How to become a welcome regular customer when fave cafe is taken over?
May 7, 2015 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I have social anxiety and mostly socialise either online or at meetups of socially anxious people organised via a community web site. However I'd like to become comfortable just being around other people in my local café and possibly (not essential but would be nice) be able to have short chit-chat conversations with the staff too. Honestly at this stage just getting out the apartment regularly and being around others would be a valuable thing in itself, I don't expect a shouted greeting like Norm in Cheers :) but maybe I could get more from my visits too. Is there anyone who is a regular at a bar or coffee where they visit by themselves but still feels quite at home and comfortable talking to the staff? How did you get to that point?

(I'm not bothered if it's a slow process as I am hoping to remain near to this neighbourhood for a while and within easy travelling distance after). Is it better when you have a prop like a book or Android tablet/ Ipad which gives you a reason to be lingering after you have finished your coffee/ food? Possibly relevant factor: I am a middle-aged and not great looking male who would be visiting on weekday afternoons when my two local friends are either housebound or at work. So I lack the "social proof" that visiting with friends confers. The last owner I would guess was an early-thirties woman who seemed happy and able to chat away with a mostly older clientele. I overheard that the two new owners are female so they could possibly be a similar age too. I have 100% no intention of flirting or asking them out, God no (!), so want to make sure if I am making small talk it's viewed as "valued regular customer" not "creepy old dude hanging around"! For all I know they could both me married and 10 years older than me but I suspect the owner has passed the place on to someone similar to themselves. I never really spoke to the previous owner except when ordering and paying but I would like to speak a little, it seems that's what the regulars had been doing, and I think just being around other people might help my social anxiety. Alternatively, if you have ever worked in a coffee shop or café, what are some things you like or dislike about some of the regular clients there? What are good things to do and faux pas to avoid? (I'm located in Scotland but I guess some things are universal)

(background info)

On Facebook on Saturday I read that my favourite local café is being transferred to two new owners at the end of the month. I felt a bit bad because I believe supporting local cafes rather than just the huge Starbucks chains of the world is A Good Thing, and I always enjoyed the relaxed ambience in the place. It had nice music, free newspapers, and the service (it was the owner who served you, occasionally there was another person working part-time too) felt a bit friendlier than the Starbucks where it seems a bit fake and you are one of hundreds of customers each day. Basically it was how I imagined a Dutch café with the shabby chic décor except no marijuana! (not legal here and wouldn't be of interest to me anyway). I popped in today from nostalgia to see the place one more time before any upcoming changes, and hung around a little longer than usual. When I visited this café in the last couple of years I would usually just be faffing around on my smartphone and not really paying too much attention, maybe idly overhearing some interesting conversation of the clients with the owner occasionally but without being too nosy. I noticed today that several people had also seen the same Facebook message and came in to express their appreciation and to wish the former owner well in their next moves in life, even people who didn't have time to stop and buy a coffee or anything. There were quite a few regulars who the owner knew by name, people of all ages, and I felt a little regret that I hadn't visited this café more often, I had plenty of free time in the last two years and it's very local after all, and I think I would have benefitted from making some attempts to chat rather than just being on my phone. However all that's in the past and I need to look to the future. I know some people enjoy being regulars in their local bar, maybe popping in for a drink on the way home from work, and I'd like to see if I like the atmosphere in the new place once the two owners have opened it up again. Apparently it will be part café and part "social enterprise", which sounds intriguing. Assuming I do like it I want to visit it a few times in the early weeks and create a favourable first impression, so that I don't make the same mistake twice and so that I might be one of those who has brief chats with the staff which would be good conversation practice for me (given that I have social anxiety and joining groups is difficult for me right now).
posted by AuroraSky to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am a regular at an eatery, not a bar or coffee shop. I have a long history of tending to go to the same place and order the same thing regularly, so this is hardly the first time I have done this. I do not have social anxiety. In fact, I am kind of a glad-hander type.

Be very polite and respectful. Don't ask questions or divulge information that is overly personal. Go regularly. As long as you aren't actively a jerk, that is the single most important part. Be there every Tuesday and Thursday at about the same time (or whatever schedule works for you).

Put your smartphone away while in line and ordering. Make sure your attention is on interacting with the staff in an appropriate manner. It is okay to make jokes, but try to keep the conversation space fairly focused on the subject at hand -- on the thing going on right there or some other neutral, socially acceptable conversation starter, like the weather.

For example, because I tend to order the same thing over and over, people eventually get to know my order and the staff start asking before I can say anything 'Your usual? With x, y and z?" I do change my order sometimes, so I will make jokes about "Don't get too cocky. I do change it sometimes and that will trip you up." or when new staff come in who don't know my order, I make jokes that "They have my picture in the training room, don't they?"

Always be humorous in a way that cannot possibly be interpreted as a veiled criticism. Make sure your jokes and remarks frame things positively. Kid about how well they know you, how they are all over it. When there is really some delay or problem, be understanding and tell them it's no big deal. Do not make jokes about any problems that occur. Jokes should always be a compliment, not a criticism.

Since you have social anxiety, try to find a time of day to go for your coffee when it is typically slow. Avoid the breakfast or lunch crowd or whatever time of day is crowded. Try to go when the line is short and the place is mostly empty.

This will make you less nervous and it is also just a situation where the staff have more time to talk to the customers. If you really want to become a regular that can talk more familiarly with the staff than what I do, this is the way to foster that. If you do get to be an established regular and on friendly terms and then happen to go one day when they are busy, be mindful of their privacy. Don't say anything overly personal in front of a crowded room that might be awkward for them. Save the chattier, friendlier stuff for times when the place is more empty and it is not a problem for them to engage you.

Once I become a regular, they tend to give me red carpet treatment. I keep that by not acting like they are my servants or beneath me somehow. I don't act snobby and like I am somehow deserving of the red carpet treatment. I always thank them for being good to me.
posted by Michele in California at 3:38 PM on May 7, 2015 [14 favorites]

Best answer: When they first reopen is a great time to get to know people, because there's a lot to talk about with a new place. Ask the staff if they're new or if they're continuing on from the old owners. Ask them what their favorite change is. Ask them if there's anything cool on the new menu that wasn't on the old menu. Ask the owner how it's going. Ask them questions about what their plans for the place are. Ask about big challenges, ask what change they're most excited to make. Ask how the first week(s) transition os going; later ask if things are stabilizing or still in flux. Because it's new, there's plenty of stuff to talk about.

The key thing: don't ask all these things at once. Order your coffee, and if they're not swamped, ask a single chitchat question. Consider their answer, comment on it (oh, new chairs? I'll look forward to that!) and step away. Don't ask another question, save that for next time. Also, just because there aren't 5 customers in line doesn't mean there's not something that the barista should be doing, he may not be free to chat. So just a single question, and move on. By the time you've been there a few times, you may have things to follow up on instead of a brand new question. (oh, hey, you've added the bookshelf that Jane was talking about! Does that seem to be going over well?) If they're super-busy, don't bother. But if someone's standing there, say hi/bye when you drop your empty dishes back off at the counter.

Once they start recognizing you, you just say "thanks, see you tomorrow" (or next week, or whatever your frequency is). Once you're established as being around and being interested (but not pushy), they will start volunteering conversation when they have time to talk.
posted by aimedwander at 3:44 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I worked in a bar that had a band of regulars who came in after work for a couple beers. I'm a woman, and all my regulars were guys. It was very relaxed, but not of the Cheers variety, in the sense there were never personal-type conversations about relationships and feelings. Nobody was into anybody else's business. Some were chatty, others read the paper, they all chatted with each other. Most chat was about work or our town. It was at the beginning of the craft beer movement, so there was a shared love there.

Local politics is a good subject--not proclaiming opinions, but knowing who's who.

All I can say about not being perceived as a creep is, don't act like a creep. Don't ask personal questions, don't make comments about someone's looks or clothes or hair or tattoos--even a compliment.
posted by feste at 4:04 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: Just going regularly makes you a regular. Smile at people. Make eye contact. Clean up after yourself. Thank them for their service. And tip well. That's it. Do that a few times and then, when you notice that they seem to remember you, ask them about their day or make a comment about the weather. It helps if you are funny and/or upbeat. It also helps if you are not long-winded. Short, sweet, and out.

Challenge yourself to remember their names and things that they talk about.

If, after a month or so you don't feel like you are fitting in, don't give up, try a different place. It's really amazing that you are trying to do this on your own and at your age. It is a very challenging thing to do and it really shows your strength of character that you are doing it.

When I was socializing my daughter (severe social anxiety), I brought her around to different places to find which places were mutually acceptable. She settled on our local bank and on our local tea room. The tea room was easy, the guy there was already chatty and it's a common place to hang out. The bank was a little different. She decided that she loved the bank manager. At the time, the only person that she was comfortable around was me, so this was a big deal. I explained the situation to him and he made it a point to spend time with her. If we were just walking by and he saw us through the window, he would rush out and demand that we come in for a visit. My point with sharing this is that some people are exceptionally nice. You just have to search a bit to find them and they may not be where you expect them to be. Don't give up.
posted by myselfasme at 4:06 PM on May 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: All great answers so far, and some things I hadn't thought of from the perspective of the other person in any conversations. myselfasme it was great your bank manager was willing to take time out and make your daughter feel comfortable, many thanks for your message of support. I just replied to clarify my social anxiety depends on the situation and sometimes isn't too bad - I am quite comfy and even chatty when I meet up with my long-term friends from the social anxiety group, and after a few years of those meets in recent years I have felt relatively fine eating or drinking alone in cafes although I rely on the prop of having my phone to interact with while there, it's just I don't have many local friends and aren't really quite outgoing enough to just jump into conversations with new people, so I will need to plan a bit more. I do think this change of ownership, much as I liked the previous owner perfectly well, could be an opportunity for me and like you say if it doesn't work out after a month I can try some other places.
posted by AuroraSky at 4:19 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

it's just I don't have many local friends and aren't really quite outgoing enough to just jump into conversations with new people, so I will need to plan a bit more.

If you are going to be a regular, you mostly need to be polite. They will eventually get chatty with you. You don't have to start anything. It's okay to start with one word replies and head nods and smiles of acknowledgement.

You are overthinking this. Just go regularly and they will gradually get familiar with you and your order and they will eventually get chatty. You don't need to prep for this or plan for this. Just go regularly and it will happen.
posted by Michele in California at 4:40 PM on May 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am considered a regular at the local deli. I have the same order every morning for breakfast. The staff even asks if it is the usual today. I am decent at mindless but funny banter so when they are not busy I ask how they are doing, talk about the weather, whatever. Just make chit chat. They have seen me in different clothing from shorts and t-shirts to dark suits. They ask why the suit and I tell them going to a wedding or whatever. They remember to ask next time about how was it. I remember that this counter person was in a bad mood because their mom had to go to the hospital. That type of thing.

It took me months to get to be a regular. I think the best way to do it is to simply be nice and polite. I always say please and thank you, I never complain when it takes longer than usual, I smile when I talk, etc. Just general politeness. I never ask about personal information I overheard. If told someone is not feeling well, I ask after them, but if I over hear one worker say to the other that their dog is sick, I don't but in and ask about their dog.

Oh, for a while, the cashier would call me "boss" which is what he calls everyone whose name he does not know, so one day I simply replied, "I want my kids to call me boss, but you should call me August like my friends." Now they knew my name.

There is also a routine, a pattern, a culture to a lot of restaurants and bars. Observe local customs and adhere to them. At the Wiener Circle in Chicago, they yell and you and expect you to be assertive back, but at my local deli, there is a line that is actually undefined and they ask who is next. At your turn, you ask the guy in front of you if he has ordered and when they say yes, you speak your order. Some places have called in orders wait on line, and others have you go ahead to the cashier. Just observe what customs are being adhered to and play along.
posted by AugustWest at 4:47 PM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

My system, for what it's worth:
1. Be pleasant --- fake it if you gotta, but no grumpiness aimed at the staff.
2. Don't be a difficult customer --- I'm not saying you can't object to legit problems, but try not to nitpick either.
3. Big tips. Yeah, the standard is 15-20%, but I usually tip at least 25-30% for the waitstaff who recognize me and treat me well.
posted by easily confused at 5:16 PM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: Every Friday before work, I visit a coffee shop for breakfast. I order the same thing to eat, and the same type of coffee (it's fancy seasonal pour-over brew which is a novel treat for this K-cup woman). I'm only there for about 45 minutes a week but am polite, tip well and clean up my table when I'm done.

About six weeks ago, when I came in the barista exclaimed "Happy Friday!" when she saw me which threw me for a loop but was the first sign I was attaining "regular" status. Two weeks after that, the coffees were switched around I was pondering what to get. The other Friday morning barista said that based on my drinking coffee X and coffee Y (which is what I was ordering MONTHS ago) I'd like the new coffee, Z. Last week he brought my coffee to me when it was done (instead of my getting it from the counter) and said, "here you go, Kim!"

And I'm not chatty other than small talk. We'd chuckle when I came in wet from pouring rain. Once I told the female barista I liked her bracelet (but I'm female too, so there was hopefully no perceived creepiness there) and she told me where she got it. Then, I sit at my little table and write out my weekend plans in my planner. It's nice. :)

Best of luck - I think you can do this!
posted by kimberussell at 5:50 PM on May 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Frequent customers = money. Owners and waitstaff know who their frequent spenders are. Also, don't be a jerk.
posted by LoveHam at 6:35 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been going to one of the local coffee shops at least four times a week for the past, um, sixteen years or so. (One can of Diet Coke and an onion bagel, toasted dark with butter, please!) I'm not even a remotely outgoing person, but by this point, the owners know me, the longtime staffers know me, we say hi and chitchat briefly. I suspect having a routine order helps, but really, just being a decent regular customer--do tip, don't yell at the staff, don't get impatient when during rush hour, etc.--will do the trick.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:18 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tip regularly and big, but not too much — I have barista friends who say huge tips can be offputting. And treat them as human beings; if you watch closely enough, you'll notice that most customers don't even care to extend that simple courtesy, but that might depend on where you are — I know that sort of behavior was a raging epidemic in LA when I was there.
posted by un petit cadeau at 7:37 PM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are about 3 places in my neighbourhood where I'm on a first-name basis with people who work there, and we chit-chat a lot, and I know a little about their families and stuff, and another 4-5 places where I don't know their names, and we chit-chat a little about non-personal stuff. There are a lot of other places I go to where things aren't so chatty, and ime it all comes down to the mood/personality of the person behind the counter.

All the above advice is good. Do try a bunch of different places. Smile, maybe crack one joke, or make a comment about the weather (really), keep it short, and eventually they'll start talking to you, if they're going to. But really, just smiling and being pleasant will do almost all the work.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:17 PM on May 7, 2015

Sit at the bar, whether it be a restaurant, bar or coffee shop. Other people who sit at the bar tend to do so because they enjoy chatting with the workers or other patrons. They can do some of the heavy lifting for you as far as initiating social contact. I find that even if I'm at the bar on a smartphone or reading a book, the type of people who sit at the bar are so chatty that they will talk to me anyway if they're in the mood. Since you're right there, a bored barista or bartender will probably initiate chat with you as well.

As someone who has worked in situations like this, I can tell you conversely what would make me NOT want to chat with a customer. Most of it is covered above. Don't ask personal questions. Don't try to force a conversation beyond one simple back and forth because it's likely the worker only has a minute here and there to comfortably chat.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:24 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think if you go there often they will get to know you. I'm fairly quiet & have shopped at the same market for 20 yrs now. Last week I stopped in on a Friday afternoon to pick up some food for grilling, the clerk asked me did I want sliced turkey? That's what I buy on Sundays for the workweek. I was really surprised because I would never have thought this fellow knew my preferences, he's new there, under a year working at this shop. I figured I am just one of hundreds of customers but he knew what I buy.

It took me until last yr to get to know a clerk there I've always liked but it wasn't until she looked ill and I asked how she was that it turns out we both lost a sibling to alcoholism. Yet I did make fast friends with another clerk, because he would tell me amazing things about his personal life occasionally (for example he did gay phone sex work for a while & for legal reasons, it had to be overseas clients. He was super easy to talk to but has transferred. I LOVED seeing him when I came in. Hearing him call out "Hi Hank!" was so nice. I occasionally go to the store he moved to, and he comes out from behind the counter to hug me! It's worth a long drive for that hug when I'm a little down).

Just go to the cafe regularly, be nice, be your quiet, shy self, and you will be noticed. I think we shy people over-think these situations at times, I know I do anyway. I'll go somewhere then spend a few days analyzing every word and gesture which makes it tougher to go to the next social thing. Give it time and be open to learning about these new people, they're probably at least as nice as the previous owners were.

Also, if the new owners have an online presence, write good honest reviews of the cafe. They may or may not know it's you but it's an added layer of good intention on your part and it's so helpful for new businesses. Follow them on facebook and mention it to the barista when you see something interesting on their fb page, "hey I see you're hosting Int'l Cafe Day next week, it sounds great. Are you really going to have the expensive civet coffee that day?"
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 6:30 AM on May 8, 2015

Stick to the cliches at first (pick one, not all at once). Hi, nice weather/ I love this song (if there's music), maybe Do you know who this singer is? / Hey the % team won - yay/ Apricot scones today? O good, they're my favorite. As they make changes, valid compliments are helpful. I like the new games/chairs/ artwork.

After a month or so, say, 20 visits, introduce yourself. I'm Aurora, by the way. You must be Pat (if they have a name tag). Then use their name about every other time you interact. Too much comes off cheesy. Good afternoon, Pat, I'd like decaf with whole milk please. I'm Aurora. When Pat eventually says, Of course I know your name, Aurora, reply, Gosh, that's nice, you have so many customers to remember. That makes me feel at home. The owners want you to feel at home and visit regularly.

Keep reminding yourself that people are social, that good businesses want to have a personal relationship with you, that most people are nice. You're likeable.

Don't take up a table for an hour at a busy time. Clear up your trash, put your cup in the designated spot, don't leave a mess. I figure I have to buy something to use a table. If it's busy, I buy more stuff, not busy, I might stay for an hour or so before I buy more stuff. I do prefer to have a book or read on my phone, esp. at first, but if you have a window spot, you can peoplewatch.

If you get up the nerve, and are a regular for a while, consider a small gift. I take brownies to the overworked staff at my local thrift shop; they get so much crap from customers that they really appreciate any small gesture. A year from now, maybe take a small potted flower, or at any time take in a clipping of a positive review.

I did retail for a long time. A polite, civil customer was always a welcome regular. A nice, friendly-ish customer who bought stuff from time to time was very welcome.
posted by theora55 at 10:03 AM on May 8, 2015

I'm a regular in a place where only the newest servers bring me a menu, because everybody else knows I know it by heart. I'm friendly and polite, I'm understanding when things go wrong, and I tip well every time. Also important is knowing when not to try to be chatty - when they're very busy or looking stressed, being a low-maintenance customer is also conducive to making you a welcome regular.
posted by tomboko at 11:08 AM on May 8, 2015

Best answer: I am a female who deals with social anxiety and spends a lot of time in coffee shops and frequently dines alone. One thing that has helped me is to really force myself to make conversation even when I am feeling anxious and terrified. They don't know what's going on in me.

Another thing is just to realize that they may think fondly of you and enjoy your time as a customer more than you realize. When I hadn't been to one restaurant in a while and showed up again there, a waitress was so happy to see me and noticed my different hair color and asked after this and that. So know you may make more of an impression than you know.

It doesn't hurt to acknowledge that the barista/waitress/etc has made an impression either: "Last time you made me a hazelnut latte and it was great. I'll have that again."

And, yeah, don't be a creep, and don't take advantage of a captive audience by trying to read a barista your poetry or whatever. (Unless asked, of course.) But the people who do that stuff usually aren't conscientious enough of their ickiness to care.

You'll be fine.
posted by mermaidcafe at 1:16 PM on May 8, 2015

Best answer: I came back in part to mention the money angle (that someone else noted already). If you are a regular customer, you are helping to pay the bills. As much as money gets a bad rap as a motive, trade has historically been a civilizing force. Cultures like Greece and Persia and India that placed a high value on honey bees as a metaphor for trade and for interacting in a win-win fashion with other humans (instead of predation as a model) have a reputation for being very civilized cultures. Allowing people to earn a decent living by providing something of real value is a very positive experience. So as long they aren't just routinely a horrible douchebag, regular customers get valued as money they can count on, through good times and bad.

But, also, you are easy money. In the service industry, cognitive load is often a bigger burden than physical work. It can be really hard to try to communicate effectively with someone you do not know at all and try to make sure you don't do anything they will interpret offensively. Customers who show up regularly enough that they become familiar become a lot easier to serve. You have a better idea of what you can and can't say to them and you have their usual order memorized. So it's generally going to be a less stressful experience that takes less out of them to serve their regular customers.

And, as someone else noted, a lot of folks treat service industry workers in a really horrible, dehumanizing fashion. So if you are 1) a regular and 2) polite, they are going to eventually get chatty and friendly with you.

If you haven't ever been a regular anywhere, it may be hard to believe, but that's really all there is to it. I mean I could probably come up with all kinds of explanations for the phenomenon, some of which is rooted in basic human psychology (for example, we tend to trust people more just with repeated exposure and assume we know more about their character than we really do just because we see them over and over), but regardless of the whys and wherefores, that's really all you need to remember.

Go regularly. Don't be an asshole. That's about it.
posted by Michele in California at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2015

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