5 Positive Restaurant First Impressions that Will Bring First-Timers Back

Consumers find new restaurants to visit via online search and word of mouth, but this isn’t what brings first-timers back. These five restaurant first impressions can leave new patrons with positive perceptions that can bring them back for more.

The Power of Positive Restaurant First Impressions: Make It and They Will Come

As a restaurateur you might assume that your food is the beginning and end of what brings customers back; but that simply isn’t so.

The expectations a first time customer has when they visit your restaurant may vary widely and cover everything from quality of service to how soft the toilet paper is in your restrooms. Depending on where they heard about your restaurant, how it was described and what is most important to them personally, the food your restaurant serves is only one of many aspects that might produce the positive restaurant first impressions needed to bring first-time guests back.

Five Restaurant First Impressions that Create Positive Customer Perceptions

1. Marketing Presence

Can a customer easily find your business online through search results, social media outlets, directories or by typing in your business name as a website? Today consumers look for local restaurants online. Your restaurant first impression is non-existent if your website can’t be easily discovered in online search.

Customers are searching online for quick and easy answers and a reported 57% of consumers view a restaurants website before dining there (statisticbrain.com). When they do so, hours of operations, current reviews, and menu selections are among the most common questions. Before walking into a restaurant the customer uses the restaurant’s online marketing presence to validate their decision to visit. In addition, word of mouth through friends, colleagues and online may also decide whether a customer will visit or look elsewhere.

2. Cleanliness

For most restaurant-goers, there is an unwritten expectation that any establishment they visit in order to eat will be organized and sanitized from the front of house to the back where food is prepared in the kitchen. Customers expect to see clean surfaces from top to bottom: table tops, wall molding, fans, floors, and windows – everything should be dust and stain free and properly sanitized. Lack of cleanliness in the front of the house will lead to similar perceptions about how clean and sanitary food preparation and serving areas are.

A second unwritten rule customers expect is the restaurant to be handling food preparation with extreme care. One need only consider the 2015 E. coli outbreak that caused Chipotle’s business – and stock – to tumble or the most famous (infamous?) outbreak which occurred in Jack in the Box restaurants in 1992. Jack in the Box stock took a full five years to recover to pre-outbreak levels and its brand name became synonymous with the problem.

The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) get sick each year from foodborne illnesses. More than 100k are hospitalized and 3,000 die as a result. In Washington State alone, where our headquarters are located, up to 60 foodborne illness outbreaks occur affecting as many as 700 people each year (Washington State Department of Health). A customer is dining with the reassurance the food served to them is prepped, cooked, and plated following the State Department Health procedures.

If a first-time customer perceives any area of a restaurant to be less than clean or sanitary, from the hostess station to the table to the restroom, they may make assumptions about the kitchen and serving areas that preclude a second visit, make them hesitate before recommending your restaurant to their friends or colleagues, or may even make them walk out before they give your business a chance.

3. Menu

As restaurant first impressions go, your menu might well have been seen online before a new customer ever arrives. Having a menu that entails a variety of food price points, healthy eating, and options for those with food allergies provides the breadth of choices capable of creating a consistent stream of customers. For restaurants that specialize in certain types of foods that might not be familiar to first-time customers, accurately describing menu items in a way can also be key in helping them make a selection on their first visit that makes them want to come back a second time.

4. Pricing

Most first-time restaurant goers will be looking for menu choices paired with a reasonable price structure (which might be low or high, depending on their perceptions and expectations). In 2013, 45% of respondents stated good prices were very important to them when choosing a restaurant (Statista.com). Many customers also want to be able to estimate how much they will be spending before visiting a restaurant for the first time.

When paying the bill, it’s common for guests to go through a metal check list and evaluate whether they feel they received food in proportion to the price charged and whether the presentation of the food was up to par, whether they enjoyed the ambiance of the restaurant, etc. The more questions they answer with a “yes,” the more likely it is a first-time customer will come back, leave a positive review online, tag your business or check in on social networks, or even recommend your business to their own friends, co-workers and loved ones.

5. Service

Customers are looking for friendly and helpful customer service the moment they walk in the door, regardless of the type or price point of a restaurant. There should be adequate restaurant staff to be present wherever a customer is likely to need assistance – front of house hosts, wait staff, servers, bussers, bar tenders, shift or restaurant managers – each has a role to play in ensuring the customer feels cared for.

From the hostess to the busser, staff need to be an extension of the restaurants mission. A customer is coming to your restaurant to enjoy the food and overall experience.  The team of wait staff needs to be attentive yet not an inconvenience to the guest, and they need to possess the discretion to understand that their level of involvement might vary for different guests and different size and types of parties.

If a first-time customer is likely to respond that their server came by the right number of times and was pleasant, friendly and helpful, they are much more likely to leave with a positive first impression of your restaurant.  A customer is counting on paying for great food and quality service. Even if your restaurant’s food is good, if the service is poor, a first-time customer might not return.

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