Q: What constitutes a restaurant "regular," and do (or should) regulars get preferred service? —Evan B, St. Louis
A: The short answer is that restaurant regulars do—and yes, should, in our opinion—get preferred service to reward them for continued patronage.
What's not so clear is just what is a regular?
First, one must admit that being "a regular" means different things at different places--a neighborhood bar may see its regulars several times a week; a special occasion restaurant, maybe several times a year.
From the customer's standpoint, a quickie poll of frequent diners (all of whom are regulars somewhere) ran the gamut: everything from "once a day," to "once every 6 weeks," to "once a quarter," to "an initial burst of visits and then once a month."
Asked if they expect special treatment, the results were unanimous: none of them expect it, but all of them seem to receive it. Such extras range from better tables to better servers, to snagging a res on an otherwise busy night, to a gratis course (often an item considered for a future menu), to having the guest's favorite cocktail on the table on arrival, usually at no charge. And all customers polled made it a point to mention they most certainly appreciated the generosity.
Face it, most folks prefer walking into a place where they're known by the staff and management. The less diners have to work at, well, dining, the better they like it. That's why most of us have our favorite haunts, usually a half dozen or so, places where we feel most comfortable and where the food is in sync with our taste buds.
The challenge for any restaurateur is to attract more regulars, to get semi-regulars to dine at their joint more often, to become one of the elusive "holy half dozen" restaurants in the rotation.
But what of the restaurateurs? What do they consider a regular? Three restaurant owners provided three different bits of insight:
Charlie Downs of Cyrano's has regulars who visit from "once a day to two times in a month." All get acknowledged, he says, but in different ways: "The drinkers appreciate a free drink every so often, others see something gratis on their table every now and then, and still others are fine with me just stopping by to say hello and chatting them up."
Tim Mallett, owner of Big Sky Cafe and Remy's, pegs a regular at "once a month." Asked about special treatment, the man who (in Relish's eyes) was the first to master marketing a restaurant via emailing lists and newsletters, had a different take: "We encourage--and somewhat expect--regulars to get onto our mailing list. That is our vehicle for rewards. For example, subscribers are offered a free bottle of wine on their birthday and anniversary. How many restaurants do that?"
Adam Tilford, owner of Tortillaria and the white-hot Milagro Modern Mexican, says customers become regulars "when I start recognizing them, which is usually after their second or third visit." To him, a regular dines "every couple of weeks" and notes that most of them end up sitting at the bar, preferring to interact there, where they quickly become "part of the family, where they may see something new or something we're working on, like a new cocktail. I'm fine with my bartenders making a little extra to try out on the regulars." When asked if regulars expect special treatment, Tilford replied no, quickly adding, "and those who do, you probably don't want as regulars in the first place."