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My first kitchen job was at my local pub in the Sussex countryside of southern England. Think oak beams, huge open fireplace, cast iron horseshoes on the walls. We did Sunday roast dinners, pints of ale and drunken lock-ins on Friday nights after the local band packed up – the works.
I started as a kitchen porter while doing my culinary training, but ended up working at the bar some nights. Working behind the bar was 90% talking to the regulars, who would sit there night after night sipping on pints of their favorite ale.
Some of them liked an inch of head on their beer. Some of them would mutter four-letter words audibly if more than a quarter-inch was poured. They knew what they liked, and they liked what they knew.
This always struck me as odd. At that point, when I went into a bar, I would order the guest beer with the most colorful label. If I went out for dinner, I always wanted to try the new place, even though I liked the old place.
Why would these guys come to the same pub, sit in the same seat, have the same conversation with the same bartender, sipping on the same beer, in the same glass, poured just so?
The thing is, nowadays I find myself going to the same local restaurant and drinking at the same bar where the guy knows my name.
I get what it means to become a restaurant regular now.
This is the nut every restaurant wants to crack. Returning customers are the lifeblood of any successful restaurant – whether you’re a neighborhood joint with locals propping up the bar or a fine-dining restaurant with high-spending celebrity patrons.
These stats tell us looking after your regulars is vital:
But what keeps them coming back again and again? Apart from the obvious -- consistency of food quality, flavor, service, etc. -- is there something deeper? Is there some inherent human psychology at play?
Read on for actionable tips to help your restaurant attract more regulars. And not just any regulars, but the right regulars – brand evangelists who consistently spend well and spread the word.
There are, of course, different types of regulars. There are everyday regulars. They tend to value routine. Same spot, same drink, same dish exactly how they like it.
We used to do a special full English breakfast for a regular in the pub. He hated egg whites but loved fried eggs. So we fried the eggs as normal and then cut the white off for him and served him a fried egg yolk. He would come in and have it most days.
Then there are people who will come for special occasions. They don’t come in as often, maybe just for a birthday or anniversary, but they will spend more and bring friends. These regulars associate your restaurant with some of their happiest memories.
Whether it’s every day or once a year, everyone likes a bit of special treatment. Even if it’s just remembering their name, or saving their favorite corner table, a regular is a regular because they want personalized service.
For me, the answer lies in community, routine and personalization. Three things we all crave, even if secretly. People want to go somewhere safe and comforting where they are made to feel special.
A great restaurant should be a reflection of its neighborhood. But it should be more than this. It should be a fixture of the community and a contributing factor to its charm.
It should be somewhere you go to feel part of the place where you live, work or hang out. A home away from home. Somewhere you can escape to where they know your name. You can be part of the community or disappear into the furniture.
The best neighborhood restaurants look after their regulars, but not too much. They treat you like family but sometimes families argue and fight. Sometimes it’s time to go home and you just have to go. But sometimes you can stay and have a drink with the staff after hours.
There’s comfort in doing the same thing every day. Wearing the same clothes, drinking the same beer, eating the same dish. There are enough decisions to be made every minute of every day without worrying about these details too.
Something happens in the human brain when these tiny decisions are removed. Habits form and they stick. People like the familiarity this breeds.
Even the sounds are familiar. The faint calls from the kitchen, the clinking of glasses at the bar. It smells the same, the food tastes the same, every time. The routine element should not be ignored and requires a high level of consistency from the staff.
Regulars want to feel special.
It’s a relief to know you can walk into a restaurant, sit at your table and not have to look at the menu. Not even have to call over a waiter. They already know what you want and they’re bringing it to you.
If you want to talk, the waiter will ask how your day was. If you don’t, they won’t.
In a world where we increasingly communicate digitally, often without ever having met a person face-to-face, there’s a comfort to be found in personal interactions.
So what can we learn from the psychology of the regular?
Regulars want to be treated like family. They want a personalized experience which makes them feel comfortable, safe and part of a community. This is never easy to achieve. It takes dedication and passion from the staff, day in, day out.
For small neighborhood joints, it comes naturally. The staff remember regulars and get to know them. They automatically treat them in a way that keeps them coming back.
But what happens when you’re a restaurant group or a large venue with different people working on the floor each day?
SevenRooms offers an ingenious reservation and seating solution that I saw in practice myself. I worked recently at a fast-growing restaurant group in Hong Kong where vital importance is placed on keeping guest profiles and tags updated. These are discussed in meetings daily, and lessons are taken from them.
The reservations team are on the door with their iPads, ready to greet and seat everyone who enters. The guest profiles are used to welcome guests by name, offer their favorite drink and remember any allergies – without having to ask. Anything to make the guest feel looked-after.
SevenRooms allows this approach to be scaled to all the group's restaurants, so no matter which venue a guest arrives at, the same level of personal service is offered.
This extends to the marketing team. We would send out personalized emails offering a free meal around customers’ birthdays. SevenRooms allows easy segmentation by regulars, high-spenders, first-time diners, and many more data points. Targeting by segments massively improves open and click-through rates.
The entire staff, whether on the floor or in the back office, was able to search and update customer records to provide the experience of dining at a local neighborhood joint across all the venues. With the group expanding further and even internationally, SevenRooms allows this approach to scale as far as it needs to, ensuring the levels of service don’t drop as the group grows.
Here are my tips to build a loyal following and keep them coming back for more:
Get to know who lives in your neighborhood and make them comfortable. Get involved in events and causes close to the local population’s hearts. Value your regulars, they are the lifeblood of your restaurant.
Get to know their likes, dislikes, favorite seat, dish, and drink. Do they like a casual chat, or to be left in silence? Offer them freebies from time to time as a thank you for their loyalty. Don’t be too cloying though, sometimes people like a bit of tough love. You have to gauge what the individual wants.
This should go without saying. Regulars who love their routine rely upon the restaurant’s ability to deliver the same quality every single time. Just one bad experience could be enough to destroy years of good work. This is especially true of your most loyal regulars who will notice the slightest imperfections.
SevenRooms enables restaurants to deliver the feel of a neighborhood spot at scale. Keep guest data up to date and accurate to empower your entire team to deliver a personal experience across many venues.
If you think your restaurant could benefit from the tips discussed, take a look at how SevenRooms can improve guest retention for your restaurant today.