Starting a First-Time Customer Program in Your Restaurant

If you’re a chef or restaurant manager, then you know how competitive the restaurant industry is. Customers, your biggest assets, have so many options to choose from when eating out it makes it hard to gain their loyalty. That’s why it’s important to make a great first impression with every patron, so you give them a reason to return. One way to increase customer retention and turn those first-time guests into loyal customers is to develop a first-time customer program.

What is a First-Time Customer Program?

What is a First-Time Customer Program

First-time customer programs are designed to make your guests feel appreciated during their first visit to your restaurant. There are no set guidelines for creating a first-time customer program, but they usually involve restaurant managers giving away coupons or gift certificates to customers to encourage a second visit to your restaurant. Incentives typically include a free appetizer, beverage, or dessert with the purchase of an entree, or having your servers hand out buy-one-get-one-free vouchers to encourage couples or small groups to come back.

If offering free food and drink doesn’t fall within your budget, then a first-time customer program could consist of your chef introducing themselves to the guests and asking how their meal was. This simple action makes your patrons feel welcomed and appreciated, and it shows them that you take customer satisfaction seriously. Ultimately, the goal of a first-time customer program, whether it offers incentives or not, is to turn first-time visitors into returning customers that can then join your loyalty rewards program.

Benefit of Having a First-Time Customer Program

The biggest benefit of having a first-time customer program in place is that it will help you gain repeat and loyal customers. Since it’s difficult to gain loyalty from an individual on their first visit, it’s important to get them back in your doors a second, third, and fourth time. By having a program set in place, you’ll be able to give your first-time customers the best possible first impression of your business. That positive first impression is what will hopefully encourage your guests to come back or tell their friends and family to give your restaurant a try.

Tips for Starting a First-Time Customer Program

Tips for Developing a First-Time Customer Program

If you’ve decided to try out a first-time customer program, then the following tips should help you get started. Whether you’re looking for ideas to increase your program's effectiveness or suggestions for retaining more customers, this list has you covered.

  • Train your staff to ask the right questions right away. By teaching your hostesses and servers to ask questions like "Is this your first time dining with us?", they’ll be able to quickly find out if it’s a customer’s first visit.
  • Have a secret code in place to inform other staff members that it’s a customer’s first visit. Once hostesses and servers are confronted with a new customer, they can use your business’s secret code to alert the manager, assistant manager, or hostess. For example, servers can place a different colored napkin holder or flag on the customer’s table, or they can write the table number down on a whiteboard in the back-of-house common area.
  • Only offer free coupons with the purchase of an entree. Yes, you want to get customers through your door a second time, but you can’t give them their entire meal for free or you’ll lose out on profit. However, a free appetizer won't end up costing you much, but will still impress your customers.
  • Include an expiration date on your coupons. If your coupons have no expiration date, customers will likely keep putting off their second visit. If the offer is only good for a few weeks or a month, they’ll be more likely to return sooner.
  • Put a personal spin on each customer’s visit. Be sure to address each guest by their name, and try to give them a coupon that matches their personality. For example, if they dined with you in the afternoon, then offer a coupon for a lunchtime special. Or, if they were interested in the wine menu, provide them with a happy hour coupon.
  • If your chef is going to come out and introduce themselves, have them do so once the customers are about halfway through their entrees. This gives your guests enough time to start enjoying their food, but it doesn't interrupt the server's task of delivering the check and wrapping up the meal.
  • Ask new customers to fill out a guest card. This allows managers to get feedback and collect guests’ contact information, so they can receive emails with weekly specials, events, and other information. Also, if a patron leaves a less than desirable review or expresses dissatisfaction, managers can try to resolve the issue and redeem the restaurant's reputation.

By starting a first-time customer program in your restaurant that wows your guests during their visit, you’re sure to increase your restaurant’s number of loyal customers. Plus, by giving your patrons a great first impression of your business, their word-of-mouth advertising will bring even more customers through the door.

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