During the pandemic Shanika was adamant about supporting local restaurants through delivery. The 31-year-old brand consultant, who lives in Harlem, would frequently place online orders at Clay, a new American restaurant in her neighborhood. And pretty soon she started to notice little surprises inside the brown paper bag—like a side of her favorite cauliflower with turmeric and honey or mini doughnuts for dessert. “It's a sweet little consideration that still continues, whether I dine in or decide to do takeout,” says Shanika, who asked to withhold her last name for anonymity.
The virtual hospitality Shanika experienced at Clay has become increasingly common throughout the pandemic. As online ordering booms, restaurants are finding new ways to fortify relationships with one of their most important types of customer: regulars. Repeat business is critical to a restaurant’s bottom line, and in this digital-first paradigm, some are getting creative in order to nurture it—drawing custom artworks on order bags, including a customer’s favorite side for free, and reaching out directly with handwritten thank-you notes and emails.
“I could go on about a million business metrics,” says Kristen Barnett, founder of Brooklyn-based ghost kitchen Hungry House. “But we are nothing without our regulars.”
How we eat has changed dramatically over the past few years. Food delivery is worth $150 billion globally, and the U.S. market has more than doubled during the pandemic. Though diners are starting to eat out again, digital ordering has grown three times faster than dine-in traffic since 2014.
Figuring out how to connect with diners in this pandemic-induced shift was something Kat Dunn thought about a lot when she opened Buttercup, her Hudson, New York, restaurant in summer 2020. “It was a struggle to figure out what hospitality even meant when, at the same time, you’re requesting people stay six feet away,” she says.
As a way to nurture regulars, Dunn works with the “exceptional artists” among her staff to create custom drawings on takeout order bags. When one of them learned a repeat customer was a “Beyoncé fanatic,” they adorned the brown paper bag with a cartoon of the singer with red lipstick and the caption: “Cause Buttercup slays.” She also likes to include surprise freebies whenever she knows a customer’s preferences. For instance, Dunn says the kitchen staff noticed that one regular hadn’t ordered his usual pimento dip—so they threw in the appetizer.