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.

Some illustrations from Buttercup to regular clientele

For delivery orders at Hungry House, Barnett includes a handwritten thank-you note with every order to remind customers that there’s a human behind the food. She also emails regulars directly to thank them for their business and solicit any feedback they might have. “I'll just be like, ‘Today, David's going to get an email,’” Barnett says. “It’s probably kind of creepy because I will just write, ‘I really hope you’re enjoying everything!’”

Sending a note or gifting a customer’s favorite dish requires thought and care, but such moves are also good for business. Restaurant regulars increase food sales by spreading the word, Barnett says. Since opening in summer last year, new customers reported that they’d found Hungry House via recommendations in their workplace Slack channels, friend groups, and on social media. The extra touches are also just fun for the staff, says Dunn. “That personal element was taken away from everyone who works in a restaurant” when the pandemic hit, she says, “and that’s the best part of the job.”

Customers who order food online also want to connect with their favorite restaurants. During the pandemic, Grace Clarke, a 35-year-old marketing consultant living between Paris and New York City, found herself compelled to send little poems to her favorite sushi spot whenever she ordered online. Sometimes Clarke gave updates on her life: “I’ve been gone for months; I made your rolls for my aunt; Obv, they weren’t as good!” Other times she’ll confess: “I’m ghosting someone; he is driving me CRAZY. I feel bad. And yet.”

While her delivery drivers have never discussed the content they find in the notes, Clarke says that’s not the point of them. “There’s this pleasant unknown,” she says. “Do they read them? I have no idea. But I do wonder if they get an order and think, ‘This girl. What an odd duck.’”

These brief digital interactions help promote a sense of belonging, says Marisa Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert and the author of the forthcoming book, Platonic. The pandemic eroded many weak ties—the fleeting and spontaneous interactions we might have had with people, like a local barista or colleague in the break room. When these ties are suddenly cut off, “it becomes hard for us to understand ourselves,” says Franco.

In-person communication is the holy grail when it comes to developing intimacy. But that doesn’t mean virtual or long-distance connection—like the kinds Barnett and Dunn are forging—can’t be fulfilling. “When we don't have other means of interaction, how we communicate online matters even more for our satisfaction in a relationship,” says Franco. “Because fundamentally, in the online world or off of it, the same things create connection: being vulnerable and showing and receiving affirmation.”

Over time those small virtual relationships add up; they make both restaurants and their customers feel affirmed. In Hudson, feedback from regulars helps validate Dunn’s hard work opening Buttercup during the pandemic. “I remember last year someone called up and said, ‘I just want to say how excellent everything was.’” Hearing that message, Dunn burst into tears. “Everyone is so quick to write something negative on Yelp. So for the regulars that come time and time again, it’s just really nice to know you’re doing something good.”

For Clarke, it’s comforting to know the strangers on the other side of her sushi order might be following along with personal milestones: “When I move, if I’m dating, if I’m working late and mad at a client and rewarding myself with five rolls at 10:30 p.m.,” she says. Along with generous tips, the most tangible form of appreciation, Clarke hopes her haiku’s bring joy to the recipients. “They’re an attempt to brighten their hour, make them feel appreciated, or at least make something potentially boring a little more interesting,” she says.

In Harlem, Clay’s small acts of kindness are equally validating for Shanika. “They make me feel that my support is being acknowledged despite the obstacles, twists, and turns we’re all experiencing in our personal and professional lives,” she says.