What’s Catnip for Your Customers?

Find out what drives people to keep coming back--then focus on it.

The hardest thing about getting into the minds of your customers is getting out of your own head. Restaurateurs are a passionate people--you know what you love and that’s why you made a restaurant, to bring that which you love to others.

And if you’re still in business, it means that others love what you do. But the tricky thing is, sometimes, they don’t love it for the same reasons you do. Understanding their reasons--the things that keep them coming back to you--is critical to branding your restaurant and bringing in new customers.

So how do you do that?

Well first, before you heed any of the following advice, you need to clear your brain. Put yourself in an empathetic position, one without your preconceived notions of what your food is and isn’t. Or what your restaurant is and isn’t. The more you come prepared to put yourself in your customers’ shoes, the better.

Maybe your Tikka Masala is just a simple dish you make because it needs to be on the menu, but if social media is blowing up over your Tikka Masala, you better be paying attention.

Talk to Them

This is one area at which most restaurateurs are already adept. Talking to your customers is a time-honored tradition in this industry and it can provide invaluable insight. As you have those conversations, though, be intentional.

Ask customers what their favorite dishes were. Which dishes did they tell their friends about? What part of the experience keeps them coming back? These shouldn’t be phrased as stodgy market research questions, but rather seamlessly integrated into your existing conversation.

Don’t be afraid to get specific. If one of your valued customers says that they always tell their friends about your fish and chips, follow up and find out what exactly they tell them. Sure it’s delicious, but why is it worth a mention? Does it remind them of a classic fish and chips dish? Maybe it’s healthier tasting than normal? The specifics matter, so it’s always worth a follow up.

As much as possible, try to avoid giving the impression that there are “right” answers. Don’t lead. Ask open-ended questions and re-assure them that you’re interested in honesty, not adoration.

Follow Social Media

Social media is a wonderful tool, precisely because it allows you a glimpse at your customers’ habits and tastes without any pressure on them to deliver “right” answers. Customers will freely post their thoughts--good and bad--on their experience with you.

Photographs are wonderful, because they really tell you which dishes made an impression. If people are sharing photos of a particular dish, there’s a good chance they’re talking them up too.

Dishes on Instagram

Start by tracking your mentions and noting any time something specific was mentioned or photographed. Over time, you’ll start to see patterns. Certain dishes or keywords will continue to come up. Maybe people are mentioning how affordable your food is. Or maybe it’s authentic. Or it’s unique.

Social media is a great way to find out exactly what your customers are saying, and much of that is insight into what will keep them coming back.

Orient around What Customers Love

Once you’ve figured out the dish(es) or experience(s) that keep customers coming back, you’ll need to find ways to re-affirm them in your brand. If you have one all-star dish, make sure you’re known for it.

There’s simple things you can do, like featuring those things on your website, in social media and in your restaurant (for instance calling them out on the menu).

But you can also go further. Encourage customers to post about their favorite dishes and even photos on social media. Reach out to local food bloggers and offer them a free taste of your landmark dishes. Start building a track record so that customers will start to know you for the dishes and experiences that other customers love the most.

You can also experiment with your menu. If you find that one dish stands above the rest for customers, start offering variations of that dish. If other dishes don’t impress, cut them away and bring the focus in on the ones that do.

You don’t have to re-invent your menu, but re-orienting around the things your customers love will keep them coming back--and keep new ones coming in.


  1. Talk to customers about what they love most
  2. Scan social media for clues about what keeps customers coming back
  3. Identify your top draw dish(es) and/or experience(s)
  4. Orient your restaurant around your findings, calling attention to the things customers love most