When the Orange Table opened a few years ago in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona, all the raves centered on the fresh and local breakfasts they served. But then there’s the coffee. They send you home with a cup of it. No extra charge. Your waitress simply asks: “Do you want your coffee to go?” The owner, Emily Gaeth, thinks it’s a natural question to ask before a guest leaves the restaurant. But this simple gesture to offer something complementary has a side benefit—it brings customers back.
If you’re not taking advantage of what could be an affordable and easy way to attract business in a down economy, maybe it’s time to rethink that. Here are a few ideas to help you uncover what might make a good giveaway at your establishment:
Win their hearts
If your restaurant is family-friendly, consider making it even more so by offering something for the kids besides the “kids eat for free” deals. Hand the little ones a hunk of dough (if you’re a pizza establishment) or Silly Bandz like they do at Tumbleweed Restaurants, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. If you can help mom and dad entertain the kids, they’ll come back.
Make them wait
If your restaurant is the type that doesn’t do reservations, then by all means follow this guy’s lead: Bill Booth, who’s operated Pacific Café in Northern California since the mid-‘70s, hands his waiting dinner guests a glass of complementary wine. At Lou Mitchell’s, a Chicago landmark restaurant and bakery at the beginning of iconic Route 66, customers waiting for breakfast are greeted with a basket of donut holes.
Find your niche—or buy into it
Karen Murdock, who co-owns the Traveler Restaurant in Union, Connecticut, lucked into her niche when she and her husband Art bought the restaurant where she once worked as a waitress.
The restaurant gives away used books, up to three to each customer who walks in. She calculates they’ve distributed more than a million used books since they took over the restaurant 20 years ago. The books are donated or dropped off at the restaurant, or the Murdocks buy them at sales.
A large white sign outside announces, “Food and free books,” attracting road-weary travelers up and down the New England coast. And this tactic works perfectly: Murdock’s repeat business spans generations.
Follow a tradition
At Charly’s, the tavern-style restaurant housed in the historic Weatherford Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, you’ll find another treat—peaches and cream. It’s served in a bucket glass from the bar before every breakfast entrée arrives at the table.
General manager Matt Bial says it was the owner’s family tradition. “It’s like a breakfast appetizer,” he says, “and buys extra time in the kitchen on busy days.”
Unleash some creativity
Brian Metzger, owner of both Jax Kitchen and The Abbey in Tucson, Arizona, serves, respectively, an amuse bouche and truffle popcorn before every meal.“It’s a way for us to say ’hello,’” he says. “Receiving a little something sets the mood of fun, happiness, and the guest looks forward to an overall positive dining experience.”
This is so easy to do that Metzger encourages all restaurants to do it. It’s also an opportunity for the chef to be creative, he adds.“It’s a chance to have fun with flavors, and do something interesting. There are no rules. It's a simple way to offer a sparkling, shining bite that shows off the personality of your restaurant.”
But best of all, it creates repeat business, with customers excited to see what the chef has prepared that day, he says.
Package it well
Then there’s the more elegant way to present the complementary treat: Offer it wrapped as a post-dinner gift. That’s how the waiters thank their guests after a fine meal at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. They offer a home baked muffin or coffee cake, wrapped in cellophane, the restaurant’s logo sticker keeping it closed. The customer can take it home to enjoy the next morning.
“We call it the next course,” says the restaurant’s managing partner Kevin Mahan, “It’s meant to be a reminder of the dinner you had the night before.” If that’s the case, he says, then “it has to be good. It also has to fit the budget and the style of the restaurant. You don’t want to serve something that is incongruent to your brand.”