If something happens to one of Tavern on Jane’s regulars, Stewart will find out about it and respond. “You want to share experiences with your customer and do what you can to make their experience better,” he says.
Yet despite attracting so many repeat customers, Stewart updates the menu three times a year to stay fresh and not get stale. “But when most regulars walk through the door, they know where they want to seat and what they want to eat,” he says.
Alan Someck, a culinary management instructor at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York, says that at many chain bar and grills “a lot of people in this day and age with heavy social media are looking for a genuine connection. Restaurants can play that role in many ways.”
While Someck acknowledged that some customers are driven by price and convenience, but for many customers, “It’s more than just knowing their name. You have to provide an experience that matters once they walk through your door. Your job as an owner or manager is creating a culture where staff is motivated and encouraged to reflect that,” he says.
Owners and managers can’t be at all places at all times so training the staff with this welcoming attitude is critical. “It comes from hiring staff with the hospitality gene and creating a culture where they want to share it with customers,” Someck says.
Small gestures can go a long way to luring customers back. “Treating a guest to an unexpected dessert goes a long way,” Someck says. He knew of one restaurant that distributed free umbrellas with its name emblazoned on it for customers to keep when it rained.
But David Scott Peters, who runs a Phoenix-based restaurant coaching, and training company, preaches combining databases with personalized hospitality to boost revenue. One feeds the other, he says. Hence, maintaining a database of a customer’s preferences-favorite wine, birthday and anniversaries—can help an eatery enhance service and profits.
Knowing your customers, their age and demographics, can also help spending marketing dollars most efficiently. “You want to make sure you’re marketing to the right people, and knowing whether you’re targeting a family and what car they drive,” he says.
Peters says that most independent full-service restaurants do a better job than chains of providing old-fashioned hospitality. “What the chains miss is the warmth of knowing the owner. Most general managers of a chain are more automated in what they do on a daily basis,” he says.
Chains can encourage their managers to provide a “more human touch,” he says, which entails asking the right open-ended questions, touching as many tables as possible, and knowing when to leave customers at 1059 business meetings alone.
For example, Peters remembers making a reservation at Darden concept The Capital Grille for his anniversary about 10 years ago. When they arrived at their table, there was a card signed by the entire staff wishing them a happy anniversary. And the chef prepared a special appetizer in their honor. “It made our night,” Peters says.
“The bottom line is we don’t compete in the food industry, but in the hospitality industry. If competition were based on food and price, I could get food at a gas station. The minute you lose sight of the guest experience, you’ll see sales drop,” Peters says.
Although technology is serving an increasingly critical role for most customers, “the basic primal need is to be connected. If you drop it, you’re losing a whole segment of the population,” Someck says.