The art of cultivating regulars

Martin Benn, head chef and owner at now-closed Sydney fine diner Sepia

Every customer is cherished. But one who comes back time and time again is money in the bank. Jill Dupleix talks to the brains behind some of the country’s biggest successes about how to convert the occasional diner into a regular.

“The people who come back are the people who keep your business going,” says Martin Benn, who closed his Sydney fine diner Sepia in 2018 to move to Melbourne. Sepia had a famously tight-knit and loyal group of regular diners, many of whom supported the restaurant from the day it opened in 2002, and who promise they will be flying to Melbourne for dinner to retain their status as part of the family.

Benn’s immaculate Japanese-inspired food wasn’t the only motivation here; it was the warmth and skill of a great restaurant team that sealed the deal, headed by co-owner Vicki Wild.

It’s the same at Melbourne’s hottest new CBD property Di Stasio Citta, renowned for its old-school Italian hospitality. So what’s the secret?

“You have to have the right staff,” says Citta’s Mallory Wall. “They have to be in it for the long term, and then the people who eat with you are too.” Wall is now looking after the children of those who frequented the original Cafe Di Stasio in St Kilda. “One day in St Kilda, one of our regulars actually went into labour at the table. The kitchen even had the water boiling in the kitchen, but she made it to the hospital in time. Last night, they all came in for her daughter’s 21st birthday.”

For James Cornwall, executive chef of Iki-Jime by Vue in Melbourne’s Little Collins Street, it’s important to have a few dishes that people recognise and come back for.

“The biggest problem with restaurants at the moment is that people go once, and never come back,” he says. “Once they’ve done it on Instagram, that’s it, unless there’s a dish that they love that’s always on.”

For Cornwall, it’s the ‘prawn cocktail’ of Mooloolabah prawns dusted with cured duck egg yolk and finger lime. “People bring their friends or a partner and want them to try the dish they had last time,” he says. “If it wasn’t there, they’d be disappointed.”

The art of cultivating regulars is at the very heart of hospitality, where warmth, professional skills and hard work intersect. It means putting names to faces, and remembering them. It means noting not just who tips well, but who speaks well of you and sends others to your door. It means remembering favourite orders, cocktails, wines; knowing how to read the table; judging whether people are there for a long or a short time; talking the kitchen into sending out a little extra treat; taking note of where they like to sit, so that next time they book you can save that window seat or a quiet booth or two seats at the bar.

If you’re on the floor, then you’re part of the new-business team, and it’s just as important to help them remember you. Be yourself, engage, get a kick out of helping them enjoy themselves, and be sure your name is written on the bill. Give someone an experience, not just a meal, and they’ll be back for more.