How to Increase the Number of Regulars in Your Independent Restaurant or Bar

Building a loyal customer base of regulars can dramatically improve your independant restaurant or bars profitability, espsecially on slow days. Read on for actionable steps to find more regulars today.

Why are regulars important to your bar or restaurant? 


For many restaurant and bar owners like you, regular customers who order frequently are the bread and butter of your business.

What value do regulars add to your location that a traditional walk-in doesn’t? 

If we define a regular as someone visiting your location at least three times a week, it means they’re coming in on weekdays. As you’re probably well aware, Friday and Saturday probably make up the bulk of your weekly sales.

Regulars can act as a nice buffer for quiet off-nights when you’re doing less volume.  Next, they’re loyal, and this loyalty shouldn’t be dismissed, as regulars will eventually bring their friends, family, and co-workers to their favorite location on a regular basis.

As human beings, we’re more likely to choose brands and businesses that we’re more familiar with, the ones we trust, and have heard good things about. When you think about investing in building your “regular” customer base, consider that each person you win over actually brings a much larger circle.

Bars and restaurants are a social place, where people connect. If your patrons have a new, positive, welcoming experience at your location they’re going to keep you top of mind next time they go out. You have to assume each person walking in through the door is a future regular-to-be. 


So, regulars are important. But how do we actually go about getting them? How do we systematically build a loyal customer base who visits our bar or restaurant multiple times a week? 

Resist the temptation to give away free drinks

Let’s start with what most independent bars and restaurants do: give away free food and drinks to regulars.

While intuitively this makes sense, the math is a little less promising. The issue with providing free food and drinks to your patrons, as
The Real Barman, points out is that you create a precedent.

The problem with creating an expectation of free stuff with your regulars is the moment they stop receiving the benefits, they become upset. He also goes on to point out that the cost of free drinks is not only your wholesale cost, but in fact the opportunity cost of what that drink could have been sold for.

He interviewed 15 owners and found that the typical independent bar and restaurant gave away one in every four drinks for free to their regulars. Bartenders have a self-serving incentive to do this as it increases their likelihood of a large tip. Running a basic cost analysis, he found that offering even a single free drink could increase the pour-cost-percentage up to 57% of the total purchase!

What can do to build rapport with your customers?


If you eliminate free drinks as an incentive, what are you left with?

Good old-fashioned customer service.

From the moment a customer walks into your independent bar or restaurant, they want to feel known, special, and at-home. One of the best ways to do this is by having your hosts and hostesses well informed of the names of regular patrons when they are on-boarded, and as a team, maintaining a record of regulars.

This can be done electronically by asking them for their name and phone number at the entrance and then immediately inputting their information into the system. That way, when a server comes over to the patron’s table, they can greet them by name.

A low-tech alternative would be to put masking tape on the back of the bar in front of each patron so that your staff can remember.

Have an on-site bartender solely for the purpose of building your regular clientele. Sounds crazy right? If you’re an averaged size independent restaurant or bar, you likely have two bartenders on staff. One serving patrons at the bar, and another preparing drinks for tables.

Bartenders are a huge asset to your business and they have an enormous impact on your customers’ experience. When a customer has a rough day at work, and they come into your location to blow off some steam, they’ll really feel a difference when they’re welcomed by name, and when their favourite drink is prepared without having to ask.

If you want to take this even further, keep track of how many drinks they usually order. It’s the little things that add up when building loyalty.

Chris Tunstall from A Bar Above has a great strategy for making your customers feel special: introducing them to each other.

“At some point you will have quite a few regulars, and you are going to know a decent amount about each one of them. At this point I like to find bridges between them and introduce them to each other. For example if Stacy is one of my regulars and Steve sits within a couple of seats of her, I will try to remember common information about each of them and use that as a conversation starter.” interviewed Laura Newman, a bartender and the owner at Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Alabama. She pointed out that “buying” regulars with freebies doesn’t work as well as presence, inside information and kindness.

“A lot of the time, we can start preparing a regular’s order as soon as they walk in the bar,” she says. “Knowing the small touches and special things that they prefer, and always doing those things without being asked, plays a huge part in maintaining regulars. We like to involve our regulars in the ‘behind the scenes’ part of QP as much as possible. For example, our regulars serve as taste testers for new menu cocktails before they go live, and we give our regulars updates on upcoming trips or staff bonding activities and solicit their advice/suggestions.”


Offer a loyalty program

Loyalty programs can be a fun way to make your customers feel a sense of belonging. Rather than a conventional punch-card style loyalty program, explore fun unique spins that you can create to stir up some word of mouth and encourage first timers to come back.

For example, you could offer a free one of a kind, unique cocktail that is only available to members who have ordered ten drinks. Create a show around the drink, add some unique colours or signature flairs of romanticism to turn heads. People also love the feeling of exclusivity and being a part of something.

Offer member-only specials or events on quiet nights and see what happens. Buzztime recommends teaming up with other nearby restaurants or bars and offering fun unique events, scavenger hunts, or social media collaborations. 


While unique loyalty programs, personalized experiences, and social media collaborations are all fun ways to make your customers feel like a part of a community, at the end of the day it comes down to consistency, and the promise your independent bar or restaurant delivers on.

Bar and Restaurant says “To ensure things are done consistently, good operators take the guesswork out of everything they do. Successful companies have written outlines and procedures for every position. Many successful chain companies take this to a higher level by having employee manuals that clearly outline responsibilities and procedures. This way they will know their operating standards have been effectively communicated to their staff and will be aware if something is not being executed at that level immediately.”

All that being said, it can be hard as an owner or manager to keep tabs on everything that’s going on, which is why Bar Tender One, an Ontario bartending school, points out:

“It may not always be possible to chat and check with every table in your establishment, so creating an atmosphere where your service staff feel comfortable approaching management to resolve guest issues in a timely manner is crucial to your ability to turn any negative experiences into positive ones.”

“Sometimes I’m a bartender, other times I’m a guest. The bottom line is that when the service, drinks and food are good, I’ll probably come back for seconds, maybe even become your regular. If things go wrong and the problem isn’t addressed, you’ll never see me again. If there’s a problem and you address it you guarantee that I’ll come back with my friends. Maybe they can be your regulars too.”


Encourage Online Reviews

If you read enough online reviews, you’ll quickly realize that the majority of positive and negative reviews revolve around the service they received.

Your customers’ online reviews can add a huge degree of credibility to your restaurant or bar, which is why Bartender Business recommends encouraging your happy customers to leave a review and spread the good word.


Learn more with Hailo Data

Need help with your bar or restaurant? Reach out to us to learn more how Hailo Data can save your business time and money.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Leave your email for unlimited access to our content library, for free.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.