Those in the hospitality business know it is a people first business and most customers know when they are treated like they matter. Making people feel like VIPs or even better, family, almost always guarantees that a restaurant will get repeat business, especially if all the other important things are in order—i.e., décor, consistency of quality food, etc. Many food industry magazines including Bon Appetit and others have written that, for the most part, people go to restaurants for many other reasons than just the food. Sure, celebrating an anniversary or birthday, escaping having to cook yourself, hosting a meeting or enjoying a special event are usual reasons to visit a restaurant but what makes people come back weekly, sometimes more than once a week? What makes a stranger a regular, whether it is at a table or at the bar?
After four years of frequenting Il Toscano Ristorante, a local Italian restaurant owned by an Ecuadorian family not too far from my home, I have one answer: People, and specifically, a person. In all fields, the people that work your business are either creating feelings of loyalty or making sure customers remember your business unpleasantly, forever. But in the restaurant business, one person can make or break you. Word of mouth always carries more weight than an advertisement. In IL Toscano Ristorante’s case, the two main people who leave their imprint on customers are Mario Nunez and his son, Andres Nunez.
Mario has been in the hospitality field for a few decades and was working for the previous owner before he and his family joined forces to buy the restaurant to prevent it from closing. Andres studied hospitality at Florida International University and worked for some hotel brands in California before joining his father to operate IL Toscano in West Pembroke Pines. To get an idea about how these two are esteemed, just check out some of the eatery’s reviews. Granted, a business can’t make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time but a change in personnel makes a huge difference.
Six months ago, Andres decided to take an extended break from the restaurant. While business continued briskly many diners missed his smiling face and accommodating persona. We regulars definitely saw a drop off and would often hear folks ask about him and when he was coming back. This is not to say that others on the staff didn’t have their fans, but Andres was surely a top favorite. Even though he’s young enough to be my son, I look forward to chatting with him on my weekly Friday date nights with my husband. This is us recently on one of those Fridays!
Here’s what I have seen from Andres and Mario that I pass on to any of you in the hospitality business.
- Acknowledge Me. The worst thing you can do when someone comes into your place of business is to keep doing what you were doing without acknowledging their presence. If you’re busy, say, “Thank you for joining us tonight, I’ll be with you in a minute.” I have gone to restaurants where no one was at the host station and we waited for more than 10 minutes. By that time, I am already telling my husband “let’s go” since no one seems to care that we’re there. When we arrive at Il Toscano, people fist-bump us, yell our names from across the room and enthusiastically welcome us into their space.
- Greetings Matter. I know you may have had a hard day already and now have to do a shift but you are there because you are working, I am there because I have some down time to enjoy with friends, a date or a spouse. Andres always seems thrilled to see us, asking about our day as he walks us to our favorite spot in the restaurant. Your greeting will set the tone for my night and by the time you greet me, I’ve already decided if I like you or not and am leaning towards coming back…or not. Forbes says you have seven seconds to make that first impression. It should be a good one.
- Get to Know the Customer. Where do they live, what do they do, what’s their family make up, their favorite drink, etc. This may be their first and last time in your restaurant or they may return again and again. All those details will serve you today to create a great experience for them and make them feel like it really matters to you that they enjoy themselves and it could serve you later if they decide to come back. It will be valuable data that will help you create another unforgettable evening. Andres knows what each of us likes to eat and drink. He knows which one of us likes to experiment and which one of us prefers to keep it predictable.
- Show Regulars Extra Love. One thing I see consistently with Mario, Andres and others who are part of the service team is that they love on their regulars. For those old enough to remember Cheers, the American sitcom television series that ran on NBC from 1982, to 1993, it is exactly that place, “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came!” Whether it is fixing someone’s favorite drink just the way they like it, creating an entirely new drink to satisfy a pineapple obsession or handing out shots at Shot O’Clock at the bar, regulars know they will feel the love. An added plus at this restaurant is how other regulars become friends.
Regardless, of how one comes to find out about Il Toscano, this one thing is sure, customers come first in this establishment. You will feel it immediately, all because there are key staff paying attention. So, who is paying attention to the people in your people first business?