Frequent diners club

Restaurant chains are rolling out airline-style rewards and points programs to fill seats

Marc Asnin/Redux

Restaurants are taking a cue from the airline industry and implementing loyalty programs they hope will lure frequent diners by offering free trips, a peek at new menu items, and entry into contests.

Starbucks customers in Calgary and across the U.S., for instance, can now get a “My Starbucks Rewards” card that gives habitual caffeinators a star with every purchase. More stars mean more benefits: refills on brewed coffee and tea, or the chance to buy rare coffee beans and trips to far-flung coffee-growing regions. Denny’s Rewards Club members get discounts on meals and a “tasty offer” on the anniversary of signing up. At Kelsey’s, eKlub participants are welcomed with a free starter, and then receive news alerts on deals, coupons and contests. The most appetizing offer, though, may come from the Outback Steakhouse, which honours its American rewards club members with a “free Aussie-Tizer” on joining and enters them into a contest for a trip to Australia and tickets to see country singer Tim McGraw.

For some, these loyalty programs are being used to help fill seats in an industry that was hit hard by the recession—total restaurant traffic in Canada and the U.S. has declined about three per cent in the last year. However, this emerging trend, says Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, is still mostly confined to large-scale, U.S.-based chains. “Loyalty projects are long-term, and costly,” he says. “You need a big market to even think about implementing them.” They can also be risky: they’re difficult to put in place, and not easily done away with if they’re not successful. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”

But while there are other benefits to such programs—they can be used to track diners’ habits—some wonder about the efficacy of luring patrons with gimmicks. Bob Goldin, executive vice-president of the food consulting firm Technomic, argues that “the restaurant business is different from the airline industry insofar as we value choice as consumers, and we tend not to like to go back to the same restaurants over and over.” So what does work? “The basics: great quality food, top-notch service, and good atmosphere.”

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