What is an awesome thing/idea/gimmick your local cafe/diner/coffee shop does for regulars/locals?
October 25, 2012 12:55 AM   Subscribe

What is an awesome thing/idea/gimmick your local cafe/diner/coffee shop does for regulars/locals?

Looking for ideas for great things a cafe/coffee shop/diner can do to please and delight local customers and regulars.
Preferably ongoing rather than once-off, and able to be done on a modest budget.
posted by bystander to Work & Money (41 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
A coffee shop near where I used to live always had a basket of free apples.
posted by lollusc at 1:09 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe a too big of a commitment, but my favourite cafe hosts events all the time, and they're all fantastic. No bad musicians and such. The people who run the cafe know the performers/organizers/etc. so are pretty much their own quality control and they keep to a very strong social justice theme. Finding a "social niche" can help a cafe stand out. I owe much of my social life to that cafe.

Also, there's an Italian cafe I like with a very personable owner who greets everyone in Italian. All the other employees are also incredibly friendly and also do the Italian greeting thing even though they're not Italian. And people who hang out at the cafe tend to get random free espressos and maybe even cookies.

Three other factors I look for in a cafe (not really a diner): (1) open late (I need to be some place at NIGHT, screw the mornings) and (2) wifi (3) power outlets. These three things may encourage students to hog tables, but it might be fine as long as outside food and drink are not allowed.
posted by Hawk V at 1:16 AM on October 25, 2012

Actually, here's something my favourite cafe does: first of all, you can stay as long as you want and the servers don't scowl at you. Also, on each table on the top corner there's an inlaid red coaster. If you want a refill, put your mug there and the server automatically comes over, otherwise you're not disturbed.

Now, this is to encourage long-stay patrons (work-from-homers, students) rather than an in-out culture. I spoke with the manager about the red coasters and he said they make nearly 3x more on people who stay 2+ hours. Often when people put their mug on the coaster, they also put post-its requesting sandwiches/food too. There are charging strips on each table and you can buy cheap headphones at the till, if you forget yours.

I will just say I live where there are no Starbucks (I know, I know) so the above concept is near-revolutionary. Most cafes here just want you out in 20 mins max. But this cafe is just trouncing all the others in the area because it's tapped into this unique market.

Red coasters = so awesome.
posted by Chorus at 1:18 AM on October 25, 2012 [27 favorites]

These are the ongoing things that please and delight me at my local coffee shop that make me a regular.

* Remember my usual coffee drink order when I walk in.

* Save my completely filled drink punch card that I accidentally left behind at the counter and give it back to me when I return days later.

* Leave a bowl of water outside for my puppy to drink from.

* Deliver my coffee drink to me outside as I'm trying to calm my fussy puppy.

* Make really excellent roasted-in-house coffee and espresso drinks consistently
posted by j03 at 1:24 AM on October 25, 2012

I live in a town in Canada with a lot of independent coffee shops, plus a lot of Starbucks coffee shops, plus a few Tim Hortons (a "Red State" kind of coffee and donuts chain).

There is only one coffee shop I like to go to - Bean Around the World, on Fisgard Street - mostly because the drip coffee is brewed correctly and tastes great (it is very difficult to brew drip coffee, and most coffee shops just don't put enough grounds in, w which is crazy, because it would cost them much at all to do so). So I like the coffee. There's also a tendency for coffee shops in Victoria to brew slightly acidic blonder roasts, and I prefer a heartier, full-bodied almost chocolaty (but not burnt) darker roast of coffee.

So taste is important.

Bean Around the World on Fisgard Street (not all Bean Around the Worlds are equal) is also a welcoming place, a true community hub. It's located in Chinatown, so there is broad mix of local residents and shopkeepers, university students, office workers, cops, tech workers, artists, etc. It's an eclectic place with art on the walls, and has a beautiful location in an old red-brick building, with dim lights and old, polished-wood benches.

So it's a visually appealing and slightly snug place.

The staff are also really, really well-trained. They do good customer service. Many of the staff have worked there for several years, so they're professionals and are very pleasant - there is no attitude or snottiness, and I suspect they are paid relatively well, too. I've been going there for more than 15 years, and for most of the past decade I've brought my kids too.

So trained staff are important.

The only thing they might want to do better is a bit more variety in food, or perhaps snacks that are more savoury than sweet.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:28 AM on October 25, 2012

For coffee shops: Dollar refills of travel mugs. I've seen this done where the shop will only do it for the shop's branded mugs ($4.95 gets you dollar fills of drip coffee for life) or for all travel mugs. For the latter, maybe only make it so that people have to know how to ask for it.

Or a sort of "secret menu", like ordering a "bystander" gets you a soy latte with caramel syrup and cinnamon sugar. I think of this because I once went to my neighborhood coffee place and asked the barista, with whom I was somewhat familiar, what he'd make for my hangover. "Do you remember Five Alive," he said. "I can make you my own version of that." It was not on the menu. Unfortunately, nobody else knew what was in his recipe, but when he was working & wasn't swamped with orders, I knew I could ask him for a "Five Alive".
posted by knile at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

At one Italian cafe I used to go to, the owner was super gregarious and always greeted everyone with a cheeful 'Ciao bello / bella!'. And then he would bring around little half-shots of espresso with a dollop of whipped cream to whoever was in the shop. Every time I went there I got one of those.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:33 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

On a cross country trip I remember one diner we stopped at had all these certificates on the wall of the lobby. When I looked more closely, they were honor roll certificates for the local elementary (or possibly middle) school. The school issued them each quarter and they were good for one free kids meal at this diner. The family would come in, get a free kids meal (but of course pay for the rest of the family's meals, so it's a win for the diner too!), then proudly display the certificate on the wall. That always stuck with me as a great way to really connect with the community.
posted by platinum at 1:42 AM on October 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

@PercussivePaul: Is this cafe in Vancouver? If so, I know that cafe and is on my top 3 choices of cafes in this city.

Re: long-stay patron. I'm usually a long-stay patron. I usually go in trying to save money and not have anything but tea, but 45 minutes into whatever I'm working on, I need a distraction and the lasagna in the next table is really tempting. I tend to order meals when I'm over the 1 hour mark, and after that, probably another drink and snack. Not sure if I'm the kind of customer you'd want to attract.

Also, I like cafes because sometimes you don't want to sit down for an entire meal with a friend. Instead, cafes make it easier to order meals of smaller portions or to share things, whereas it wouldn't be as relaxed at a restaurant IMHO.
posted by Hawk V at 1:42 AM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Seven Stars pub just behind the Royal Courts of Justice has a pub cat. He wears a ruff.

Breads Etc, a small south London coffee shop/bakery chain, has Dualit toasters on each table so you can have it just the way you like it.

Joe Allen, a popular theatreland restaurant, does not put its most popular item on the menu. It is London dining's worst kept secret but it does make regulars feel like regulars when they take others to eat there and explain about the off menu hamburger.

It's not a cafe, but nonetheless: at the awesome and endearingly antiquated Camden Coffee Shop, George the roaster will happily serve you in between tending to the roasting of his beans, which happens at the front of the shop. It's revolutionary: doing small scale coffee roasting in front of your customers and actually looking like you really, really care about coffee.

I've not really seen it, but I'd be a sucker for a coffee place that had guest cakes - like getting in guest beers to a pub - cakes made to recipes not from that area. Imagine discovering pastel de nata or a Chelsea bun for the first time.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:59 AM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also: something you find a lot in Europe but not so much elsewhere: bringing you a small glass of water when you order an espresso. I like.

And finally - it's a longstanding tradition that now carries a heavy whiff of hipsterism.. but setting up shop in an awkward place. Before they put signage up [and then closed], Chumleys in the West Village was a poorly kept secret that made locals feel good about knowing how to find it. More recently, you see lots of places make their location hard to find, but you also see things like Meat Liquor set up underneath a car park or The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town makes its patrons step through a fridge door in a cafe to enter.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:15 AM on October 25, 2012

A cafe near my place does prepaid coffee card for 10 coffees. I assume it saves you a bit of money, but it's a pretty cute gimmick.
posted by kjs4 at 2:17 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your cafe is the type to bring in a lot of high quality, single origin beans, consider doing after-hours taste testing (cupping) events for regulars when the new shipment is coming in. Website/social media presence is great for alerting your clientele to this and it really creates an inclusive feel.
posted by mannequito at 2:31 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Enough outlets is really important - if I need an outlet, I'd specifically pick a coffee shop where I know I can find one.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:54 AM on October 25, 2012

Babycinos with a marshmallow and hundreds and thousands for the kiddies. The very best ones do them free and also provide colouring pencils, paper and books/toys.
posted by taff at 4:54 AM on October 25, 2012

Oh, another couple of things.

One of my favourite local cafes always has rotating exhibitions of local artists' work displayed. They are for sale too.

And another one had kittens! On leashes! They lived at the cafe (but the owner took them home at night) and you could play with them as long as they weren't asleep and as long as you kept them on the leash. Unfortunately that cafe shut down due to violating health and safety regulations so maybe this just doesn't tend to be legal :(
posted by lollusc at 4:58 AM on October 25, 2012

A cafe near my house has a bulletin board where people can leave their punch cards until the next time they come in.
posted by smirkyfodder at 5:17 AM on October 25, 2012

If you don't have them already: comfortable seats! My favourite cafe (sadly now closed), I went to not because it had the best drinks, but because it had the best seats. I could sit there for twenty minutes and read my book and sip my drink and it was such a nice little respite.

After reading this thread, I wish they'd had a cat, too.
posted by Georgina at 5:17 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh and there was a cafe in San Francisco I went to once that had a pile of sketchbooks that you could just draw in as much as you wanted. A friend of mine had been drawing in them for years and when she took me there, she showed me drawings she'd done as a teenager.
posted by smirkyfodder at 5:19 AM on October 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

* Punch cards (although something similar that I could use with my phone would be great [Passbook?])

* Remembering my drink - I go to a couple of places, and the one that remembers me and my drink gets frequented a lot more than the one where they stare at me like they've never seen me before.

* A friend lives in the Yukon and the local coffee shop gives out free beverages if the temperature drops below a certain temperature (-20 or -40 celsius I think)

* A lot of caf├ęs have live music - I was thinking the other day that it might work to have "music for kids/toddlers" events. Libraries have these story-time/music events all the time, but I don't see why a coffee shop couldn't do it too. You'd get mom's in to buy a coffee and snack, and their kids would be entertained for an hour or so.

* Include an individual mint/chocolate with every espresso/latte purchase. Perhaps you can team up with a local chocolatier so you're using really good chocolate.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

A diner in my old town had an off-the-menu breakfast special of $2 for two eggs, two bacon, two slices of toast and hashbrowns specifically for local regulars.
posted by General Malaise at 6:23 AM on October 25, 2012

The coffee shop I worked at maintained reward cards for loyal customers. We kept the cards in a rolodex and punched them for them when they came in.

For regulars with kids, we often hooked the kids up with free drinks to keep them occupied. Nothing fancy, just tiny 4oz chocolate milk or hot chocolate.

We also had a basket of random fruit by the door in the mornings that was free. Apples, bananas, oranges.

Our "company christmas party" often included a few regular customers. Typically this was dinner at a local restaurant and drinks afterward.

We got several copies of the local newspaper delivered each day. Half of them just got scattered on the tables for general consumption. The other half were saved for particular customers that came in every day specifically to read the paper and get some coffee. They got a fresh newspaper.

We had a book exchange shelf.

Other than that, we generally just looked out for some of our favorite, regular customers. Geno, who owned the Italian restaurant across the street came in EVERY DAY at 2:30, just before he went in to work at his restaurant. He ate a croissant and had a coffee. If I noticed earlier that day we were running low on croissants, I'd make sure to stash one for him. Shannon liked to sit and do the daily crossword puzzle around lunchtime. If I was cleaning up tables, and noticed a well-read paper, I'd pull out the crossword puzzle for her.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 7:00 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Free dog biscuits. Free bags of used coffee grounds for the garden. A corner with kid-sized furniture and some toys and books. A place for regulars to keep their own mugs. And one coffeehouse I know of has some booths instead of tables, which of course is awesome.
posted by scratch at 7:04 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wormhole in Chicago, IL:

-free nilla wafer tucked into the saucer for every espresso
-free drip coffee for anyone who stops in on their bike commute to work wearing a helmet

Undisclosed Coffee Shop in Chicago, IL:

-I think they jokingly called it a "Cincinnati Latte" or something silly, but it was whatever beer they had in the staff fridge discretely poured into a white paper cup with a lid. It was not on the menu, they didn't charge you for it, you had to be personal friends with the staff, and it was probably illegal/would get people fired, but rad

Tip Top in Columbus, OH:

-if you ordered a PBR, it was $2; if you ordered a "two wheeler," that was the secret code word for people who rode their bike to the bar, and it was only $1. This was a bar, not a coffeeshop, but the "secret name" and "discounts for people who bike" concepts still apply.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:08 AM on October 25, 2012

My favorite neighborhood restaurant offers a 10% local merchants discount. Since I am a local merchant, this is lovely.
posted by nonasuch at 7:23 AM on October 25, 2012

Cafes I love in my neighborhood:

One is a combination cafe, bar, and bike shop. I think this would be hard to replicate unless you have a big space and happen to know a bike mechanic looking for a place to set up shop, but you could definitely strive to be more bike friendly. For example what about installing a bike rack? Keeping an air pump in the cafe (prominently displayed) in case anyone needs a bit of air in their tires? Selling inner tube kits or other bits of useful bike merch near the register? Hooks or shelves for customers to hang their helmets? Be sure to add some bike-oriented decor so that this makes sense to newcomers. I also like the idea of discounts or specials for people who ride their bikes to the shop.

Another is just an ordinary cafe, but they have a big back room with electrical outlets at every table for people working on laptops. LOVE THAT. Seriously, I want to kiss those people.

I always try to pick places that are roasting their own beans or brewing local roasts. Not for environmental/locavore reasons but because coffee is better the fresher the roast, and it's hard to get coffee from Italy that was roasted in the last couple days.

I love anywhere that serves "for here" customers in real mugs rather than paper cups. Someone mentioned nilla wafers alongside espresso drinks -- this sort of thing always makes me want to come back.

I'm a sucker for an interesting cafe bathroom. I guess because it says locally owned/creative/mom&pop to me rather than the sterile utilitarian Starbucks bathrooms.

A lot of cafes in my area have dog bowls full of water outside, in the summertime.

Know your brand and customer base -- as someone who mostly goes to cafes to work, I tend to avoid places with flyers everywhere advertising Mommy & Me classes, story time, children's music events, etc. But if your clientele are mostly young families instead of childless freelancer types, that could be a good way to go. Conversely, all the electrical outlets in the world are not going to keep mothers with young children coming back.
posted by Sara C. at 7:54 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

For the record, I've never been there (nor ever dared to go) but for many years there was a very abusive strange eating establishment on Cape Cod:
Here is what you could expect on any given day; celebratory hooting and hollering by the staff over tips and confused tourists waiting for someone to take their orders, at Jacks you write your own food ticket and place it on the wheel. You also get your own coffee and silverware and if you do not pick up your food fast enough, expect the wrath of Jack. You were also expected to wipe down your own table and pay with cash, no credit cards allowed.

Think Mayberry in New England where everyone has gone crazy and you will have a feel for the place. Honestly, it is all in good fun and no one took Jack seriously.
Judging by the number of receipts on display at his museum, Edward Gorey was quite the fan.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:54 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I lived in a small country town that is a tourist destination so it has lots of small privately owned coffee shops, Starbucks would be run out of town as the retirees in town take their coffee and cakes seriously.

Friendly staff that remember your orders, your name and even your dogs name.

Rang me up the day my mother didn't show up for her daily coffee worried something had happened to her because they knew she lived alone (it had, but we knew about it and she was in hospital being treated for it). All the staff cheering the day she was out of hospital and back for her coffee.

Water out for the dogs.

Free babychinos for people with kids to keep them occupied (small espresso cup filled with nothing but foam with chocolate sprinkles), one also offers dogacinos (plain foam but in a bowl for dogs).

Trained staff with good coffee that actually know how to make a latte or cappuccino and not a luke warm cup of milk with burnt coffee bits in the bottom and know what the heck a crema is on a shot of espresso.
posted by wwax at 8:42 AM on October 25, 2012

My favorite place has:

Free wifi and computers to sit at, 15 minutes free with drink purchase.
Smartphone reward cards (rewardy) and paper rewards cards
Big bowl of doggy biscuits for visiting doggies
Sells tomato plants in spring
Text plan - text your drink and they make it ahead for you.
posted by bq at 8:58 AM on October 25, 2012

There was a diner back in my hometown that kept a big rack of personal coffee mugs for the regulars; there was a label with the person's name on each little hook. Gimmicky and kind of pointless - I mean it's just a coffee mug, after all - but an effective gimmick. "Ooh, look at that big rack of mugs for the regulars, I wish I were a regular here...."
posted by ook at 8:59 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

How about shushing the people who have loud cell phone conversations that distract everyone else? That would make me *love* any place I go. F

Oh definitely "real" glassware for dine-in.
posted by radioamy at 9:00 AM on October 25, 2012

Nthing letting customers stick around as long as they like. It really does not cost much to let customers stay for a few hours, and they will buy something eventually. Yeah, you'll get a few who will nurse that cup of coffee forever, and ask for free refills. But most will get hungry and buy whatever you're selling. It's worth the while.

Also seconding comfortable seating. Doesn't have to be armchairs or couches (I really find couches in coffee shops awkward), but comfortable seats are heaven when I'm sitting for a long time.

And also seconding outlets! Even if I'm only going to be somewhere for a little while, it's great to have somewhere to plug my phone and/or Kindle and/or computer in. I'm not always running on full power, and it's nice to be able to read the next chapter, or check my email while relaxing with a cup o' joe.

I love coffee shops that offer more than one flavor of coffee. Don't go crazy, but a coffee of the week or a coffee of the day is better than offering only regular, dark, or decaf. And I will go more to a coffee shop that knows bitter does not equal strong. I like strong coffee, I dislike bitter coffee.

Outside sitting (if it can be done) with overhead protection is one of the things I love best. Umbrellas are nice, but canopies are better. Umbrellas tend to blow away, or then never get put up (meaning I have to put them up myself), or they don't offer any protection from the sun... I frequent coffee shops that have patios with overhangs or canopies, and let me sit outside with my dog. If they give me free water for the dog, that's great too.

Punch cards are nice (buy ten coffees, get one free) but I keep forgetting to bring mine, so there's that.
posted by patheral at 9:11 AM on October 25, 2012

I've seen coffee places create a poll with their tip jars - post a poll question and have two tip jars labeled with the different poll answers. It struck me as a genius way to increase tips but also fun for regulars to come back each day and find out what the poll "winners" were. It would have to strike the right tone and be genuinely entertaining, so it would take some creative energy to maintain for the long haul.
posted by yarrow at 9:42 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

The coffee shop I worked at maintained reward cards for loyal customers. We kept the cards in a rolodex and punched them for them when they came in.

Mine does this! A nice bonus is that they eventually they get to know your name because that is how the punch cards are filed. Also, a daily trivia question on the blackboard -- if you know the answer, you get maybe $.25 off your order.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:07 AM on October 25, 2012

Books on the wall for sale (like the old Bad Habits Cafe in St. Paul, MN).

A friendly-to-teens atmosphere, like the original Espresso Royale Cafe in Dinkytown, Minneapolis, who didn't chase us off just because we weren't grown-ups.

And at the Day By Day Cafe in St. Paul, we went often enough that the staff let us make our own coffee while we waited.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:12 AM on October 25, 2012

Oh, and Blue State Coffee in Providence, RI, not only has GREAT coffee (from New Harvest Coffee roasters) but they also let customers vote with tokens on which cause should receive a periodic donation: https://www.bluestatecoffee.com/philanthropy/
posted by wenestvedt at 10:13 AM on October 25, 2012

And a discount for ANY OLD travel mug -- not your crummy, be-logo-ed, double-wall plastic toy -- is a must. Serious Coffee Travelers are very picky about the right mug, and to disrespect their choice by ruling it ineligible for cheap refills is a snub.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:15 AM on October 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

One of the most effective sales-boosting things I've experienced is cooking some of your baked goods in-store. Smell of brownies/cookies/croissants fresh from the oven? Excuse me, I need to go up and get one of those right now.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:35 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many times when I walk into my usual coffee shop, one of the employees will see me and wordlessly reach out for my travel mug, then prep it for an Americano and give it to the barista, who slots it into the queue as the last-received order. They usually finish the orders ahead of mine by the time I've gotten to the front of the line and paid for my drink, so as I turn from dropping my change into the tip jar the barista is sliding my mug across the counter to me, more often than not smiling and saying "have a nice day, Lexi!"
posted by Lexica at 7:57 PM on October 25, 2012

This isn't something that I've seen, but when I found out about turntable.fm I really wanted to find a small coffee shop with wifi where the music playing was a turntable room, and cafe-goers could join the room from their phones or laptops and take turns choosing the soundtrack of the cafe. (if you set this up i will TOTALLY come visit!)
posted by ghostbikes at 1:23 PM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

My coffee shop offers a neat payment method which benefits both them and their patrons. To cut down on their credit card fees, they will offer their regular customers the option to prepay $25 at a time, then they just deduct your daily coffee cost from that. The bonus for the patrons is they offer to throw in $5 on top of the $25 that you're putting on your card, plus every 6 or so drinks you earn a free drink. I love this program because I like just running in and ordering without having to get my debit card out every time, plus the free coffee is obviously a nice perk. Ha!
posted by elisebeth at 7:15 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

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