Eugene Varricchio, Chief Executive Officer, Frankie Global
The pent-up demand for eating out is driving restaurants back to normal business, and this will only increase in 2023. Here are some ideas on how restaurants can turn employees and customers into advocates.
Demand for dining out is increasing
Despite inflation, households now spend 40 percent of their monthly food budget on restaurants, according to a survey conducted by PopMenu in May. Maybe that’s why: Some consumers say it’s now cheaper to order food from a restaurant than to buy all the groceries they need to cook.
As customers return to eating out, restaurants that built strong relationships with customers before the pandemic are finding that many of those relationships are still intact. Since the cost of acquiring a customer is usually higher than the cost of retaining a customer, loyal customers are welcome. Additionally, existing customers are less price sensitive as they are satisfied with value for money in a familiar environment.
Still, to boost sales to pre-pandemic levels, restaurants will need to expand their customer base. Given the post-pandemic caution, the way to do that is through existing customers. People trust recommendations shared by others because those recommending restaurants stake their reputations on their choices.
Providing a cozy atmosphere, great food, and friendly staff ultimately produces business ambassadors. However, with 90,000 restaurants in the U.S. closed during the pandemic and many remaining struggling to make ends meet, owners may not be patient.
Build relationships between diners and employees
One way to foster customer loyalty is to build relationships between diners and front-of-house staff. If those relationships are consistent and transparent, customers will come back — with their friends.
The key to delivering consistently top-notch service is retaining the most experienced, top-performing employees. The best long-term employees stay because they feel at home in the restaurant culture. It is imperative to understand what motivates your best employees and introduce recognition and rewards programs to keep them motivated and loyal, as they are your greatest asset in turning customers into advocates. For example, restaurants can often offer flexible hours. Employees who face unique work/life challenges appreciate owners who keep the scheduling process fair and transparent.
Servers value the opportunity to interact with a wide range of guests. They often develop close relationships with their peers and appreciate the team spirit fostered by a successful restaurant culture.
Long-time kitchen staff also enjoy being part of high-performing teams and are often drawn to food culture and cuisine. They appreciate the opportunity to develop their culinary skills, so owners need to provide them with opportunities and encourage them to grow into more responsible positions.
While retaining senior staff is critical, nearly every restaurant faces hiring challenges these days. Persistent labor shortages are forcing them to market their business to job seekers as if they were customers. When it comes to interviewing in this era of staff shortages, the evaluation process is now a two-way street. Applicants can evaluate employers as carefully as employers select employees.
One of the best ways to attract good employees is to offer hiring incentives to current employees. Within a community, people who work in restaurants tend to know each other and frequent each other’s workplaces. Waiters and kitchen staff can often recommend top performers from other local establishments as owners make an effort to get their opinion. Many times, they are better able to recruit high-quality employees than managers.
Cultivate brand ambassadors
Another challenge many restaurateurs face is that they are more comfortable in the kitchen than in the restaurant, but focusing on the front desk, whether it’s spending time with guests or delegating responsibility to savvy managers, is critical to developing brand ambassadors. and expand the customer base.
Owners and managers can learn a lot about their own businesses from their most loyal customers. Some questions restaurateurs should ask include:
• Who are our best customers?
• What are their demographics in terms of age, gender, marital status, and spending habits?
• What is the vibe that keeps them coming back?
The answers to these questions reveal what your restaurant represents to customers and the community, and explain how top patrons interact with other patrons. This will allow marketing efforts to direct recommendations to potential new diners.
How to communicate with customers
By getting to know their customers, owners can learn not only how to solicit reviews and testimonials, but also where to encourage customers to post them. Word of mouth can be a misnomer these days. Customer testimonials often come from emails, texts, and social media posts rather than face-to-face conversations, especially among millennials and Gen Z demographics.
Online communication involves a wide range of channels and media choices. These can include text, images, audio and video comments. Online video is now the fastest growing advertising medium in the world. I believe video is the ideal medium for diners to share intimate and accurate impressions of the look and feel of a restaurant space and staff. Potential customers can directly see and hear the dining experience, making choices based on their impressions of the venue’s atmosphere. (Full disclosure: I run a platform where consumers share video restaurant reviews, but there are many other platforms that post these videos.)
The information overload of traditional social media has resulted in a large number of text-based restaurant reviews. Video experiences posted by regular customers can command attention in this crowded landscape, providing an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Servers often become friends with their preferred clients. I recommend taking advantage of this by running a contest or offering incentives to employees to convince favorite clients to make their own videos and post them online.
With the ravages of Covid largely behind us, the restaurant industry can finally return to basics. Cultivating customer and employee loyalty builds a restaurant’s reputation in the local community, making owning a venue that stands out more rewarding than ever.
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