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Question about "regular" status, VIP, special treatment, etc

r
ricardo87 Jun 6, 2010 12:17 AM

Hi all,

Long time reader and first time poster here!

Anyway, I was curious about this subject and was hoping some of you can shed some light on this. I've noticed--based on my experiences, those of friends, and from what I've read online--that there can be some interesting perks for certain customers in higher end Manhattan restaurants. Obviously VIPs and friends of the house get these, but I'm more interested about the "treats" regulars, or more interestingly, first-timers can receive.

For example, I've heard it's not uncommon for folks to be offered a complimentary glass of champagne at Le Bernardin or Per Se--even if it's their first visit and they have no connections. Also, some "regulars" can get a few extra treats from the kitchen on occasion from Per Se, EMP, etc. I've always wondered why, for example, after I referred two different people (with no connections, not in the industry, and both ordering the same tasting menu) to Le Bernardin on separate occasions one was offered free champagne almost immediately and later the signature dessert egg, but the other received the standard (still excellent) experience.

That's the background, here are my two main questions:

1. What determines whether a first-timer is offered "special treatment," for lack of a better word? I don't mean to imply that the standard treatment is subpar, I'm just referring to things that go beyond the normal experience.

2. How is "regular" status determined at the top level of Manhattan restaurants, and how does this affect the dining experience? How many times must one dine to be considered a "regular" at Per Se, EMP, Daniel, etc? And does it even matter?

I look forward to everyone's responses and hope some people are as interested in this as I am. Thanks!

-----
Per Se
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

Le Bernardin
155 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019

  1. shaogo Jun 11, 2010 10:16 AM

    There are a few couples who visit our restaurant who consider *themselves* "regulars." They're there at least twice a month; sometimes more frequently than that. Sadly, these folks just don't "get it." They typically engage either myself or a server in a lengthy conversation about "what's good..." and then go and order what they always end up getting anyway. It's okay when we have the time for this banter, but we don't always; sometimes we must endure this idle chit-chat while other paying customers are being kept waiting.

    They don't spend much money, have made errors scrutinizing the bill ("yes, sir; that's the crab salad you ordered with your appetizer") and then leave my servers a small (10%-12%) tip. What all these particular "regulars" have in common is that they'll shamelessly inform me that they're regulars and flat-out ask for free stuff (wine, apps). Nearly every restaurateur I know feels the same way about being "begged" for freebies; we just can't stand it. It's similar to the boors who order a drink at the bar and when the bartender's finished pouring them their shot, they cry out "hey! put a little more in there!" (That's a guarantee I'm going to charge the beggar for a double.)

    True regulars -- the ones who receive the VIP treatment -- are the folks who show up at least once a month -- with reservations. They're understanding if there's a wait; and are repaid well for their patience in the form of free drinks at the bar. These folks order something different each time they visit. They're the first to order new specials that may be rather adventurous or ambitious. They'll be honest if they don't like something but they're so humble about it that I feel almost guilty about displeasing them and then I do my best to bend over backwards to make them happy -- usually at no cost to them. At the end of their meal they'll compliment the chef (and sometimes the staff) and invariably tip 20% (or more -- but I certainly don't think that anything more than 20% is ever really necessary, and servers who set their sights on anything higher than that regardless of the quality of service given the customer are just being unrealistic).

    Even though many of these VIPs are of the mindset that "money is no object," when all's said and done they've probably received far more value for their dollar, in the form of extras, off-menu items, comp liquor, etc. than the customer who comes in and makes every attempt to either get something for free or get a special dish or service that they're just not entitled to.

    These regulars also show up for our special wine dinners, gourmet seminars, and special dinner-theater programs. Those who care to are often taken on a tour of the kitchen to see what's going on. Often I'll invite them into the bar for a cordial or cognac (on the house, of course). We send them Holiday cards and often they send similar cards to us. I address them by name more often than not. If word gets back to us that there's an ill family member at home, we'll actually drive to their residence with a "care package" of good food, hot soup and some homemade sweets or the like; all at no charge.

    In a nutshell my regulars are classy people, many of whom have worked hard for their money but who don't pinch pennies. They're educated about our (exotic) cuisine and are nearly as passionate about it as we are. They're good, kind folks who make what we do ever-so-worthwhile. It's a pleasure to "roll out the red carpet" for people like this.

    4 Replies
    1. re: shaogo
      r
      ricardo87 Jun 11, 2010 11:28 PM

      Terrific response! Exactly the type of insight I was hoping for.

      As someone who's dined out with the type of couple you first addressed, I can only sympathize with you and your staff...

      1. re: ricardo87
        EWSflash Jun 12, 2010 09:58 AM

        Ditto that. I finally flat-out refused to go anywhere with a friend of my husband's and his wife, who routinely spent the whole meal trying to figure out a way to squeeze freebies out of restaurants and bars. It was too humiliating and I didn't want to be lumped together with people like that in anybody's mind.

        1. re: EWSflash
          shaogo Jun 12, 2010 11:10 AM

          EWSflash: kindly look at my profile and email me... I know you're in NYC and would like to get to know you, at least on the inter-web...

        2. re: ricardo87
          shaogo Jun 12, 2010 11:09 AM

          ricardo and EWSflash: I *love* you guys!

          Like I said, "understated," grateful patronage gets you a million dollars worth of comp from me... If you're having fun and being pleasant, it's much better all around for you and for us.

          ricardo, you needn't sympathize (although it was nice to say)... the diners (about 50%) who eat with gusto, are passionate about the food, and are *nice* to us more than make up for the 5% of diners who're real bone-heads. The in-betweens... well, heck, it's my job and how I make my living; a job ain't all roses and cherries!

          Thanks so much for making my day!

      2. L2k Jun 10, 2010 09:37 AM

        We "found" a sushi place near us a few years ago which was delicious AND well priced. Used to go there once or twice/month.

        After many many attempts, we convinced my sister and b-i-l to join us, and they also liked the place.

        By the 4th or 5th time they went there without us (going monthly or so), they were getting all sorts of extras. Us? Nothing.

        Neither family tipped better, ordered more, or anything else I can think of, but it was always a bit grating to hear about their free edamame or shumai or soup etc.

        3 Replies
        1. re: L2k
          h
          Harters Jun 10, 2010 10:39 AM

          "they were getting all sorts of extras. Us? Nothing."

          We fly internationally more than any other members of the family. They have all been upgraded to business class at least once. Us, never.

          Am I an bitter, disgruntled old man? You betcha.

          1. re: L2k
            j
            Janet from Richmond Jun 11, 2010 06:03 AM

            Are they friendlier or more outgoing? Not saying you were rude or anything, but as someone who is friendly and very outgoing and engages with the staff whether it's the local coffee shop or the fanciest place in town, I tend to get a lot of comps. I express interest in the establishment and the staff (and it's sincere as I find people and places interesting and love hearing their stories) and it comes back tenfold.

            1. re: Janet from Richmond
              L2k Jun 11, 2010 09:35 AM

              Like I'm the one to answer *that* question.

              I'd say we're equally friendly/outgoing. Especially at a restaurant we frequent, we always say hello to the host/owner and ask how he's doing, and we tip well (20% or better for outstanding service).

          2. s
            soupkitten Jun 10, 2010 08:54 AM

            just wanted to add that sometimes, more often-er than not in high end places, the kitchen crew will be working on menu items in development, & sometime between a dish being a twinkle in someone's eye. . . and a formalized version of the dish hitting the specials menu, there are a few dry runs to perfect accompaniments, sauces, plating, etc. a lot of times these plates float out to a table of regulars who happen to be there at the right time. . . or the chef will be prompted by a regular's or vip's entrance to make the developing item and just send it out as a comp.

            bouncing the concept off someone who is a regular gives additional feedback to to the kitchen, because the person is "a real customer," not just a member of staff. there is more "play" between the establishment and a regular customer. some folks can get instant "play" on a first time visit by showing greater than average interest in food or the particular establishment, by having the same hometown as the chef or bartender, or by any number of intangible things. looking sharp never hurts, either (and just to be clear, by this i absolutely *don't* mean that folks the restaurant workers should find you attractive-- i mean that they look at your appearance and see a neat & stylish person, well dressed in whatever "scene" the place is going for, without being an over the top fashion-victim. that you look like the type of customer they want in the restaurant. no sweatpants :) even after you are officially a regular, no sweatpants.)

            3 Replies
            1. re: soupkitten
              LindaWhit Jun 10, 2010 10:08 AM

              Very good point, soupkitten. I've been a lucky recipient of a couple of previews of a potential menu item at a favorite restaurant, and after about 2 months, noticed one was on the menu...with a couple of the minor changes I had suggested (WAY less sauce being one of them, as they had definitely over-sauced the dish).

              Another time, my friend and I got a shot of a new drink they were playing around with, and sure enough, several months later, it was going out on servers' plates to tables...with the suggestion of a hint more cayenne on top that I had said I thought it needed. Being a regular does have its perks. :-)

              1. re: LindaWhit
                s
                soupkitten Jun 10, 2010 05:17 PM

                oh, that's great, that's just how it's supposed to work! the regular feels like they are contributing to the restaurant (and they are!) and the restaurant is getting great feedback and at the end of it, everyone is appreciative of and invested in each other.

                that sort of play might not happen with a non-regular who was sent the over-sauced dish or the under-spiced cocktail, they might be like: "what's this, is it something not quite finished?"

              2. re: soupkitten
                j
                Janet from Richmond Jun 11, 2010 06:00 AM

                Good points soupkitten. We have often benefitted (and not when a dish was a dud or a drink...hehe) from this when the chef wants a guinea pig who will give honest and constructive feedback.

              3. r
                ricardo87 Jun 9, 2010 01:18 PM

                Thanks for the input! I had assumed there were a variety reasons for all of this, I just wasn't sure what they were.

                I have noticed, for example, that when I've gone to Per Se and talked food with the staff, asked questions, etc, I've gotten some extras that people who were clearly there on business didn't. Considering some of the people in that dining room, I guess it must be a breathe of fresh air to have someone who's totally there for the food rather than to impress the potential new client!!

                1. LindaWhit Jun 9, 2010 10:04 AM

                  As to your first question, special treatment could be offered upon expressing great interest in an item on the menu, but not ordering it, perhaps because of expense or just not sure if you'd like it. Perhaps the person waiting on you relayed that interest to the chef, and he has the time and inclination to offer up a small taste of what you had expressed interest in.

                  As to being a regular - Frequency of dining there usually does it. Also, bringing others there to dine with you and tipping well. I'm not sure if it can be broken down to "how many times"...it's just that they recognize you. That you've been going there every couple of weeks for a couple of months...you ask for a particular waiter whose service you were appreciative of the last time you were there...all sorts of reasons that just tend to combine into a recognition of someone who enjoys the restaurant and atmosphere, and they want to continue adding to your enjoyment by treating you a bit more special.

                  1. c
                    chefbeth Jun 9, 2010 09:39 AM

                    There any number of reasons why a guest may get unexpected VIP treatment or not.

                    First example: You're slam-full on a Saturday night. At that point the kitchen's primary responsibility is to make sure that every diner has a great experience. When you're trying to keep your line out of the weeds, you just may not have time for those little extras. On the other hand, if you're line is already out of control, it's always a good idea to send out an amuse or mid-course treat so that the guest can feel pampered while they wait a little longer for their order. A good FOH manager who knows that the kitchen is slammed when the table is seated may bring over a glass of champagne to help with the pacing of the meal and buy the line some breathing room.

                    Second example: A slow Tuesday evening. Pacing isn't a problem on a night like this, but these are the people you want coming back every week to make your mid-week numbers. The kitchen has a little time on their hands, so why not use it to come up with something thoughtful and spoil your guests a little?

                    In these cases, the VIP treatment is less about who you are than about when you show up.

                    1. h
                      Harters Jun 6, 2010 10:19 AM

                      "What determines whether a first-timer is offered "special treatment," for lack of a better word"

                      Could be anything. The same sort of thing that gets you upgraded on flight reservations or hotel bookings.

                      I recently went to a localish restaurant which offers three "surprise" tasting menus (at differing prices) - you have to say at the time of reservation which you want to eat. We'd booked the mid-range one but when we got there, the server said that the chef was going to upgrade us as he thought we would enjoy the experience. He & I contribute to another well known food/restaurant board so I can only assume that was the reason and he wanted to take care of someone he sort of knew, if only vaguely and certainly only virtually.

                      1. hcbk0702 Jun 6, 2010 06:21 AM

                        If you make it known to the restaurant that you're having a celebratory meal (e.g. birthday, anniversary etc.), they'll often provide a little something extra, such as an extra dessert or a glass of champagne.

                        I also find that solo diners often get a little VIP treatment, even if they are "first-timers". Restaurants at this level understand that solo diners are not there for ancillary reasons (e.g. meeting with friends, talking business with colleagues); they are there to just eat, making a very specific choice to dine at that particular restaurant. Often, they will get extras as well, especially if they engage with the service staff during the meal.

                        Of course, VIPs in the industry will get the special treatment. Extra and comped savory courses are rare for others, but important industry people often receive them. French Laundry and Per Se are especially well-known for this practice.

                        As for "regular" status, there are essentially two ways to get it:
                        1) Repeated visits to the restaurant; they will keep track on their reservation system or
                        2) Spend a *lot* on wine for one meal

                        I wouldn't worry too much about it. #1 will work by itself if you like the restaurant a lot.

                        -----
                        Per Se
                        10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

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