Convert First-Time Diners into Regulars: "First Impression Advantage"

If people are failing, they look inept. If people are succeeding, they look strong and good and competent. That's the 'halo effect.' Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs. If the company looks inept to you, you may assume everything else they do is inept.

-Professor Daniel Kahneman, winner of 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences

It's said that we only get one first impression,
but that's not entirely true in the restaurant business. 

Last week I shared a story about having been part of a restaurant opening in NYC. One night, during the first week or two of that opening, I was working as a server, managing my section. I noticed that my colleague in the neighboring section was becoming frantic, stuck in the weeds with no sign of recovery. With my station under control I went to help. I looked over at his six-top.

Looking back at me was a woman. I didn't know what she was mad at, but her face said, "I'm really mad." I went over to see if I could help when she told me they'd been waiting "forever" for their food. Of course, my retelling of this is the abridged, quieter version of what she actually said. I listened and said graciously in response, "I'm so sorry. Let me see if I can figure out what's going on."

I checked in with the server who was freaking out. ", what's going on with table 52? She said they've been waiting for food and... " We quickly learned that he never put in the order, and when I tried to help him recover, the paper in which the "order" was written looked like a second grader had been practicing penmanship with randomly selected words. There was no order to be placed.

It was decided I would take over his section. I took a deep breath, went over to the table, and said, "I'm really sorry about this, but it seems that we had a miscommunication and your order never made it to the kitchen. Unfortunately, no longer has the page your order was written on." I paused for a brief moment, then continued enthusiastically, "So, we have begun preparing a number of appetizers that will arrive shortly to get you started, and I am wondering if you would be so kind as to tell me what you had ordered. I have menus here if you don't recall."

We had been instructed by our leadership to court the favor of the local neighborhood patrons, because they would (and did) become our most important regular business and best chance at success. This table was home to a couple that lived around the corner who'd decided to host their friends from out-of-town at the new, fancy, hard-to-get-a-reservation restaurant in their neighborhood. An hour had passed at a restaurant where the check per person average was $65 before we even knew anything was wrong . 

I think that they were so shocked by the shear absurdity of the situation, that it was so ridiculous to have happened, that they couldn't even be mad anymore. From then on, the meal went without a hitch. They left, having been showered with attention and positive energy, gushing about how well we handled the situation. They became regulars and brought many more people to enjoy our restaurant.

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In this business the "first impression" is actually a series of moments that our guests experience. It is this phenomenon that provides us with a tremendous advantage in creating the following of regulars and repeat guests that sustain our businesses. It is the culmination of these moments that form the final impressions of your establishment. Any seasoned front-of-house veteran could probably share a story of things gone wrong, but then made right. So, why does this theory matter at all? 

From the time the reservation is made until the check is paid,
each interaction with your staff is cultivating a first impression. 

Understanding this idea helps us better manage the guest experience, particularly regarding first-time diners. In retail they talk a lot about "conversion," a word we don't use in our restaurant vocabulary. What they mean is to convert a person walking who has come to browse into a paying customer. Well, we need conversion, too! We need to turn first-time diners into regulars. Unless you are fortunate to run a business with extensive tourism driving sales (and even then...) you need to be creating impressions for people that make them come to you over and over again.

Every guest is important, but having regulars is crucial to long-term stability and success. By sharing this idea with your team, incorporating it into your methods and systems, you can develop important repeat business. Regulars tell their friends what an awesome place you have. They bring those friends in to show off "their spot." Everyone wins.