Success in the restaurant business depends heavily on repeat customers. But just how often do guests return—and what can you do to make sure they do?
A recent study conducted by Thanx, a service that tracks and rewards consumer purchase activity, found that the top 25 percent of its clients’ customers contributed 64 percent of their revenue. However, the most alarming finding: 70 percent of previously loyal customers are "at-risk" and unlikely to return.
The two figures underscore the importance of building and retaining loyal customers. Restaurateurs today are moving beyond the basics of loyalty—strategies have evolved from the likes of “buy 6 get 1 free” to a more comprehensive program that shows guests you care through various points of the journey.
Three restaurant operators with successful loyalty strategies offered insight into what works for them:
Restaurant Hospitality: How much focus do you put on getting customers to return?
Tim McEnery, c.e.o. and founder of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants (18 locations): Repeat business is everything. We strive to create the best experience: top-notch service and high-quality food and wine.
Jim Howard, marketing head at Patxi's Pizza (14 locations in CA, WA, CO): Getting a first-time guest to return is vital. Our goal is to make every guest a loyal guest.
Nick Ronan, executive chef and co-owner of Bisou Bistronomy and Beso (San Francisco):
This is something we strive to achieve as soon as guests enter the door. Many times you’ll find myself or my business partner near the front door, welcoming those walking by or answering phones and taking reservations. We often say, “We don’t sell cars, we provide a welcoming environment for good food.” So we treat everyone who enters our restaurants as a guest and not as a customer.
RH: What are some tips to ensure a guest will return?
McEnery: We spend very little money on marketing and advertising. We have a very large and loyal Wine Club database (over 120,000 people). When our wine club members come to pick up their wines every month, the majority decide to stay for lunch or dinner. Also, while we have standard service procedures, we encourage our team members to create an authentic connection with each guest, letting their personality shine through. Many guests are regular customers not only because of our food/wine and consistent service but because of the relationship they’ve built with our team members.
Howard: We always seek ways to engage directly with our customers, including a real-time mobile loyalty program and customer feedback center. We use our loyalty program to deliver instant and automatic push notifications about their rewards and special offers. Immediately following a purchase, randomly selected customers receive a prompt to rate their experience (how likely to recommend to a friend) from 1-10. We can target specific customer segments and send them offers to come in at the locations and times we want.
We respond to every piece of feedback that comes in. We’ve learned that we see between a two- to three-times increase in frequency after the response. The guests appreciate that we listened to them.
Ronan: We always try to get to know our guests on a personal level and emphasize to everyone on our staff the importance of remembering our guests’ names. Their first visit is the chance for us to learn from them and about them; the second visit is the chance for them to hear our story and is a better time to bond and create a more personal relationship.
We also keep our focus on serving the locals and the neighborhood more so than the masses or San Francisco tourists. In the long run, this has turned guests into longtime friends who continually dine with us over the years.
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RH: Have you implemented any unique strategies to boost return visits?
McEnery: We offer special discounts for our Wine Club Members (frequent dining points, carryout and catering discounts), which incentivize them to visit our restaurant. We also use Open Table to track customer visits, preferences, etc.
Howard: We implemented Thanx, a mobile-based loyalty program that is super easy for our guests to use. There are no check-ins, no punch cards, no stuffed wallets and no added steps at checkout—customers pay as usual to receive rewards.
Ronan: We make it a point to personally touch each table at some point throughout the meal. Not to check in and make sure everything tastes okay, but to actually talk to our guests on a personal level and get to know them. Between our two restaurants, we serve French and Spanish cuisine; many of our guests have traveled to these regions and like to share their personal experiences. This is the type of information we like to connect with them over. It’s very important for to actively engage and genuinely listen to your guests.
We also like to create a culinary atmosphere that is continually developing and is always offering something new. We’ll take input and suggestions from diners and actually implement them onto our menus.
RH: How can technology aid in this process?
Howard: Technology lets us find guests who have forgotten about us and remind them that they love our food. We use Thanx to create a “Winback” program that targets customers whose visits are slowing, and aims to get them back in the door. We reengage customers who have signed up to our loyalty program but haven’t visited us in 131 days. The overwhelming majority of those guests have come back two or three more times.
Ronan: In the world of technology, you have to adapt with it. It serves as an important vehicle for exposure and for bringing new guests into the restaurant, but it only goes so far and that’s why we also find the face-to-face interaction so important. We are active on social media, personally and from a business standpoint, to share photos that entice guests into the restaurants, and to network among our community. We also use OpenTable and were excited to be one of the first 20 restaurants to implement a new application that allows guests to pay for their meal in advance when making the reservation.