Q: Was talking with a few friends the other day about restaurants we frequent often. It occurred to us that rarely do restaurants ever recognize your consistent patronage with a free app or drink. Are we living with bygone expectations? Thoughts?
--Tom Gull, Oak Park
A: Thoughts? I'm chuckling over how deceptively simple yet inherently dangerous your question is. For there's nothing trickier than tiptoeing the line between expectation and reality among the served and the server, especially when free food or drink is involved.
You, as the customer, have the choice of what restaurants and bars to patronize. In an ideal world, your loyalty should be rewarded by the establishment you favor with something tangible: A better table or a free round of drinks or some nibble on the house.
Using perks to keep a customer happy and coming back for more is smart business -- but it's not a requirement, nor is it even an element for success. We can all name cranky, ill-mannered joints that still manage to pack 'em in every night.
While you may hope for a plate of crunchy onion rings to magically appear on the table with the words, "Our compliments," you should never, ever, expect it. Nor, God forbid, should you ask for special treatment -- even if you claim later your request was all in jest.
I've always thought the patrons who are most appreciated are those who never seem to take advantage of their status as regulars. They sit where they're asked to sit, they don't make extra demands of the barkeeps or servers, they don't fuss over their orders -- they enjoy the fare and the fellowship.
That you shouldn't expect anything special as a regular doesn't let the restaurant or bar off the hook. Really, they should make a fuss over you. And if they don't, perhaps it's time for you to think of moving on to somewhere new.
I posed your question to Bret Thorn, senior food editor for Nation's Restaurant News. He tells me Chicago restaurateurs are reporting that business is very good right now.
"Maybe some are taking customers for granted a little bit,'' he speculated. "I'm not sure if that's going on but it's a rookie move because cycles come and go and you always have to make the customers satisfied."
A number of restaurant operations offer loyalty programs, Thorn noted, where customers earn status by earning points on every visit. But he said these programs can be a "depersonalized experience."
"People go to restaurants because they want to feel the love,'' he added. "It's like 'Cheers,' where they know your name and they're glad you came … I'd rather go to a restaurant where they appreciate me and we have a good rapport. That's what good customer service is."