Restaurants make regulars feel special

Megan and Chris Parsons, owners of Catch Restaurant in Winchester, say giving extra attention to their longtime customers is more important than ever. Megan and Chris Parsons, owners of Catch Restaurant in Winchester, say giving extra attention to their longtime customers is more important than ever. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2009

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In this economy, many restaurant customers are holding tight to their wallets and carefully deciding when and where to dine. So it makes sense that restaurateurs want to keep their regulars.

If you've been a good customer over the years, you're king. "It's your regulars who will get you through this," says Garrett Harker, owner of Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Kenmore Square. Every restaurant needs regulars during the down times. Now owners and managers are sending little nibbles or a glass of wine to the people who have filled their tables during bad weather this winter, in the post-holiday slump, and other moments when numbers are down. "For the last 10 years, the restaurant community has enjoyed unlimited growth," says Harker. "Now people are more cautious about who they support. They're spending their limited number of dollars on those places they want to survive."

That's certainly true for Richard Barnett and his wife, Laura, regulars at 51 Lincoln in Newton Highlands. When they go out for dinner - usually every weekend, he says - "we like to know it's money well spent, where we love the food and are treated well." He's noticed that the few restaurants he and his wife dine at frequently are "doing more to actively court us, such as making sure we get a table and offering a free dessert."

Freebies are just one part of the well orchestrated effort. Harker likes to send an appetizer to the table of a guest who hasn't ordered one. Or he'll provide a drink recipe for someone who has enjoyed something at the bar.

Attentive restaurants keep track of what their customers order. It isn't necessarily luck that regulars snag a reservation at their preferred time or are seated at a favorite table. This information - along with special requests, birthdays and anniversaries, a preference for sparkling or tap water - once stored in a good maitre d's head, is now captured in the reservation system.

Smaller spots have an easier time remembering the couple who likes bread warm, with butter instead of olive oil, or the woman who prefers a seat at the bar overlooking the kitchen. This, says chef and co-owner Chris Parsons of Catch Restaurant in Winchester, is integral to the hospitality business. "The things that make you successful matter even more now." His 5-year-old restaurant, he says, "is less about me and very much about our servers and the experience [diners] have here."

Two regulars at Catch, Annie and Jeremy Baker, are going out less, she says, "but when we do, we like to eat nice food." She appreciates that Parsons "comes out and chats with people and often sends out unexpected treats between courses." The Bakers, who live near the restaurant, patronize local businesses. But Annie Baker also believes "we're not necessarily going to get a better meal elsewhere."

Another Catch regular is Winchester resident and restaurateur Barbara Lynch. Lynch often grabs an early supper there with her 5-year old daughter and says that her husband, who loves fish, eats there at least once a week. It's not just Parsons's food they come for ("he's a light-handed chef," says Lynch), but "he makes me feel appreciated and you want to give back and support him."

These days patrons are ordering more reasonably priced items, even at expensive establishments. At Mistral, a small plates menu "is a way to offer other options at price points that are far different from our regular menu," says Mark D'Alessandro, director of operations of the Columbus Restaurant Group that includes the chic bistro. Revenues are down now because guests are spending less, says D'Alessandro. "Lower priced concepts are probably faring better." Their group's casual Italian restaurant Teatro hasn't seen the declines that their more expensive properties, Mistral and Sorellina, have.

Smaller guest checks are less of an issue for Eastern Standard, where most entrees range from $18 to $24. Owner Harker keeps an eye on that, and, he says, "We have to demonstrate we care."

Enjoy the royal treatment.