After living away for three years, I moved back to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. I immediately made a mission of revisiting my favorite places, and was relieved to find the majority of them exactly where I left them. Naturally, I mourned some empty spaces—a little atrophy is to be expected—but mostly, the area had barely missed a beat.
I was also delighted to find a few fresh storefronts; most notable for me was a spankin’ new coffee shop. I’ve lived and freelanced in Nashville and Los Angeles in the in-between, both of which have thrashingly good coffee scenes. I’m spoiled, and I worried I wouldn’t find the kind of coffee artistry with which I’d gotten so cozy. And then like a beacon in the night, there it was—a big, beautiful new roastery with internet access and a solid selection of espresso drinks? Done. I made no bones about introducing myself to the baristas, finding my favorite barstool, memorizing the wifi password, and making myself at home.
But then I left for a few days, and when I returned, things had changed. Hours had been adjusted, seating arrangements shuffled. I could feel myself tense, as if my parents just told me they were considering selling my childhood home.
Look, I’m not afraid of a little change. But in my experience, change in a food establishment indicates one thing: Danger, Will Robinson. It’s insecurity. It’s the brick-and-mortar equivalent of modeling six outfits before a big date. Trying on something a little different, trying to spice things up, with the intention of grabbing our attention—or figuring out how to keep a hold of it.
The former is actually pretty simple to do, especially for the new kid on the block—that factor alone gets plenty of feet (and in the case of my neighborhood—stroller wheels) through the door. But the latter, well, therein lies our story. See, there’s been a mysterious disappearance in the restaurant business in recent years—the case of the vanishing regulars. And it’s wreaking havoc on the food world.
Restaurants need patrons—reliable, returning patrons. Every restaurateur knows that is where the real revenue lies. But there have been less people committing to long-term relationships with their neighborhood spots. And increasingly, people running food establishments have echoed one very specific concern in conversation: how do we get them to come back?
And with equal regularity on the flip side, I hear a familiar chorus from my dining friends: “That place was great. I only went that one time, but I loved it.”
I don’t know about you, but when I love something, I revisit it—a lot (take that No Doubt CD circa 1997, for example, which cracked from such heavy rotation). Now, there’s the phenomenon of restaurant “ticking”—basically playing Super Mario for social media. You scored a two-top at the new Times-approved hotness? Cool, you get a smiling flower. A scoop of that limited edition fennel pollen ice cream you waited six hours in life for? A magic star! And that tasting menu at some Michelin-starred restaurant across the ocean is an effing warp zone, suckers.
We go, we eat, we conquer. And we never return. And then we lose our minds when they close. What happened? I can’t believe it’s gone! Showing up once, saying you had a great time, and never going back—it’s the food world equivalent of ghosting after a first date.
But I thought it went so well!
And while we’re out playing the field, snapping photos of matcha-flavored pizza (Give it time…), proprietors are suffering from extreme anxiety. Unless you have walked a mile in their worn-out, non-slip clogs, you cannot imagine the kind of perplexity that comes along with indiscernible, unsubstantiated fluctuation. The kind that makes you yank at fresh gray hairs, trying to understand, Why don’t they like me? And all that insecurity manifests in changes in menu and operating hours and new seating arrangements and sudden happy hour specials—generally grasping at whatever might make you stick it out with them.
Although it’s transactional, what exists between a patron and an establishment is a relationship. Sure, a business is, at its core, somewhat of a selfish enterprise. A person wakes up one day, says, “You know what I’d like to do with my life? Make dinner / ice cream / cake / breakfast / croissants / beer / pickles for a living.” But do we not benefit from their dreams? And many are also legitimately interested in providing something special for their neighbors. Although self-imposed, owners make sacrifices to give us a great place to spend our time. They sleep less, see our families more than their own, and they make significant financial investments all in hopes that we’ll reciprocate with a little loyalty.
Which brings me to the question: What is a diner’s responsibility? As one half of that coupling, we have our end of the bargain to uphold. And let me tell you, our task is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than washing the dishes or taking out the trash—they’ve already agreed to those chores, and we never even had to nag.
Food entrepreneurs are already dealing with a maddening list of variables. Weather. Transportation. Parking. Competitors. Seasonality. Insane rent hikes. Regulatory changes. Acts of God.
And there are a million reasons not to return somewhere. You don’t like their product, chief among them. Or maybe an employee was rude. Maybe the salad was overdressed. Maybe the latte art wasn’t as whimsical as it looked on Instagram, or the barstools were an inch too tall or there were no purse hooks (on that alone, I know many of you who’ve ghosted). Maybe the lighting is off, the seating arrangement isn’t feng shui, the micro greens were a touch too micro or too green. And recently, we’ve added Instagramability—the perfect lighting and patterned murals for our picture-taking needs.
Trust me, a restaurateur is up every single night stressing about each of those things, while you sleep off that second hand-selected amaro.
So if your local spot does something you do like, make a point of letting them know—not just by telling everyone in your social media circle, but by putting your tail back in that booth. And if you have a constructive comment for improvement, tell the staff, not just your Twitter followers.
I’m not saying it’s all on us; a relationship is a two-way street, and establishments need to take special care to develop ties with diners, to make the experience personal and give an honest to god reason to return. There’s a natural selection to the business—establishments need to provide the best product and service they can. But when they do, they also need our regular support.
We’re all chasing what’s shiny and new, and that’s a fun and worthy pursuit. But if you do take the time to invest in that relationship, I promise something special will come of it for you too. Those experiences will become richer and more satisfying with time. As a part of a restaurant’s regular clientele, you’ll become a part of their family—making it more than a place to sample and snap photos, but where you’ll make memories and enjoy milestones—making it an extension of home. And you’ll leave meals with something that lasts a whole lot longer than an Instagram story.
Because if your new neighborhood restaurant/bar/café can’t make it in the ‘hood, who can? A bank, that’s who. Another big, sterile string of tellers and ATMs. And I, for one, don’t need another bank. But you know what I do need? A good macchiato. Every single morning.
There’s a reason we call places “a regular haunt.” Don’t ghost on yours.