How to build a regular clientele

It’s no secret to a restaurant owner or entrepreneur that investing in the hospitality business is a major risk. In doing a quick research you will find the gruesome statistic saying that 60% of restaurants will fail in their first year of operation and that 80% will shut their doors before celebrating their 5th anniversary.


If those numbers are true or not I can’t confirm, but anyone in sales, business or marketing will tell you that the 80-20 rule (formally known as Pareto’s Principle) is a business reality.


The secret, therefore, to a long-standing restaurant (or most businesses really) is to build a regular clientele.


But, how do you build regulars?


While sales, advertising, and promotions will get people through the doors, there’s only one sure way to get them to come back, and come back and come back… and that is consistently high-quality hospitality.


What do I mean by that?


I mean serving good food and good drinks, in an appropriate amount of time, having a welcoming ambient, pleasant/courteous service and putting your customers first, time and time again, no matter how slow or busy you are. And that’s not necessarily easy.


Here are 5 basic principles for guaranteeing repeat business:


1.       Be true to your premise: whether you are a quick service coffee shop or a fine dining restaurant, make sure what you offer is aligned with your premise. If you’re a pizza place, for example, having an array of pizza flavors/toppings is a must. Having secondary offers that are related to your core experience is expected, like panzerottis, calzones or cheesy breadsticks. Serving sushi though might be an overreach.

Avoid having a 10-page menu, specialize in a few well-made items that will become your mark. “Perception is reality”, and the perception is that one can’t do everything well. Pick a core specialty, be really solid on it and branch out slightly in order not to miss opportunities, but never forget that you are a pizza place (or whatever you are).

On the other end of the specter, successful multi-cultural restaurants that serve several styles of food will, in turn, only make one or two dishes from those styles. In doing so they reinforce that they specialize in the reinterpretation of classics, therefore building their own style.


2.       Have a differential: it sounds difficult to think about something unique nowadays when it seems that everything has been tried and done before. But, what I really love about this industry is: every day someone does something new or in a new way.

It’s either what you do, the way you do it or even why you do it. Find out how to do something different than everybody else and build on it. McDonald’s has the Big Mac, Moxie’s has the white chocolate brownie, Boston Pizza has the pizza burger, you get the idea. Having something that makes people say “oh, let’s go have Starbucks!”.

It doesn’t have to be an entirely new thing either, it could be that your bartender makes the best Cosmopolitans in town. Or you have a beer + wings deal on Monday night when you play the NFL games for college students. Know your target demographic and adapt it for them.


3.       Train your staff: I feel that most complaints are made because service… Very often at Moxie’s we would go over the complaints, and the service would always be the “winner”. Not because our service was worse, but simply because anything that goes wrong can and will be associated with a service flaw, and many of them (even kitchen ones) can be avoided by an attentive server.

Ongoing training is essential for any restaurant to keep the team on their “best game”.

Where most restaurants make the mistake, especially new ones, is in training. Managers like to hire “experienced staff”, oftentimes forgetting that with their experience they will also have habits and pre-conceived ideas. Newbies can be a powerful addition to an experienced team.

Danny Meyer author of the best selling book Setting the Table and founder of a very successful group of restaurants writes that the best-spent dollars to improve efficiency are on training.

That means having them eat the food, seeing how items are cooked, understanding the process from ordering to cooking to serving. Knowledge is the key to successfully creating an experience for your customers. Never “cheap out” on training.

And remember that training is never over. It’s an ongoing, daily mission.


4.       Be consistent: is probably the most critical of all these tips. Consistency is what brings people back, because we are human and we like our certainties. When we know that a place has good food and good service every time we go there, then that place becomes a ritual.

And every time we have friends or family visiting we want to show off our favorite spots. When we want to celebrate an achievement or milestone, we go to places we have confidence are going to uphold their standards.

How often regulars come back has more to do with the market you’re in and how affordable you are, but the fact that your customers come back regularly is because they know you are consistent!


5.       Practice CRM (Customer Relationship Marketing): it’s not really a new thing, and definitely has evolved a lot for the hospitality industry over the years. There are many tools and apps on the market to help you with customizing every customer’s experience. But it’s also something that most with a career in hospitality will know how to do instinctively.

CRM means that you remember people. That when they come back you greet them by their name, you remember what they like to eat and the brand of beer they prefer.

Think of that small town dinner, everyone goes there not only because it’s the only place in town, but also because they are recognized. They are welcomed by their names, their favorite sitting spot is reserved, maybe their drinks are already being prepared as they walk in.

I realize that replicating that in a busy downtown location is near impossible, but a good manager and team will remember their regulars (most of them), and the more you show your deference to them the more they will reward you with business and referrals.

Another important part of CRM is saying “I’m sorry!”. Mistakes will be made, by a server, by a cook or even by the customers themselves. It’s important to understand that those situations are opportunities in disguise to connect with your customers and find out more about them. I’ve developed many regulars from tables that had issues.

Stepping out of your way to “fix” a difficult situation is the ultimate kind of customization.


If you are a server, having regulars ask for your section is a sure way of improving you tip average. Not to mention securing those “prime time” shifts.


If you are in a management role, the best way to ensure high levels of satisfaction is to be on the floor touching tables. Talk to your regulars and recognize them. A drink, appetizer or dessert “on the house” goes a long way. But more than giving out free stuff, a couple of minutes of your time to ask “how are you doing Dave?” is what will set you apart from the competition and keep your place busy.




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