What savvy restaurants are doing to create a great guest experience

It used to be that providing great food and great service was enough to keep diners coming back. But today, two factors combine to make it more challenging to hang onto guests: Consumers have more restaurant choices than ever, and the sagging economy means people are much choosier about where they dine.

"The competition is getting tougher, and I think the guest's experience has to be off the charts," says Crawford Ker, CEO of Ker's WingHouse, a sports bar-style restaurant with 20 locations in Florida. "You have to really wow the guests because a lot of times, in a tough economy, customers trade down." They opt for less-expensive categories of restaurants.

Smart restaurant owners and managers are upping the ante when it comes to guest service —going beyond the expected to impress their guests and turn them into repeat customers. Here's how.

Surprise, Surprise

Small, unexpected gifts—for birthdays and anniversaries, to say thanks to regular guests, or even to surprise diners who sit at a less-than-the-best table  go a long way toward delighting guests and creating a memorable experience.

At Truxton's American Bistro in Los Angeles, a single less-desirable table near the kitchen is designated the Monkey Bread Table, and any party that sits there receives a complimentary order of the restaurant’s signature Monkey Bread appetizer. The restaurant doesn't advertise it, but there's a small plaque on the wall next to the table, so it's been a word-of-mouth initiative that's getting around mostly via social media. Now guests are actually requesting the Monkey Bread table, with no requests to be moved, meaning that even guests sitting at a less desirable table are having a great experience.

For employees at Alobar in New York City, a neighborhood restaurant that focuses on seasonal, locally farmed ingredients, surprises come regularly. "I may say 'let's VIP that table,' and that means they are getting the extra treatment," says owner Jeff Blath. "We'll send them an appetizer or a round of drinks. It's not because they're friends with the owner, but because they live or work in the neighborhood, or it's a special occasion, or they're just really nice people, or it's their first time at Alobar and they 'heard great things.'" Any of the servers can tell Blath they want to VIP someone for any reason, and guests are pleasantly surprised by the treat.

Make a connection

According to David Scott Peters, founder of TheRestaurantExpert.com, a consultancy for independent restaurant owners, you won't create a memorable dining experience by serving a succulent piece of salmon or the perfect steak, but by letting guests connect with one another. A lot of this boils down to the old saw, "The best service goes unnoticed."

"You want to anticipate diners' needs so they won't have to break their engagement with their guests to look around and say, 'Oh, I’m thirsty. I hope somebody brings me a soda,'" Peters says.

Matthew Greenberg understands this well. He is the former maitre’d-manager at the Santa Monica, California, 2-star Michelin restaurant Melisse, which was awarded "Best Service" by Zagat under his tutelage, and he is the current general manager for the soon-to-open FEED Body + Soul in Venice, California. "I think anticipating your guests' needs is the difference between good service and great service," he says.

"Subtle ways to anticipate guests' needs are basically common sense," Greenberg adds. For example, if guests come into FEED and are looking around and talking about the aesthetics, they're clearly not in a rush. On the other hand, if a man in a suit sits down at 12:30 and can’t take his eyes off his phone, he probably wants a quick lunch, and the server should get his order in and be ready to drop a check immediately. "Once a guest becomes a regular and you know their nuances, nothing impresses them more than having that certain thing already done or made upon arrival," he says.

Meeting cards

A skilled server is key to creating a positive guest experience, and often guests connect with their server and would like to request him when they come back.

Servers and bartenders at Okeechobee Steak House in West Palm Beach, Florida, have an easy way to strengthen that connection and make it more likely the guests will return: They hand their guests business cards with their names and the email address and phone number of the restaurant.

"It shocks them a little bit. They're in awe," says Christina Wishart, who was a server at the restaurant for 18 years and is now in management training. "I don't think there are a lot of restaurants that have business cards. Guests are impressed."

Servers and bartenders are encouraged to offer their cards outside the restaurant and to write special offers on the backs of the cards. "If we're out at a bar or a restaurant on our day off, and we meet someone and tell the person where we work, we can say, 'Come and see me and I’ll buy you an appetizer,' or 'I’ll buy you dessert,'" Wishart says. This draws in new customers and starts them off with the wonderful experience of enjoying a free appetizer or dessert in a restaurant they haven't been to before.

Show us your mug

Many restaurants take advantage of loyalty programs to keep guests coming back—such as loyalty cards that give the holder discounts and special offers. Some restaurants take the concept a step further. The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille, a 33-unit casual-dining restaurant/sports bar chain based in Edgewater, Maryland, has a Mug Club. "You buy the mug and it’s yours for life, and you get discounts on drinks," says director of training Jennifer Davis. The twist is, the mug never leaves the restaurant— it hangs at the bar, and each guest has a number written on the bottom of the mug so she can say, "I'm mug 234, and I'd like a Bud Select."

Many of The Greene Turtle's older locations are sold out of the mugs, so they're hot commodities at the new locations. Guests enjoy talking about being part of the "Turtle Mug Club," and the fact that they have the mug for life, with their own number on it, makes them feel part of the restaurant's culture.

Off-menu service

"No substitutions" is a mainstay on a number of restaurant menus, and some chefs are thrown into a tizzy when a guest requests a dish that's not on the regular rotation. But on the other end of the spectrum, some restaurants are boosting the guest experience by creating off-menu meals for their guests— even if the chef has to look up a recipe or buy special ingredients.

At the Troy, Michigan, location of Ocean Prime, a steakhouse-seafood restaurant with 11 locations across the U.S., chef Matt Strabbing has been asked to make all kinds of items that don't appear on the menu—like eggs Benedict, Monte Cristo sandwiches, and sriracha chicken pasta. "If we have the knowledge and the ingredients, we'll definitely make it," Strabbing says.

And if he doesn't have the knowledge or the ingredients? He'll make it work. For example, one guest asked for baked Alaska, a dessert that takes about two hours to make—and Strabbing made it happen. Another came into the restaurant and asked for "zip sauce," which Strabbing had never heard of. He looked it up and discovered it's a soy-butter sauce for steak, so he whipped some up— and now guests regularly order it.

"I think that’s what separates us from every person on our block," Strabbing says. "I look out our front door and I’m looking at a Capital Grille. I could drive down the street to a Ruth’s Chris, a Morton’s. All these places are within five minutes of me, and we have very similar things. What separates you is your hospitality and your attention to detail, because if everybody’s starting with the same stuff, it makes it that much harder to be better than them."

Blath at Alobar came to the same conclusion. When parents visiting his restaurant told him there aren't many places that are baby-friendly, he came up with the idea of making baby food and sending it for free to any parent who asks. He says, "I love coming up with ideas like that, something that we can do easily to make them guests, that embrace of hospitality."

Table touches

Diners at upscale restaurants are used to the manager coming around to greet them and ask how their visit is going. But any restaurant can use this technique to improve the guest experience.

For example, Ker's WingHouse is decidedly not upscale, yet the managers make it a point to "touch" each table. "That has to happen even at casual dining," says owner Crawford Ker. "Sometimes, because of inflation and commodity costs, a lot of management is really trying to make their numbers—so the customer becomes less important instead of more important." By visiting each table, the manager shows guests that they're more than a check—and comes to understand that herself.

David Scott Peters agrees with the idea of table visits from management, but he takes issue with the way they're usually done. "This is one of my pet peeves: 'Is everything OK?'" he says. "I don't know any restaurant in the world that whole-heartedly strives for being 'OK.' "

When asked if everything is OK, most guests will automatically say "Yes," even if everything isn't OK. Instead, Peters recommends asking leading questions to find out the real deal, like, "Was your burger cooked to the right temperature?" "Isn’t that feature fantastic?" or "Was everything cooked to your liking?"

"These questions that show that you care and you'll get a real response," Peters says. Customers want to be heard, and asking specific questions about them and their meals makes that happen. If there's a problem, you'll find out and can fix it right away, and if everything is excellent, you've solidified that in the guest's mind by asking him or her to talk about it.

Home sweet home

Just about everyone interviewed stressed the importance of making the guest feel like—well, a guest in your home. Peters warns against taking this too literally—"You want a drink? You know where the fridge is"— but in general, this is key to creating an experience that will make the guest want to come back. "When it's done right, it's like an embrace," Blath says. "It starts with the decor and the greeting at the door, and it continues to the servers and the food, with that feeling for the guest that they are being taken care of."

For some restaurants, like Alobar, it's all about getting to know the guests and learning about their families, their jobs, and their likes and dislikes. And at The Greene Turtle, it's about acknowledging the guests throughout the restaurant. Its "5-foot rule" states that employees must acknowledge any guest within 5 feet, whether it be through a smile, a greeting, holding the door, asking if they're looking for the restroom, or saying goodbye.

As with all of the techniques we learned from the restaurant owners, managers, consultants, and servers in this article, Davis says, "It's all about trying to meet and exceed customer expectations."

Ten Ways to Create a Great Customer Experience

1. Set up a loyalty program to reward returning guests; loyalty cards are nice, but take a tip from The Greene Turtle's Mug Club and try a new twist on an old idea.

2. Read the book Secret Service: Hidden Systems That Deliver Unforgettable Customer Service by John DiJulius, recommends David Scott Peters. Its main point? Great service makes price irrelevant.

3. Learn good timing, stresses Crawford Ker of Ker's WingHouse. If it's lunchtime, guests probably want snappy service. They're watching the game? Don't rush them out the door.

4. Make the meal more pleasant for sports lovers, parents, and solo diners with in-booth TVs — a tech trick The Greene Turtle has had success with.

5. Ask employees to acknowledge all guests within 5 feet—even a smile will suffice.

6. Train employees frequently: Both Crawford Ker and Jennifer Davis make sure employees are up to speed on proper serving techniques and other key points that affect the guest experience.

7. Occasionally surprise guests with a comped appetizer, drink, or dessert. Need an excuse? How about "This is a regular customer"; "It's their birthday/anniversary"; "It's their first time in the restaurant and they say they love it"; "They were super understanding of a gaffe on our part."

8. Create business cards for your servers and bartenders, and encourage them to hand the cards out to guests and people they meet outside the restaurant.

9. Consider going from "No substitutions" to "Sure, we can make that!"

10. Have your managers visit each table and ask leading questions about the guests’ experience; ask the guests if the food was cooked well, if the service was speedy enough, or what they thought of their risotto.

Feature, Labor & Employees, Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille, Ker's WingHouse, Morton's, Ruth Chris