You can't miss the bottles of Nikka 12-year pure malt whisky hanging from the ceiling at Big in Japan Bar, an Asian-inspired lounge in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood. There are 52 of them suspended from metal rods above the Russian plywood bar top. The effect is visually elegant, but the bottles have a purpose beyond decoration. They belong to customers who bought them for $260 apiece, customers who will visit the bar – often on multiple occasions – and sip on the Japanese whisky at their leisure. It's fun, but more importantly, it helps cultivate the most coveted type of guest: the "regular."
"Most clients develop a sense of proprietorship to their bottle, as well as a sense of belonging to the place," says André Nguyen, owner of Big in Japan. "It's really a nice camaraderie between two sides."
Restaurant patrons often follow their stomachs to new and exciting venues, so it's more important than ever for restaurants to engage and hang onto their regular customers. The temptation to continually chase trends is strong, and it's having a real effect on the industry.
According to Robert Carter, executive director of NPD Group's Canadian food service division, the past 12 months have seen a record-breaking number of closings of independent restaurants across the country as customers seek out different culinary experiences.
"If you look at the trends that are driving the industry over all, there's clearly a move toward much more innovation," he says. "Poor performing independents, the ones that are not keeping pace with the change in consumer demand, are the ones going out of business. If you are a restaurateur in today's market, you need to literally fire on all cylinders."
But the savviest restaurateurs know the importance of fostering loyalty, of making their regular customers feel special.
At DaiLo, an Asian brasserie in Toronto, chef Nick Liu keeps a database of repeat clients – like many restaurants do – and he'll let them know that he appreciates them when they come in, often by sending out off-menu items as amuse-bouches. He gets the dual benefit of treating his regulars while also testing out new ideas before they hit the menu.
"I always have a few things set aside for VIPs and regulars. It's mostly things I've been working on, ideas for new menu items," Liu says. "We want to get back to what restaurants used to be without being a fine dining restaurant."
At Lisa Marie, a gastropub on Queen Street West in Toronto, chef and owner Matt Basile constantly experiments with off-menu experiences for his customers. On Saturdays, he offers a secret smoked barbecue platter with turkey wings, pork loin, beef short ribs and the like. It's too labour-intensive to be a full-time offering, so Basile doesn't advertise it on the menu. Until now, the only way you'd know to order it – other than copying the table next to you – is if you were a regular.
"It's great that the loyal people who follow us get excited about these things," Basile says. "We're not a new restaurant, but we're constantly bringing new ideas to the evolution of the restaurant. That's always been our angle, how to always be different and engage with people."
Sometimes the perks are less subtle. Vancouver's PiDGiN sells bottled cocktails, and anyone who collects five bottle caps gets a free cocktail. At Toronto's Kinton Ramen, customers gain ascending tiers of benefits depending on how many bowls of ramen they consume (at 30, the reward is a towel; at 1,000, the reward is a $1,000 gift card). At Japango, a sushi restaurant in Toronto, loyal customers get their own personal set of chopsticks.
Online loyalty works, too. If you're a fan of any restaurant, following it on social media will provide the most up-to-date information on specials, new dishes and other treats.
"On our Twitter feed, we'll post that we've just received burrata, so if you're one of the first to know, you'll get the stuff that's fresh off the plane from Italy," says Bill McCaig, owner and head pizzaiolo at Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Vancouver.
Barberian's Steak House in Toronto has been catering to regulars since 1959. General manager Pat Orgera says the relationship is about consistency and creating a sense of comfort.
"There are some people who have been coming here for many, many years, and they deserve a little bit of extra attention," he says. "Perhaps we'll give them a glass of prosecco, or maybe we'll top off one of their drinks. It's just something to acknowledge our appreciation. Making people feel at home goes further than any kind of discount."
The restaurants that have been around the longest – the ones with the most devoted clientele – transcend trendiness, says David Sax, James Beard Award winner and author of the book Tastemakers.
"The restaurants that have been around for 30 or 40 years are around not because they've been written up and they're getting attention, but because people have gone there and they consistently like it," Sax says. "You can never chase that. You can never chase that level of attention or buzz over a long period of time."