One of the most difficult tasks to accomplish in the restaurant business is attracting new customers. The process takes time, imagination, consistent effort, money, and follow-through. This investment should (must) result in more than a single or occasional visit to the restaurant. The process should be an investment in relationship building – a relationship that continues to provide payback for years to come. It is return business and business ambassadorship that is most significant to the restaurateur. Customers walk through your door with high expectations; after all, you invested in all that effort to pitch how you are special; the results should match the pitch.
Part of the challenge is how we approach our objectives and how we deliver on the promise. If the objective is to “sell a dinner” tonight, then the cost of time, effort, and money will be endless; each day starting over to try and reach the same goal. The goal should be to create client relationships. Customers come and go and can choose from a multitude of other options; clients have no need or desire to shop elsewhere – there is a bond, a strong relationship built on great experiences, and trust. What restaurants should focus on is a “member type” relationship. Help the client (guest) become part of your restaurant.
How can we create member relationships? Show them RESPECT.
 RECOGNIZE & REMEMBER
The real value of technology is to serve as a tool for understanding and recalling important information about guest clients. Favorite foods and wines, special occasions, family member life events, preferred table and server, etc. All this important information helps the restaurant remember the guest and show the “member” how much they are valued. Know your guests, welcome them when they arrive, and stay in tune with those details that allow them to feel cared for and appreciated.
 EDUCATE & INVOLVE
Knowledge is power, and those who help another person understand and appreciate a product, source, process, or outcome are integral parts of a forever relationship. What can your guest take away from the experience of dining? What reminder will they embrace that says: “This relationship is important”? Offer opportunities to learn more about food and beverage. In a fine dining restaurant, the sommelier or bartender in a full-service operation should not be a representative of pomp and circumstance but rather a teacher who can help to enhance a guest’s knowledge of wine and vintner, terroir and blending process used; distilled beverages, and craft beers, and the nuances in process and flavor that make a preferred brand unique. A great server should know enough about the menu and process of cooking to be able to engage in conversation about the nuances of flavor on the plate.
When developing a new menu or adding wines to your list, invite treasured guest clients to be part of the process. Offer “menu planning tasting events” that involve guests. Explain the ingredients and the process and engage them in critiquing flavors and presentations.
Teach your staff, and they will, in turn, teach your guest. Teach and engage your guests, and they will become ambassadors of “their restaurant” for life – a powerful relationship.
Share and teach your staff to be great at their jobs. Share information about your top twenty guests who dine frequently, talk positively about the restaurant, and bring along new diners as a result. Share information about farmers and ranchers, fishermen and cheese makers, brewers and winemakers, and how items taste, smell, feel, and pair with other offerings on your menu. The more they know, the better they are able to serve those guests who feel like members.
 PREPARE TO BE FLEXIBLE
There is an age-old adage: “If it isn’t broke, leave it alone.” In a world with fierce competition, with guests looking for consistency but relishing an occasional surprise, it is important to remain on your toes and be willing to: “If it isn’t broke, BREAK IT.” Be observant, be cautious, but also be willing to shake things up on occasion. Be flexible enough to CHANGE because it makes sense or because environmental factors demand it.
 EXCITE & CREATE UNIQUE EXPERIENCES
Know your client guests and be willing to customize to feed the relationship you have built. If a guest has a particular menu item they love, then whenever it is available send a personal invitation. “Mr. Monroe – we wanted you to know that soft shell crabs are coming in on Wednesday and the chef would be happy to set aside a few for you. Call us for a reservation at your favorite table. The entire staff looks forward to seeing you again.” This simple act is part of that special “membership feel” that sets the stage for guest loyalty. Why would they want to go anywhere else? “What other restaurant staff goes out of their way to treat me in this special manner?”
Create unique reasons for client guests to return to your dining room. There are ample opportunities for celebration throughout the year. Great restaurants need not wait for the traditional holidays to stand out and build excitement. Wine pairing dinners, craft beer events, celebrate the release of Beaujolais Nouveau in the fall, toast the anniversary of the restaurant opening, the chef’s birthday reception, summer solstice bar-b-que, meet the source – fall farmer’s harvest dinner with local farmers in attendance, the list goes on and on.
Send a personal invitation to your client guests with a preference for early reservations. Offer “member” discounts based on the number of events they attend. Have your special menu printed on a set plate souvenir creating an attractive reminder of this member relationship. Or, at the very least, a high-quality printed menu autographed by the chef with included recipes from the night’s dishes.
Newspaper ads, Facebook postings, websites, and radio are all essential ways to inform your guests, but they are not very personal. Those ads are a shotgun approach hoping to hit some targets as a result. Membership is personal and requires a different type and level of communication. Newsletters, personalized emails, and personal note cards for upcoming birthdays, it all builds into a lasting relationship that members respond to.
Go beyond the typical “this is what we are offering” communication. Talk about your employees, the farmers who grow your vegetables, the new wines coming to your list, and something about the vineyards where they are grown. Send out short surveys and solicit their ideas, mention the vision and mission of the restaurant – what your goals are for the future – talk with them as you would a friend.
 TRUST THEIR INPUT
Client guests will only remain engaged if they feel their involvement is real. Ask for their feedback as mentioned in this article, but then make sure you respond and, when feasible – use their thoughts to make improvements. Celebrate their input and reward it with something that makes sense: member discount, a bottle of wine, give them a chef coat and let them shadow the kitchen for an hour to feel part of the whole process, make them the guest of the week, do something to value their contribution.
Additionally, know that the greatest part of their informal membership is trust that you will always deliver on the promise of great food, great service, and special experiences. This trust factor is what keeps the client relationship alive – don’t let all this work be for naught by allowing costly mistakes.
Make your investment in the customer count. Turn them into member clients for life. Every customer is important, but the one who returns often and tells the world how much they enjoy the experience is essential for success. Invest in this – it takes time and effort to win guests on their first visit, keep that investment alive – work at it!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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