Whether your restaurant is brand new or a neighborhood fixture, the question of how to grow repeat visits from a single guest is universally relevant. The numbers say it all: if you increase repeat visits by just 5% you can raise your profits anywhere from 25% to 95%, according to a Harvard Business School study.
You know these folks: the ones who come back night after night and whose corner table sits waiting, though they’ll happily settle at the bar if need be. Your regulars. They are critical to your business’s well-being, both emotionally and financially.
So how does one build a community of regulars who fill your books, keep your house buzzing, and guarantee an increase in revenue, too? We’ve culled a few tips from both industry vets and marketing gurus to help you rethink how you do business with an eye to customer loyalty.
1. Get to Know Your Guests
Where does Francesca like to sit? Is Francesca dairy-free? These details about dining preferences are worth tracking when attempting to build your regular roster. OpenTable’s Guest Notes enable you to do just this—note special birthdays, anniversaries, or other memorable moments that might inspire a customer to return and relive the experience.
At Union Square Café in New York City, the Danny Meyer school of hospitality is hard at work personalizing the dining experience for each and every new diner. “You just can’t redo that first impression,” says Sheryl Heefner, the restaurant’s General Manager. Her staff uses OpenTable tools to manage and track a giant database of information about their guests, the foundation on which the restaurant has built its inimitable service.
“Getting reservations is the first easy step we take,” Heefner explains. “Our managers go through our book every day to review who’s coming in. They look at tags and identify tables we should touch. For instance, we can see if a party only comes once a year, but seems to always return on August 15th. Then, we might intuit that it must be a special day for them, allowing us to create an experience based on the kind of data we are getting.”
San Francisco restaurant group Hi Neighbor are also pros at cultivating a neighborhood feel in their aptly named Stone’s Throw and Trestle restaurants. When you dine with them, the restaurant requests your email address and favorite childhood dessert, as these throwbacks make routine appearances on their ever-changing menu. This personal touch works beautifully in two ways: the restaurant now has a guest’s contact and can tip him or her off when the nostalgic dessert appears on the menu, and it’s a very effective way to demonstrate that Stone’s Throw cares about regulars. (Who isn’t going to come back when promised s’mores?)
2. Make the Most of Email
While Union Square Cafe relies on in-person interaction to build relationships with guests, the approach requires extensive training of a large staff to maintain that level of “touch.” For a scalable solution, enter email.
In speaking with Ideawork, a branding and digital marketing studio that specializes in luxury and hospitality brands, we learned that high-quality email communications are key to reaching and retaining high-quality diners. With restaurants like Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Eleven Madison Park as clients, Ideawork has helped grow communities of loyal diners through brand-consistent, appropriately timed email marketing strategy. Even Union Square Cafe augments its already rigorous hospitality program with some degree of email marketing.
“They are awesome individuals and have a lot of commonality,” says Jay Schwartz, owner and Chief Creative Officer of Ideawork, of the chefs he works with. “They are crazy meticulous about their brands and are all very involved. If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Trust people to do what they do, but also don’t go in blindly. You need to be involved in all facets of your restaurant, not just the back of house or front of house.”
OpenTable is a trove of information that you can use to market effectively to your regular base. Try pulling lists of those diners within a specific zip code (i.e. your neighbors), as this will enable you to reach them directly, a tactic Union Square Cafe employs frequently. Take note of birthday and anniversary celebrations so you can reach out to guests when those special days roll around the following year and invite them back again (this time, bubbly on the house).
Bottom line: the more you target the conversation toward those who are listening, the greater your chances of increasing frequency and driving success for your business.
3. Create Quality, Not Quantity, on Social Media
When it comes to social media, engaging with existing and potential diners in a personal way is key to developing diner loyalty. A little patience also helps.
“While it may take some degree of management on behalf of your staff, building strong relationships on social yields trust over time,” says Scott Stratten of alternative marketing platform UnMarketing. “In turn, it motivates repeat dining. But it takes time.”
Stratten remembers an interaction with Hospitality Democracy restaurant group on Twitter, where the owner and he bonded through their love of heavy metal. Slowly but surely, Scott began to see news about the Milwaukee-based group’s restaurants seeping into his feed. “I got to know him so well that I literally wanted to fly [there] just to get one of his burgers,” says Scott. “It’s a long game. It’s a frequency thing. You have to be willing to invest the time, and things like social take time.”
Social media doesn’t always need to be focused around what’s on the menu tonight. Simply interacting with guests; thanking them for comments, photos, and shares; and finding other ways to relate will strengthen their connection to your brand.
4. Don’t Be Afraid of Promotions
Fact: everyone likes a free drink! Whether it’s offering guests a glass of bubbly the next time they come in for brunch or complimentary dessert on their birthday — which you now know and can market to them accordingly — small boons make any diner feel like a VIP.
There’s no single way to approach promotions, but Eric Railsback, Beverage Director at Mason Pacific in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, knows that when done appropriately, they are all in the spirit of hospitality. Alongside Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson, Railsback has overhauled the bar offerings at the restaurant in the wake of its March fire, focusing on simple bites and sourcing charcuterie, cheese, and oysters.
“We don’t want to gouge people or upsell people, though,” he says. “Let’s give them all this interesting stuff at a crazy value, so they come back tomorrow and next week and tell their friends. That’s how you have to look at hospitality these days if you want to be successful in the long run and build community around you.”
Try dollar oysters for happy hour or half-priced bottles of wine on a Tuesday, when business is slow. As evidenced by Railsback, who is no stranger to working with extremely well-branded restaurants, there’s always an on-brand solution.
Another hit in the promotional category is, of course, the gift card. Promote your gift cards on your website and in check presenters to help guests help you spread the word. Giving diners a way to treat a friend, family member, or business acquaintance at your restaurant creates an image of your restaurant as a natural destination for special occasions and in turn, special memories — and that’s a recipe for a repeat visit.
5. Diversify the Dining Opportunities
Whether it’s special events, classes, or a bar menu that offers snacks any time of day, giving your regulars a diversity of opportunities to experience your service will naturally increase frequency.
After a fire shuttered the restaurant for a number of months, Mason Pacific reopened with a new attitude toward their neighborhood and regular base. “It gave us a good opportunity to rebuild and redo everything we didn’t like before,” says Railsback. “By doing special things to draw people in—wine tastings and classes, special dinners, parties—it gives people an incentive to come for many different reasons, not just for dinner.”
Just as the all-day café is growing in popularity, “I like a restaurant that you can go to for many occasions: a nice business dinner, a super romantic date, a cheap beer, an expensive bottle of wine,” Railsback explains. “People want different things and after the crisis of ’08-’09, that’s how dining is shifting.”
One way to think about it is creating opportunities, or special events, that demonstrate to your neighborhood that you appreciate their business. In this way you can market directly to locals who are likely show up any night of the week or be your key business when a storm hits—naturally, these are most valuable relationships to foster.
6. Get Feedback & Act on It
While you may shudder at the thought of engaging with your reviewers, stay cool — being proactive and responding to diner commentary, and inviting them back in for a better experience next time (especially those who’ve left negative reviews), are smart ways to make loyal converts out of even the most curmudgeonly critics. It’s smart to harness that audience and begin to take control of the conversation where appropriate.
Similarly, feedback forms are an excellent tool for gathering info on what’s working and what’s not. What do guests love? You may find your diners to be a great source of inspiration. Ask for their thoughts, and follow up to let them know how much you valued their feedback and any changes you’re implementing because of it. The above-and-beyond treatment will make them feel like a VIP, and they will feel all the more invested in your restaurant’s success.
As Sheryl Heefner tells us about the Union Square Hospitality Group mentality, “We invert the relationship between restaurant and guest, so when celebrities come in we treat them like regular people, and when regular people come in we treat them like celebrities—but we treat our regulars like family.”