Originally, this piece wanted to address the supposed decline of regular customers – the idea that Millennials’ well-documented (and perhaps unintentional) irreverence for brand loyalty, was having an impact on restaurants and their takings.
While that may be the case sometime in the future – when Millennials are identified as having a more significant spending power in the general economy – it isn’t necessarily true now.
Yes, some restaurants will struggle to bring people back for more. But that might say more about the restaurant’s overall quality than it does the nature of the customer. According to David Moore, founding director of Fitzrovia’s Pied a Terre and who’s been in the industry for over 30 years, we have media – social and otherwise – to blame. ‘Younger people flitter around. That’s encouraged by you guys, the evil journalists’ – he says, jokingly I hope – ‘only ever writing about new restaurants, which makes the new places sound exciting. They go there, and you know what, they’re not that great. So they don’t go back.’
When a concept does get past those potentially nail-biting first few months, however, and works in capturing its intended audience, people will come back. Even, and in Vapiano’s case, especially, the younger demographics. Vapiano, headquartered in Bonn, is in the process of opening three new restaurants in London this year, adding to its portfolio of more than 200 restaurants in 5 continents. Millennials are known to shrug at the bigger brands, but apparently many of this age group can’t wait for a Vapiano branch to open in their area.
‘There is certainly more choice than 20 years ago,’ says Vapiano’s UK marketing head Vikki O’Neill of competition, ‘but people still have favourites, and to me that’s very much a form of brand loyalty. In many ways, Millennials are more into brand loyalty, as they have platforms with which to promote this loyalty, such as twitter or Instagram.’
At two and a half years old, Vapiano’s Manchester site has an ‘unbelievable number of young regulars,’ says Vikki, with regulars visiting some Vapiano sites ‘more than once a week.’ They put this down to consistency and reliability with their pasta and pizza made on site and by hand – freshness something many other big brands can’t, or don’t bother to, achieve. Maybe that’s why it works here.
It’s not just attention to the quality of their product which keeps people coming back. Vapiano have just released the UK version of their own app. As well as the ability to pay without waiting for the bill, one of the app’s features is the collection of points exchangeable for things such as ‘Vapiano treats’. Even so, without this, Vikki says restaurant managers are used to recognising regulars in the flesh or through their social channels, and can arrange a surprise ‘treat’ when they next come in.
It’s a little different to how David does things at Pied a Terre, where staff (and, by the sounds of things, guests) are more interested in lasting personal interactions. Pied a Terre can be construed as ‘old school’, and social media the antithesis of the kind of interactions their typically more mature guests are after. Guests, as an example, like the fact David is often seen front of house rather than hiding behind the pass. ‘They might say, “hello, sit down. Have a glass with me”,’ says David. ‘And I’ll reciprocate and have a glass of cognac with them at the end of a meal. Freebies? No. It’s give and take. What we’re doing is endeavouring to engage on a personal level with the customers.’
So yes, ‘rewards’ for repeat custom at Pied a Terre are a little more nuanced than other places. And less material. Other perks might include an extra middle course snuck in to a tasting menu that the chef’s in the middle of developing, and needs feedback on. ‘That works well because they feel like they’re being included in how the restaurant is working, and that their opinion is valued,’ says David.
David tells me he hasn’t seen a reduction in regulars recently. And he suggests that if others do, it’s perhaps not safe to assume why – regulars have their reasons for not re-visiting you; economical, geographical, or otherwise. ‘I have a lady who comes down from Manchester for the opera twice a year,’ he says. ‘She’s only in London twice, and she only eats here twice. She loves that she’s on our regulars list.’
Regulars like these, whether they visit once a fortnight or biannually, are, David says, ‘the backbone of your business.’ Especially now, when business rates, rises in rent, and, as of last month, the increase in contributions to staff pensions, are providing a multi-pronged assault on the business’ kitty. ‘I’m looking at who’s in the restaurant and two or three tables are regulars at every service,’ says David. ‘Without them we’d be dead in the water.’
Perhaps it should go without saying, but provided bars and restaurants can engage the right generations in the right way, they won’t have to worry about a lack of regulars killing off their business. Give a guest a good time, let them take part in the narrative, and yes – they’ll come back for seconds.