If you want to see someone instantly light up, just ask them about their favorite restaurant or bar.
Some reply boisterously, while others get a twinkle in their eye and begin to speak in hushed tones, guarded about revealing names, fearful that their special place will be overrun by the masses. But despite these different attitudes, they’re united in the desire to find a place and stick to it.
Perhaps that’s a survival technique from the days of the Neanderthals, when if you found a warm cave, you stayed in that warm cave. We return to our cherished spots time and time again for many reasons: that special risotto you crave like clockwork every three weeks, the charm of a certain bartender, or that Negroni that no one else makes with the same depth of flavor.
Whatever it is that hooks us and makes us embrace certain establishments, it is no doubt hard to define, and many a restaurateur or bar owner has sat up late into the night trying to figure it out.
It couldn’t be more important. Ask any operators which guests they value most and without hesitating, they’ll say, “Our regulars.” They’re the ones who show up for all the special events in their lives, be it their son’s graduation or their 20th wedding anniversary. They’re also the ones who pop by after work on Tuesdays, sit in the same bar stool and order the same drink time and time again.
With competition tougher than ever and technology advancing, everyone in the hospitality industry is bending over backward to win guests over and sway them to return regularly.
This is particularly true in New York. According to the New York City Hospitality Alliance, there are more than 24,000 eating and drinking establishments in New York City. Being among one of the densest concentrations of businesses on the planet, those that are successful there can be tapped to share their secrets of success for anyone looking to crack the code of the “regular.”
I recently spoke with principals from three such successful concepts that play ball in the Big Apple: a speakeasy-style cocktail bar, a neighborhood wine bar featuring small plates, and a burger-driven gastropub. In an attempt to put lightning in a bottle, I wanted to know how they best capture, identify and sustain regular guests.
Winning over regulars starts on Day One. A restaurant opening will always grab attention, but focusing on the long game from the first day is crucial in enticing guests to return.
“Our regulars are our bread and butter,” said Carmelo Pecorao, general manager and beverage director of B&B Winepub in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. “Our goal when we first opened was to be the go-to place for our locals and neighbors. And now, we have such a loyal following four years later because of the importance that we put on creating that fan base.”
Meaghan Gorman, head bartender of Raines Law Room, about a mile away, describes it this way: “In a huge city with thousands of food and drink options, it’s important to build a base clientele that will stick with you even after the newness of opening wears off. Regulars stick by you despite the season, other bars opening and so on. They also bring traffic because they’re excited about bringing visiting friends and family to ‘their’ place.”
Inside the four walls of your operation, your fancy menu offerings will garner attention, as well as your exquisitely curated beverage program, but never underestimate the power of your staff. According to a 2014 survey by the National Restaurant Association, “87% of consumers say good service is a key attribute for choosing a restaurant.”
That requires putting extra attention on training your employees. They are the ones on the front lines of your operation who meet guests face to face, so it’s crucial that they’re not only aware of the importance of repeat guests, but that they’re taught how to foster those relationships.
“A part of training for new staff includes introducing them to our regulars,” said Mandy Oser, owner of Ardesia Wine Bar in the trendy Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. “We want to make sure they know the names of our regulars, as well as their preferences and habits. We want guests to feel like Ardesia is an extension of their living room, and part of that is creating an experience that is comfortable, easy and familiar. Our regulars give the place its character and vibe.”
Consistency is key
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For Gorman at Raines Law Room, it’s as simple as encouraging staff to simply “engage with people and learn their names and faces so they’re on top of recognizing repeat business,” she said. “It can be insulting to people that after several visits, they still get a generic greeting as if it’s their first time, and no one noticed how often they’ve visited and spent money in an establishment.”
Any savvy restaurateur or bar owner needs to set up a system for taking care of regulars that is clear to their staff, as well as easy on the bottom line.
“We often gift people with a small glass of cava or a house cocktail split up into sherry glasses as a way to welcome a regular or celebrate an important occasion,” Gorman said. “It’s affordable, but also responsible, as we are not adding high alcohol content to what the guests are already ordering.”
At B&B Winepub, Pecorao trains his staff to “introduce regulars to new menu items, cocktails or wine by sending them out a little something,” he said.
However freebies aren’t the key to gaining regulars, he said.
“Ultimately, the best way to get repeat business is by not giving away anything, but by providing consistent hospitality along with a consistent product. People return to places where they feel like they’re being taken care of and where they feel most comfortable.”
In today’s world of sophisticated guest reservation systems, many operators use technology to their advantage. Those systems allow operators to “add notes about regulars and track how many times they’ve visited,” Gorman said.
Notes can be made as to what styles of wine they prefer, or how they like their steaks cooked. But no matter how intricate the software, Gorman stressed that, “What works best is for the staff to be communicative. If I always see the same person on Mondays, but then they come by on a Friday, I introduce them to the staff they don’t know so the guest feels comfortable coming any day of the week. This way, they are building relationships with the whole staff.”
“We keep notes on all our regulars, but having a constant person, a familiar face, who runs the door at lunch or dinner is important because they’re the first contact to greet a guest or regular,” he said.
Cultivating and identifying regular guests is not only important for your business, but it also serves as a jolt of feel-good energy for your staff.
“It can have a positive impact for them to see a friendly face during service,” Gorman said. “Having regulars benefits the staff on an emotional level because we have formed relationships with people that value our work.”
Pecoraro sums it up this way: “Most of all, it’s making people feel comfortable. The way to do that is by hiring the right staff — staff that is comfortable with themselves who in turn can make our guests feel welcome.”