When co-owner Shane Monteiro first opened craft beer retail shop and bar Carmine Street Beers in Manhattan, he did something few other bar owners would do — he’d set up time for regulars to come together and drink. “With bigger bottles of beer, they’re harder to drink by yourself; when you have four or five people, you all get a little taste,” he says. “So it turned into a casual thing: ‘You like stouts? I know a guy who loves stouts. Let’s set up something where we hang out and try some.’”
The shared beers gave them more of a reason to keep coming back, he says. Now, his crowd of about 20 regulars of mostly men — spanning all boroughs and the tristate area, from early 20s to mid 40s, in different industries — text among themselves to meet and drink. “Regulars develop their own culture; it sets the tone [of the bar],” he says. “We’re just fans of really great beer, excited to talk about beer and give anything a chance.” And it’s a generous group of regulars, who habitually share the beers they find all over the country with others who come in. “That’s one thing I like about my regulars, there’s a reciprocity there,” he says.
In this head-down digital age, chatty restaurant regulars may seem at odds with the ever-expanding scores of glued-to-their-smartphone diners who prefer to remain anonymous, as on the internet. After all, why engage with another human being when you can gobble down your food with as few interactions as possible?
Nonetheless, there are signs that the notion of a regular isn’t just alive and well in 2020 — it’s thriving. As a restaurateur, “it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to have a fair amount of regulars, whether you’re a neighborhood restaurant or you are a three-Michelin-star [restaurant],” says Dan Kluger, the chef and owner of Loring Place. “We’re [located] in New York City, where dining out is a huge part of most people’s lives.”
Ali Rosen, a food TV host living in Greenwich Village, says that to her, Loring Place has become the kind of restaurant you’d recommend for someone with only one night in New York, while also being that neighborhood joint you can stop in at every week. “So often the perfect neighborhood spot belongs to someone else’s neighborhood,” she says. “But when Dan announced Loring Place only a few blocks from where I live, I felt like I was finally getting that spot for myself.”
Regulars have an impact that extends beyond the dining ecosystem. For many small restaurants, margins can be tight, even in high-end spots. The good news is that for every dollar spent in a small business in the U.S., an average of 67 cents stays within that local community, according to an American Express-commissioned 2018 Small Business Economic Impact Study.* Money in small business owners’ pockets can mean fewer empty stores on Main Street and overall healthier communities: helping to sustain quality schools, lush public parks and playgrounds, and pot-hole-free roads.
It’s a big impact for a relatively small number of diners. Accolades and glowing reviews can be boons, but it’s restaurant regulars who often make the difference between staying in business and going bust.
“One-time diners usually contribute at least 70 to 80 percent of your revenue,” explained Andrea Verardo, the general manager of the Italian spot Benno in New York City. “But the regulars are important because they keep coming back” — even when business is slow — “and those are the people that spread the word about you, what you do, and how you take care of people.”
For some of Verardo’s most loyal regulars, relationships were cemented many years and miles ago. “I have guests who send me a message and say, ‘Are you working tonight? No? Okay, so maybe I’ll come next week,’” Verardo says. “That’s the thing: The food is important. But so are the relationships.”
Regulars are “an important part of not just our survival, but also of the culture [of the restaurant], in terms of creating that atmosphere, that menu, that service, that experience,” Kluger says. “It creates a reason for somebody to become a regular.”
Rosen and Kluger struck up a friendship years ago, and she’s followed him to Loring Place for all of the occasions in her life: her sister’s bridal shower, kid-friendly family brunches, and cold nights spent savoring a bowl of pasta and a pizza to share. “Being a regular at Loring Place means the food will always be incredible, comforting, and impossible to choose from,” she says.
Kluger knows how important it is to make every customer feel like a regular, on big occasions and small. “They want to go somewhere where somebody’s going to roll out the red carpet for them; they’re going to go where they do feel comfortable and where they’re sort of known,” he says.
Los Angeles resident Jaime Brothers grew up in a small Colorado town and desired that same sense of belonging in her new home. She found it inside the airy dining room of L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Brothers and her friend camp out there, nibbling on a margherita pizza, two or three times a week. She’s struck up a friendship with owner and designer Francesco Zimone.
“He has a personality that pulls people in ... and makes them feel comfortable and happy almost instantly,” Brothers says. “When you come back the third time and everybody remembers who you are and is happy to see you again, then you’re like, ‘What’s going on? I love this place,’” she says.
Zimone looks forward to chatting up Brothers and her friend at the bar, so much so that conversations often continue after everyone leaves the restaurant. “We actually even have an [Instagram] chat together,” Zimone says. “The chat is called ‘Three’s Company.’”
Key to building a regular relationship is reading the room, explained Renato Poliafito, owner of bakery and coffee shop Ciao, Gloria in Brooklyn. “I never want to be too intrusive, but I want to be welcoming and warm and able to make them feel comfortable,” Poliafito says. “You have people who just want to tell you everything, and I’m more than happy — and so are my baristas — to listen and give advice,” Poliafito explains. “But I always let them dictate the relationship.”
Perhaps, then, the regular is an unexpected byproduct of society’s trend toward the impersonal. If technology pushes people behind screens, human nature thrusts us back into the world in search of connection. Of course, being a regular has its perks — like a free beer at Carmine’s, or a taste of summer tomatoes long before they’re on the menu at Loring Place. But that kind of treatment isn’t just a preferential treatment, Kluger says. “It’s more ‘Oh, they remembered that I love tomatoes and the first tomatoes that this restaurant got, they sent to me, they thought of me,’” he says.
“In every step of most people’s day-to-day there’s multiple interactions with people that are based on transaction,” Kluger says. “In most of those transactions, you are not recognized and people are not going to remember what you like.”
Building a relationship with regulars isn’t so much about grand gestures, Kluger says. “It’s not so much about something special, it’s just somebody walking in and then saying, ‘Hi Johnny, nice to see you again.’”
*Estimate from data on businesses with under 100 employees, as reported in the Amex-commissioned 2018 Small Business Economic Impact Study, amex.co/another-reason-shop-small.