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Like the hidden handshake in a fraternity or the secret password for entry into a speakeasy, VIP elements in restaurant operations can create a memorable experience and build lasting loyalty.
From the so-called secret “animal style” menus at burger chain In-N-Out Burger and special seating at fine-dining chef’s tables to early glimpses of coming menu items, the VIP experience can give customers a sense of ownership.
“If you look at what’s successful now, that ‘special experience’ really is the differentiator,” said David McMillan, managing chef at the 100-seat upper-scale Screen Door restaurant in Dallas. “There is so much commonality in food; it’s really how positively you think of a place and how you get recognized and how you think of it as yours.”
“Secret” menu items abound. Arby’s has “wet fries” with cheese. Chili’s Grill & Bar has an off-the-menu Chili Trip burger, which has its signature chili on it. Dunkin’ Donuts will mix a Turbo Hot Coffee, with an added shot of espresso. Taco Bell can whip you up a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Wendy’s has a Grand Slam with four meat patties.
Special menus and offers don’t have to be expensive or costly, said Chase LeBlanc, author of “High Impact Hospitality.”
“Anything that creates a feeling of being an insider caters to a VIP feeling [or] experience,” LeBlanc said. “This, by the way, can be as simple as a warm personalized greeting, seating at a preferred table, having a dish with a custom preparation, an invitation to a closed party, a warm thanks/invite to return soon and even clean bathrooms.”
McMillan said Screen Door tapped into its Southern roots this month by offering a free taste-test of two in-the-works menu items to members of its Screen Door Society reward program on the first Monday of the month.
“There’s a lot of Southern DNA and Southern philosophy in what we do,” said McMillan. “You offer [loyal customers] things first, before you do to the general public. Or if you get a break on wine, you pass it along to them. Or if you get some product, such as prawns, in, you can send an e-mail and let them know first.
“Mondays are quiet, so we started a First Mondays program where we put together three items that we are working on, put them on a small menu, and we offer a choice of two to guests, on us. It’s a legitimate plate. It’s not a full-size entrée, but it’s not just a tasting, either.
“You don’t want to cheap out on it and harm any potential benefit,” McMillan said. “We do require reservations, so we know how many people we are dealing with.”
LeBlanc explained that “long before there was a ‘Tweetfaceoogle,’ word-of-mouth buzz was craved and created by restaurateurs who, by catering to celebrities, were able to raise their establishment’s and their own profile.”
He added that Las Vegas hospitality operations are a prime example of providing the VIP experience, especially for “high rollers, big whales.”
LeBlanc added that in a world where most everyone feels like they deserve VIP treatment, operators, including New York City’s Danny Meyer, have been adept at
using social-tracking databases.
This gives modern-day operators great advantage in providing experiences and “high-touch” hospitality that was a special talent in the “olden days.”
“It is possible for the operator to list likes, dislikes, birthdays, anniversaries, table
favorites, etc. that arise from each visit,” LeBlanc said, “and tailor a more custom experience for each guest.”
But even technology can’t replace a handshake and a smile.