New diners, new opportunities: how restaurants turn first-timers into VIPs

In 2019 a whopping 70% of OpenTable reservations came from diners booking a restaurant for the first time. Given that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, we reached out to restaurant owners and managers to learn more about their approach to serving new guests. While it starts with the reservation, that’s really just the beginning. The way the restaurant uses information, trains staff, shares data with servers, records preferences and experiences, and ultimately serves diners are all crucial to turning first-timers into regulars and VIPs.

New or Not?

While you may be able to tell if a diner is new to a restaurant from a reservation, it’s also possible that you won’t know. One person may be reserving for a group, so even if the person reserving isn’t new to a restaurant, someone else in the party could be. 

Of course, the easiest way to find out if they are new to the restaurant is to ask. But should you ask? 

At Saffron Nola, a James Beard-nominated Indian restaurant with Cajun influences in New Orleans, general manager Taylor Adams says yes. 

“We like to ask guests whether it is their first time with us,” he explains. “If we don’t recognize the patron as a regular, we look at a guest’s booking history with the restaurant. Of course, they may have visited before under a different account or with friends, but there is a distinct chance that an account booked via OpenTable with no previous record is a new guest, and many also choose to note that it is their first time under booking notes.” 

Likewise, at Ocean Prime restaurants, Director of Training Tricia Finke shares that servers are given a preview of what is printed from OpenTable when guests are seated. Managers also encourage service staff to ask if guests have dined with at the restaurant before. 

“When making reservations, we train our guest services team to make sure we are getting our guest’s name, accurate phone number, and email address so we are able to identify if they have dined with us before,” she says. 

Jerry Tabije, the general manager at Trailblazer Tavern in San Francisco, says he spends much of his day identifying first-time diners and VIPs. Being able to see who’s been and how often they’ve been in is a big advantage. 

Nearby at Perbacco, owner Umberto Gibin says that while it isn’t a general practice for servers to ask if diners are new, some servers do. It also depends somewhat on when they are dining. “At lunch we have a lot of repeat guests; at dinner we have travelers and locals. With everyone, we listen to what they say.”

Service & Training

It comes as no surprise that it’s important to treat all guests well, regardless of whether it’s their first visit to the restaurant or not. But should they be treated differently if they are new? 

According to Finke, no. “We treat new guests and returning guests very similarly because we believe every guest is a VIP. We train our associates to get to know our guests by genuinely interacting and understanding their wants and needs. It starts with their water preference, to the way they enjoy their steak and continues until we learn their favorite after dinner drink or dessert.” 

At Saffron, Adams says they train staff to read guests’ energy and gauge whether or not a guest would like pointers to navigating the unique menu and experience. “In our pre-shift meetings, we discuss specific guests for the night, emphasizing any notes regarding dietary restrictions, preferences, or special occasions,” he says. 

A high-touch experience is something Gibin strives for, too. He adds, “If the server sees the guest is hesitant or doesn’t understand the menu, if they are less sophisticated, a little extra care goes a long way.”

“I talk with my team before shifts to highlight what we can do,” says Tabije. “It doesn’t mean you have give away the house, but people are looking for the experience. Putting them at a table where you know they’ll have a good time, we curate the experience—if they order a couple of appetizers and they are vegetarian, we might send out an amuse to try out that’s also vegetarian.” 

Preferences & Data

Just as sharing preferences is important, all managers stressed that capturing data during service is also key. At the beginning of Trailblazer Tavern’s service, managers pass out chits with information about the guests, including preferences and how often they’ve visited. Servers keep the chits and add to them, and when the guest checks out, servers share them with the shift manager. 

Likewise, Gibin says that servers get a ticket for every guest who has reserved with a special message (usually a special occasion or celebration, and they collect any information relevant to the service), table preference, seating preferences (banquettes versus chairs), service animals, food preferences, or even a favorite wine or server. 

How much information should you include? For frequent diners, says Gibin, “Some records look like War and Peace!” 

“Creating future guests is the goal,” Tabije adds. “But I acknowledge every review on every platform whether we agree or not. Have an open mind, put your pride aside, and fight for every guest.” 

At every shift, Tabije and his team analyze good and bad reviews to talk about the opportunity they have to create a great experience. 

Adams is a fan of data as well. “We encourage servers to make note of things like dietary restrictions, favorite drinks, or seating preferences,” he says. “However, the main data is captured through genuine connection with guests. For us, hospitality is all about that personal connection that you can’t capture in data analytics.”

Best Practices for Welcoming First-Time Diners

  • At the beginning of every shift, talk with your team about a good review and a not-so-good one to discuss the opportunity ahead. 
  • Engage and create relationships with any new (or returning!) guests while they are in the restaurant. 
  • Personal touch is key. The relationships you make with guests during service is what turns a happy guest into a regular. 
  • Mistakes happen, but you’ll win guests over if the recovery is genuine. That can mean an apology, bringing something extra out from the kitchen, or comping a whole bill. 
  • Positive feedback is like gold, but acknowledge every review on every platform, whether you agree with the feedback or not. 
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