Strip down the hospitality industry to its core, and you’re always left with just that: hospitality. Dining trends will change, and pandemics bring bouts of chaos, but fundamentally the business is about inviting people into your space and working to make sure they enjoy themselves.
Do this well and you’ll make a normal Tuesday night feel special. Do it even better and people will trust you to make the big dates on their calendar — the birthdays, the anniversaries, the graduation brunches, the time-to-pop-the-question dinners — part of the story they tell about their lives.
You’d love that. They’d love that. You’d love them to love that. So the question arises of how to get customers to share those moments with you. It’s always going to be more art than science, but these days technology will bring you further than ever before to become a birthday destination. Once you do that, you just have to think through what you know about your customers to surpass expectations even on those occasions they want to be an 11 out of 10.
In his hit "Happy Birthday," Stevie Wonder probably said it best: "There ought to be a time / That we can set aside / To show just how much we love you." Here’s how to make that happen.
The best ways to learn your customers’ birthdays
The breakneck advancements in tech have made gathering and storing important guest data insanely easy. Start by growing your email list — the opt-ins are everywhere now! — and inviting your customers to spend their personal holiday in your establishment. The means may have become more advanced, but the premise remains simple. The best way to learn a person’s birthday is to simply ask them.
And once you've gotten those digits? Send them a birthday message. Everyone loves bingeing on the words "happy birthday" at least once a year.
Most of the common reservations apps such as Resy and OpenTable now offer an opt-in option for adding a birthday or an anniversary. Some, like Tock, offer a social media integration option that capture birthdays automatically. Most point of sale systems — such as Toast, TouchBistro, and Lightspeed — boast similar features. Even Yelp, with its expanding suite of options, is getting into the guest services game. In all of these channels, the data to be mined is massive.
Some customers may not want to include their birthday in their reservation or their payments. Data privacy is a thing still, and they might wonder what’s in it for them, handing over personal information. This is where your loyalty rewards program comes in handy, giving an obvious quid in exchange for their pro quo. You can use a platform like Craver for a fully branded marketing and loyalty program, or you may find a loyalty program built into a POS such as you opted for TouchBistro or Lightspeed.
But don’t depend on apps to do all the groundwork for you. If someone spent this year’s anniversary/birthday/adoptaversary/divorce party/dog birthday/spring solstice with you, that info should go into their guest notes so you can know it’s a significant day to them. Be proactive 11 months from now and reach out to invite them back. See if you can become an annual tradition for them.
How to make every kind of guest’s occasion special
The way you choose to celebrate once the guest is seated can be as varied as you’d like. A complimentary dessert or glass of prosecco are tried-and-true classics for a reason. But you know your restaurant best. If a loud, flashy birthday presentation is on-brand, go ahead and blow it out. An eye-catching, memorable display will make great Instagram fodder for the people celebrating and dose the nearby guests with a little celebration envy.
Along the way, don’t overlook a creative or bespoke treat. This is the time to bust out that CRM data you’ve collected, to see what they really dig. Guest doesn’t drink? Whip up a fancy mocktail! The couple always order the oysters and never dessert? Skip the candle and bring them something they love. Making guests feel special — feel noticed, really — is the priority here.
If you don’t know your guests intimately, there’s still a great chance they fit into a category of diner. Take your best shot, though, and you’ll do great.
— The Regulars. You know these folks, and they know you. They’re the easiest to please since the affection is well established. They drink IPA or a sherry, so you have that ready when they sit down. The couple order the salmon and the steak, but sometimes the pasta? Send a taste of the pasta mid-course, just so they know you’re paying attention.
— The Out-of-Towners. These folks are here for this special occasion and you may never see them again. But they take this holiday seriously, and right there is a lot of info. They would love to add some grilled shrimp to that steak, they are gonna drink that glass of prosecco, and, why yes, they’d be delighted to add a wine pairing. There’s a good chance they also want you to sing to them if that’s environmentally appropriate and will happily blow out the candle more than once while you take that perfect “candid” photo. Treat these guys right and they’ll sing your praises on Tripadvisor tag you in all their social media birthday pics.
— The Special Occasions Only. They’re a bit mysterious. All you know is they’re probably spending more than they prefer and the servers are expecting 15% and not a dollar more. Also, their expectations are high, perhaps unreasonably so. Still, you never know, right? Chin up, send that dessert, and thank them when they leave.
— The Casual Revelers. There are so many of them, they may not all know each other’s names yet. But do make sure the staff has the birthday person’s name and get down to tacks. Decide beforehand what the gift will be so the server can make sure the guests don’t over-order. Planning to send a shrimp cocktail? Let them know: “We’ve got a little birthday treat from the raw bar coming your way.” They get the plan while feeling special. (This also puts the gift on their radar. Many people don’t scrutinize their bill, so they might overlook an unmentioned gift!)
Make sure whatever the thing you do is well-executed. Knowing when to skip something, rather than do it poorly, is a bit of an art. If no one on staff that night can write in chocolate: skip the message on the plate. Imagine having a lovely meal capped by a dish that looks like Cookie Monster is the new stage in pastry.
It’s OK to hold back, too. If the birthday girl started with a martini, shared a bottle of wine, and had an Irish coffee, chances are she doesn’t need a port or amaro. Same logic applies to bombarding two people with three desserts. It’s savvier to add a mid-course or palate cleanser than another chocolate cake.
The whole point, really, is to make that guest feel special — and the key to special is specificity. Data will get you part of the way there. But when you keep your eyes and ears open as well, you’ll make the most of that opportunity to make a person’s once-a-year night memorable.