Real Customer Loyalty for Restaurants

Restaurant Loyality

Restaurants are quickly adopting technology to measure and influence guest loyalty.

But what is it that creates real customer loyalty for restaurants?

Is it custom mobile apps that allow guests to identify menu favorites? What about digital punch card apps that offer advanced order and visit frequency tracking? Could simple rewards in exchange for sharing social media posts be the answer? And, what about good old-fashioned email lists with their multitude of ongoing broadcast offers?

A loyalty program is more than a rewards program.

A rewards program thanks customers for buying, in hopes that the reward causes a follow-up purchase. I would argue that if customers are revisiting your restaurant because they received a 5% discount after their first visit, you don’t really have a loyalty program.

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You have the beginnings of a real loyalty program if customers choose to come back to your restaurant again and again because of a consistent, desirable experience. That’s the basic requirement.

You have the next step in creating a real loyalty program if you can make the ongoing experience measurable, personal, and only THEN rewarding for those guests.

Restaurant Loyalty As Pamela Sullins of legendary loyalty marketing services provider Kobie Marketing has said, “There has to be that brand experience and a pathway from a program perspective to continually re-engage to keep guests coming back.”

If you want loyal customers, you’ve got to deliver an experience that makes them want your product over other alternatives — on a regular basis.

I’ve been recommending to more and more restaurant marketers that they begin by reading How to Dominate Your Competition With ‘Reciprocal’ Customer Loyalty by Big Door’s Joanna Lord, The Effect of Customer Loyalty by Steve Baxter, then dig into The Chipotle Effect by restaurant visionary Paul Barron.

And give a listen to Nate’s interview with Kelly Roddy of Schlotzky’s.

Too many restaurants jump to trying to answer the question: “How can I reward my guests…?” and the technology that might power that, rather than first focusing on answering the question, “How can I make eating at my restaurant an entirely unique experience?”

Not every restaurant needs to be fun, or “wild”, or sophisticated, or even irreverent. But from the moment a guest encounters your restaurant, and even beyond the moment they finish their first meal, the entire experience needs to mean something and resonate with that guest in a specific way.

Which means you may not appeal to everyone with your restaurant brand, and that’s okay.

That’s the first step in causing a customer to want to return.

The reward delivered for doing so should come after loyalty has been earned. Coming soon: examples of great restaurant brands and the steps they take to foster a loyal following.

About Brandon Hull

Brandon is the founder of He helps restaurants invent marketing strategies, campaigns, and tactics that incorporate new technology, in order to attract loyal guests.

  • William Jenkins

    Brandon & Nate thank you for sharing this. Fishbowl has a very distinct POV on loyalty. We believe loyalty isn’t a segment or a program, but rather a continuum that acts as a marketing funnel, enabling our clients to understand and engage guests appropriately at all levels to maximize their value. The ultimate goal is to engage with all addressable guests, while moving them along the continuum by learning about their dining behavior, preferences, and spend, and then building a one-to-one relationship through smart marketing programs that maximize customer life cycle value.

    We have thought a lot about how to optimize guest loyalty. Although over 200 chains use us for restaurant marketing, only a small subset operates traditional loyalty programs. How else might a restaurant operator approach the loyalty concept? Other industries, such as ecommerce and retail, are successfully using data-driven methodologies to drive recommendations, messaging, and increased sales. Amazon, for example, uses prior purchase data to build customer loyalty. Brick and mortar retailers have long used their own private label credit cards to ascertain the same data and routinely ask for a phone number upon purchase to identify repeat customers and then analyze purchase patterns.

    From our perspective, it’s about taking a guest-centric approach to your marketing. That’s right, a focus on maximizing the value of each guest, rather than waiting for a customer to become a card-carrying member of a club that gives out rewards. Not everyone will join a loyalty program, but those who don’t can still be cultivated as loyal guests and engaged to drive visits to your store. With the right marketing programs, these guests can be inspired to move up the loyalty continuum, whether or not they volunteer for a specific program. And you get off the treadmill of having to weigh rewards versus profitability.

  • Brand Keys

    Here at Brand Keys we agree with William. Loyalty cards don’t create legitimate engagement, meeting customer expectations does. Our 2014 Consumer Loyalty Engagement Index measured 32 brands in the restaurant category and revealed that “healthy choice,” “variety at value” and “my dining experience” are the three values that exerted the strongest influence on consumer decision-making.

  • nateriggs

    Would love to see the research, guys. Thanks for chiming in!

  • nateriggs

    Would love to have you write a guest post on this approach, William.

    I like you Amazon example, and in my mind the brand and service sit at the cross section of loyalty through technology. What I mean is that the apps, website, and services have built in me a personal dependency and buying habit.

    The suggestion algorithm does tend to increase my purchase behavior for complementary items. It’s because of the combination of all of it, that I really don’t shop many other places online. Amazon just makes it so easy!

    I think the systems works for restaurants — would love for you to show is how you think it plays out in a post!