From independents to chains, you can't let technology and convenience take away from the experience.

In many businesses—perhaps best exemplified by Amazon—artificial intelligence and data analytics are driving the way to capture audience and boost revenue. And while these technological tools have their place in restaurants, some owners contend that old-fashioned customer service, getting to know your clientele and making them feel special, counteract the increased competition from prepared meals and at-home delivery services.

But an industry analyst, whose company doesn’t allow him to grant interviews, devalued the role of getting to know your customers as a way for full-service eateries to bounce back from industry doldrums. Most customers these days, particularly millennials, want speed and convenience, right? Some independent bar and grills, as well as restaurants chains are finding the opposite to be true.

Tony Caballero, vice president of operations at Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, which has 17 locations (12 in Louisiana and five in Texas and has agreements in place for a whopping 105 new franchises in the next five years), describes the atmosphere it’s striving to create at each of its eateries as “the Cheers effect.” He expects every manager to know “everyone who comes in the door, whether it’s a 4-year-old or 80-year-old customer.” Just like Norm and his crew on the old sitcom “Cheers.”

Of course, Walk-On’s must thrive in several areas to achieve this. “We’re known for our innovative menu, a taste of Louisiana, hand-crafted cocktails and game-day atmosphere,” Caballero 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.” — David Scott Peters, restaurant consultant

Managers are trained to walk around, greet customers, introduce themselves, and hand over their business card with their personal number. If the customer is unknown, the manager asks if it’s their first time here and whether they’re having a good time. If they have children, the manager suggests a visit to the game room and may give them $1 to play a game or send them a free dessert. It’s all about forming relationships.

People who dine out “want to be treated like family,” Caballero says. In fact, he estimates that about 85 percent of Walk-On’s business derives from repeat guests.

To learn how to develop Walk-On’s culture, franchisees take a nine-week training course to build the right skills. “What’s most important is securing this culture,” Caballero says.

When Michael Stewart opened Tavern on Jane 22 years ago, his 70-seat restaurant and bar in New York’s West Village, his goal was to create a community meeting place. “We wanted to create a restaurant where people could come and see each other and get to know their neighbors,” he says. About 70 percent of its clientele are repeat customers, Stewart adds, despite the neighborhood attracting a slew of tourists.

As owner, Stewart sets the tone. “It’s all about knowing someone’s name. If you don’t know their name, you know their favorite drink,” he says.

At Walk-On’s, managers are trained to walk around, greet customers, introduce themselves, and hand over their business card with their personal number.

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.

Feature, Labor & Employees, Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar