Coming Back for More: How to Build a Great Restaurant’s Loyalty Program

You want people to be wowed by your restaurant’s food, service, and ambiance. But next time they’re hungry, will they remember? It may not be enough for them to return for more.

By building your restaurant’s loyalty program, you can create a smart tool to help your customers to remember the experience you provided and motivate them to come back time and time again.

Whether your food and beverage business is large or small, elite cuisine or a grab-and-go café, it’s possible to tailor a loyalty program strategically and effectively. 

Think about the national programs through the years designed to influence brand loyalty:

  • Cutting box tops to send in for a reward
  • Collecting stamps to fill up cards for discounts
  • Getting frequent flyer miles
  • Punching cards for a free item

They work, and I know I love my “reward points” with my credit card. But at some point, I make an executive decision to stop carrying all those cards in my wallet. I’m not the only one. Restaurants’ loyalty programs can be clunky and ineffective, which is also why not every restaurant takes advantage of this powerful marketing tool.

To modernize, follow the new best practices to build your restaurant’s loyalty program. In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • Benefits of a restaurant’s loyalty program
  • Tips for a successful restaurant’s loyalty program
  • A step-by-step guide to creating a restaurant’s loyalty program
  • Examples of restaurant’s loyalty programs that work
  • Keep your customers engaged and hungry for more

Feel free to skip to a section that interests you. Below, you’ll find all the information needed to create the best loyalty program to offer your best customers.

Get the tools and guidance you need to find new customers and keep your regulars coming back for more.

Benefits of a restaurant’s loyalty program

Most importantly, your restaurant’s loyalty program should increase business. But understanding exactly how the process works will help you design your restaurant’s unique program more effectively. The best loyalty programs will do all of the following.

Let customers know you care

This is the first step to creating a strong relationship with the people who trust your restaurant and your team to present a consistently excellent experience. If you’ve already got the front-of-house staff committed to customer service and the kitchen crew preparing amazing meals, you know how important it is to care. 

A loyalty program is one more example of this message for your customers. 

Provide an actionable reason for them to return

It’s just like when someone wants to start any habit. Physical reminders are great motivators. Think about if you wanted to start running. Putting your sneakers near your door will force you to at least think about it. Sometimes it takes a little motivation to do even the things you want to do. 

When you add in an expiration date for a discount or goal to work toward, that simple psychology may be enough to bring some people in.

Offer an opportunity to reach out

Have a new dish to announce? Decided to offer new happy hour specials? Your restaurant’s loyalty program lets you speak directly to the people who have appreciated their experience — a great alternative to paying for digital advertisements for your restaurant.   

Gives you a way to strengthen brand identity  

In today’s crowded food and beverage marketplace, many people think about restaurants as they would think about friends. A restaurant’s brand persona, starting with a well-designed logo, helps people connect deeply with their favorites. Adding in a program that feels like a gift just strengthens that relationship even further.

Tips for a successful restaurant’s loyalty program

You don’t want to put too much effort into a customer retention program that isn’t going to work. Here are some tips to make sure you’re providing exactly what current — and future — customers want.

Go digital

Do you have any punch cards stuffing up your wallet? The weight alone is enough to make you develop a subtle dislike for those cards, no matter how frequently you use them. Some places even give out plastic fobs for keychains, but do you want to be known as the place that fills up pockets? It’s just outdated.

Today’s restaurant loyalty programs are completely online. If someone leaves their card at home, that may be a reason against coming to your restaurant. An app for it can just be on someone’s phone.

There’s yet another reason why you should go digital. By having your customers sign up online, you can capture their information in a way that you simply can’t with one of those clunky cards. You’ll get their email address, which is gold for your email marketing campaigns

Make it easy to use

Digital can make the process easier, but you should think through the entire process to make sure that it’s a breeze. Create a page on your website that can enroll your customer with as much information in as little time as possible. 

It’s a trade-off, but personalization is important for your future marketing efforts. That’s why every restaurant asks for a customer’s birthdate.

Along with making it easy to sign up, make sure it’s easy to use as well. Depending on your restaurant, you may want to consider making a QR code to read at the register, or perhaps the wait staff should look a person’s name up in the system based on the reservation. Tailor it to your needs.

Ask your customers what they’d like

If you’re not sure how your current customers would like your loyalty program to be structured, just ask them! Restaurant surveys are a relatively inexpensive marketing technique that provides tons of interesting data to improve your business. 

Send a short survey, with the last question being if they’d like to sign up to be the first to know about your new program. You’ll be ahead of the game in getting their attention when you’re ready to launch.

Connect it to your WiFi

It can be tricky to get people to take the five minutes to sign up, so sometimes it makes sense to go beyond posters or small cards placed at tables. If your customers stay long enough to do some remote work over a cup of coffee and lunch special, you can connect your loyalty program with your WiFi log-in process.

Never make signing up a requirement. Some people will likely consider it a favor since you can offer a discount as an extra motivation to get in on your restaurant’s loyalty program. 

However, let’s consider the reverse. If your concept involves disconnecting from the mobile device and plugging into organic conversations, your wait staff can offer a loyalty discount as part of a conversation about your restaurant’s ethos. They can check-in, get their reward, and log off for the rest of the meal.

A step-by-step guide to creating a restaurant’s loyalty program

Here’s how to get going in four steps.

Step 1: Create the structure

You’ve probably figured out by now that your restaurant’s loyalty rewards program will look a lot different from other places in the industry. What’s most important when creating the structure of your program is to think about what your targeted customers want. 

You’ve got plenty of options to reward and encourage loyalty:

  • VIP discounts each month
  • Free appetizer, cocktail, or upgraded size of, say, a cup of coffee
  • First crack at a new menu
  • Tasting events
  • Free delivery or expedited to-go meals
  • Raffles and giveaways
  • Free item after a certain number of visits

Figure out what works for your customers by putting them first when planning the structure of your program. Try to personalize offers as much as possible. If your customer is a vegetarian, your offer of a discount on an extra-meaty appetizer is going to have the opposite effect. 

Before you’re ready to launch your new customer loyalty program, create a timeline and a workflow strategy for getting the word out. Write out the plan for who is responsible for what actions, so that you’re able to distribute the responsibility of spreading the word to your entire staff. 

Also, get input from employees, customers, and friends when choosing a memorable name for the initiative. The more work you put into the structure of the program, the easier it’s going to be for you and your staff to make it take off with success. 

Step 2: Invite customers in creative ways

Your ability to spread the word of your program will directly determine its success. The more creative and targeted you are, the better. Consider these outreach methods:

  • Verbally at the point-of-sale
  • Small flyer tucked into the bill holder
  • Advertised on a stand-up table sign
  • Direct emailed invitation with a link to a landing page
  • Link posted on social media pages
  • Digital advertisements on social media
  • Posted on your online listing
  • Pop-up ad on your website

Try scheduling a contest within your team to come up with the most creative and effective way to let people know about your restaurant’s loyalty program. Even if you run the most high-end, extravagant, white cloth establishment, your customers still simply want to enjoy themselves with a night out. Remember to keep it fun.

Step 3: Track results 

Creativity aside, success is measured in numbers. Is your restaurant’s loyalty program working? Create a structure that lets you track who is buying how much and how often. Compare these numbers over time to see if any increase in sales can be connected to your program. 

You’ll likely have more email addresses now that you’ve grown your email list through your loyalty program. Make surveys a regular way to learn about what’s working and what’s not. Ask for feedback on a regular basis — because you may be surprised at how your well-designed program works in real life. 

Step 4: Continuously improve

While consistency is important for building brand loyalty, you shouldn’t be afraid to readdress and improve programs over time. Your restaurant’s loyalty program should be no different. If you’ve tried angles that didn’t work, don’t give up completely. Find solutions so that you can remain top-of-mind when your best customers are hungry. 

Examples of restaurant’s loyalty programs that work 

Let’s consider some lessons from two of perhaps the most successful restaurant loyalty programs today.

Starbucks

You can get a cup of coffee almost anywhere, but everyone knows that Starbucks is the most popular café in America and much of the globe. By 2018, almost 20 million people downloaded the Starbucks app and signed up for Starbucks Rewards. 

restaurant's loyalty program - Starbucks rewards sign up page
Those who sign up for Starbucks Rewards often go from being loyal customers to brand ambassadors.

One reason it’s so popular? When customers use the Starbucks app, they can pay through their mobile devices. This speaks directly to the Starbucks user. Often, they just want to get their coffee and go as fast as possible. The takeaway is for you to figure out exactly what your customers want — and give it to them.

Panera Bread

You can grab lunch to go from almost anywhere — yet 21 million customers choose Panera Bread, thanks to their MyPanera program. One reason is that upon sign up, new VIPs get a month of unlimited premium coffee. They’re betting that it may become a habit that lasts more than a month.

restaurant's loyalty program - Panera bread tells customers to "unlock the best of Panera"
Offer so many benefits for loyal customers that they can’t help but tell their best friends.

You can learn from Panera’s success by being generous and personalized with what you are offering your loyal customers. MyPanera members have the opportunity to score free bagels, sweet treats, and — of course — special birthday rewards. Customers who order online can also save their favorites to save time. 

Keep your customers engaged and hungry for more

No matter how your restaurant’s loyalty program is structured, you should make your customers fall in love with your brand and the experience you offer. You want to reach out regularly to keep your VIPs engaged and hungry for more.

The best way to make sure your restaurant’s loyalty program doesn’t slip through the cracks is to integrate it into a multi-faceted and comprehensive marketing plan that you can use throughout the year. 

To make sure you’ve covered your bases about what you should be doing to market your restaurant, check out Constant Contact’s The Download. The free guide provides an overview to gain even more customers and make sure your restaurant thrives for years to come.

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