Visits: Breakfast 3 to 4 times a week; dinner, whenever I can
Why a regular: The atmosphere is invigorating—it always makes me smile. Mornings, tables are set with fresh flowers and are full of people, many of whom are regulars. At night, the ambiance is still casual but elegant. It’s become a way of life for me; my home away from home.

Bryan Chestnutt, Lutheran Pastor, age 53
Restaurant: Bojangles’ Chicken & Biscuits, Durham, NC (450 units)
Visits: 2 times per week for over 5 years
Why a regular: It’s always fast, but it doesn’t taste like fast food. I eat in, and even though it’s always crowded they get your order taken and your food prepared quickly. It’s always fresh, hot and tasty and because they’re so fast I have time to relax and enjoy it while on my lunch hour. I always have chicken filets with a biscuit, fries and sweet tea.

Kathy Bracha, mother of three; age 44
Restaurant: Pat & Oscar’s, Carlsbad, California (19 units)
Visits: Once a week, plus takeout
Why a regular: The whole family can eat out together—on a tight budget. I usually go to Pat & Oscar’s with my two younger children, 13-year-old Parish and 6-year-old Jaeden, and everyone can find something they like. Tuesday is our favorite day—kids eat free! I can order two regular meals and I’ll get two kids meals for free. On weekends, my husband and 14-year old son, Weston, often come along and we get the $25 family meal. It’s a great deal, especially in this economy. Although Pat & Oscar’s has a fast-food ordering system, there’s a nicer feel here and the food tastes very fresh. Servers bring the order to the table and our loyalty card tracks what we eat, then rewards us with $5 off a meal. 

Tony Moraga, General Manager of Golden Gate Business Association, age 27
Restaurant: Pisco Latin Lounge, San Francisco (1 unit)
Visits: 1 to 2 times per week
Why a regular: What makes Pisco so appealing for me are the creative cocktails coupled with the originality of the cuisine, which is an extensive menu of tapas and bar bites. Other turn-ons are the chic atmosphere, the diverse staff (which practically becomes family), the price point and location that can’t be beat. But for me, Pisco personifies itself through its cocktail creations. As a 20-something entrepreneur, I value most of all innovation and that’s what I’ve come to expect at Pisco. 

Jeff Kampman, CFO of large physician practice; age 51
Restaurant: Wingstop, Mentor-on-the-Lake, Ohio (445 units)
Visits: Once or twice a week for past 6 years
Why a regular: It’s all about Sam [Sam Abou-Diwan, franchisee of this Wingstop]. Sam is the type of businessman I want to support. He takes a genuine interest in his customers and truly understands the importance of repeat business. Not only is he almost always present at Wingstop, he serves excellent food and surrounds himself with the kind of employees that make you want to come back. 

Russ & Ruth Frank, Owners, Madison Top Co.; ages 63 and 59
Restaurant: Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, Madison, Wisconsin (1 unit)
Visits: Once or twice a week for the past 5 years
Why a regular: Kamil, the owner, is always onsite and really understands hospitality. He and his staff are totally customer-service oriented and their answer to any special request is “absolutely.” They know the table we like and how we like our food prepared. Recently, a new server took our order and I forgot to order a particular side dish that I always substitute on the lamb chop entrée. A minute later, she came back to the table and said the kitchen just wanted to check because I hadn’t made the request that day. I’d forgotten, but they remembered. And when we bring our granddaughter Zoe in for dinner, Kamil always takes her back into the kitchen and lets her decorate her own dessert. It’s that level of personal service and attention to detail that keeps us coming back.

Rebecca & Matt Williams, Account Executive, NBC 9 News & Director of Interactive Media, Kroenke Sports Enterprises, ages 32 and 34
Restaurant: Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, Denver (6 units)
Visits: Two to three times per week for the past 2 years
Why a regular: It fits our lifestyle perfectly. We’re not fast food people; we’re very into healthy eating. But we’re also both working parents with a baby at home so we’re really short on time to plan, shop and prepare meals. It’s quick and easy to stop
at Garbanzo on the way home and pick up fresh and nutritious food. You walk in and they greet you with a little taste of falafel, which is a nice touch. You go through the line and customize your meal, and they don’t nickel and dime you for adding a bit more of this or that or for making substitutions. The portions are generous and the prices are amazing. It’s so much food for $6 to $7. 

Wendy & Ray Keys, retired; ages 75 and 80
Restaurant: Fazoli’s, Blue Springs, MO (250 units)
Visits: Several times a week for several years
Why a regular: The staff is well trained, accommodating and caring. The food is delicious and always piping hot and we enjoy the friendliness and professionalism of the employees who greet us every time we enter. Last December, Ray had open heart surgery and we were unable to go for several months. I went in with my daughter and right away the staff wanted to know where we had been. When I told them about Ray’s surgery, the manager sent a little “we care” to-go meal to him from them. How many restaurants would do that? When Ray was able to return in person, the staff greeted us like long-lost friends. 

Cameron and Kyle MacDougall, private equity professionals; ages 33 and 30
Restaurant: Vai Restaurant & Wine Bar, New York City (1 unit)
Visits: Once a week for dinner over the last 2 years
Why a regular: It’s relaxed but elegant, with lots of menu options at reasonable prices. The chef-owner, Vincent Chirico, changes the menu frequently and seasonally and all the food is consistently fabulous. Vincent—who is always at Vai—pays special attention to each customer and the waitstaff is extremely personable. When Cameron [husband] wanted to surprise Kyle with a 30th birthday party, Vincent figured out what he could do to make the night special.

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