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Customer Experience

11 Tips for Creating a Restaurant Reward Program

by

Dana Krook

All restaurants have had to tighten their budgets during COVID-19, and one effective way to save money while actually making money is to start a restaurant reward program.

You might be familiar with how much time the characters of Friends spent at the coffee shop, Central Perk. Savvy restaurateurs know that loyal regulars like this are great for daily business – and, when times are tough, they’re the ones you can count on to support you by stopping in for a meal.

Loyal regulars are important for two reasons: lower cost of acquisition and higher total guest spend. Did you know attracting new customers is 16 times more expensive than retaining current ones? Plus, if you can get your guests to sign up for a reward program, they’ll spend up to 18% more than other customers. 

In other words, add a restaurant reward program into the mix, and your customer relationships can become even stronger and more profitable.

To help you create a successful restaurant reward program of your very own, this guide will cover:

  • What a restaurant reward program is
  • Different types of restaurant reward programs
  • 11 helpful tips for restaurateurs creating their own reward programs
Woman dining with friends

What Is a Restaurant Reward Program?

A reward program is a system that helps you build restaurant customer loyalty by incentivizing your guests to dine with you repeatedly. Typically this is achieved by offering your guests exclusive promotions, discounts, and freebies for a particular number of visits to your restaurant, or a certain amount of money spent per meal.

To better understand how these reward programs can be structured, let’s run through a few notable restaurants with rewards programs. Keep in mind that while these are reward programs run by major restaurant chains, independent restaurants can easily emulate these programs with the help of technology like TouchBistro Loyalty.

1. TGI Fridays

The only thing better than a discount is free food, and TGI Fridays offers just that with its rewards program. After signing up, guests get a free appetizer with the purchase of a meal, and free chips and salsa every time they dine at the restaurant. Yes, please!

TGI Fridays’ reward program entices customers to visit repeatedly by using a point system where guests earn one point for every dollar spent, which they can then use to redeem free food. Program members can also earn points when they get a friend to join the program.

TGI Fridays’ mobile app has been particularly integral to the success of its loyalty program with 36% of sales made through the loyalty program and 30% of all transactions made by app users.

2. Panera

Panera’s MyPanera rewards program is one of the most successful restaurant loyalty programs out there. Customers can use their phone number or the Panera app to track their orders and score personalized rewards. In this program, customers earn rewards based on the number of visits (or orders), not the total value of those purchases.

Though its loyalty program is similar to that of other restaurants, Panera has had major success with unique offerings like its unlimited coffee subscription. According to Panera’s chief brand and concept officer Eduardo Luz, these kinds of rewards are a huge hit among loyalty members, who use the brand six to 10 times more than non-members, ultimately helping the brand generate significant recurring revenue.

3. Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A’s point-based rewards program has three membership tiers that are designed to keep guests coming back so that they move up the ranks, earning more points for every dollar whenever they reach a new tier. Points can be redeemed once a member has a certain amount, or saved for later. And, Chick-fil-A even offers surprise rewards on occasion.

While this point-based reward system may sound simple, the tier-based reward structure is a major hit among customers. In fact, a 2020 Brand Keys loyalty survey found that consumers rated Chick-fil-A as the top fast food brand in terms of creating emotional engagement and loyalty.

Young man using a phone to access a restaurant reward program in a cafe

Different Types of Restaurant Reward Programs

Based on the examples above, it’s clear that you have the freedom to get as creative as you want with restaurant rewards program ideas and set your program up however your heart desires.

However, it’s important to consider how you’ll actually implement your program, and what will appeal most to your guests – a card-based or digital rewards program. Let’s dive into each of these formats to help you decide.

Card-Based Programs

Many restaurants with rewards programs started out with the trusty wallet card. You know the kind – once you get a certain number of stamps or punches, you get a deal or a freebie. This method is easy to get off the ground (you’re mostly just looking at marketing and printing costs), and it worked well enough back in the day. 

However, as time passed, customers who belonged to rewards programs began to complain that they had too many cards to keep track of, and their wallets couldn’t contain any more paper. Enter the evolution of the loyalty card – the digital rewards program.

Digital Programs

As card-based programs have fallen out of favor, mobile marketing for restaurants has become increasingly prevalent. Luckily, you don’t need to be tech-savvy or have a large budget to implement a digital rewards program at your restaurant. You can simply purchase an affordable, pre-built solution, and customize it with your own branding and specific rewards.

Restaurant loyalty programs that operate digitally are a great option nowadays because your guests expect to be able to connect with you on the Internet – especially on their smartphones. In fact, more than 75% of diners say it’s important to be able to redeem rewards online. And, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a digital program offers your customers the convenience and safety of a touch-free rewards experience.

So, what kind of restaurant rewards software should you look for?

One option is TouchBistro Loyalty, which is integrated directly with the TouchBistro POS. TouchBistro Loyalty makes digital loyalty programs easy with a custom branded Customer Web App where your guests can create an account, and collect and claim rewards easily, all from their phones.

11 Restaurant Reward Program Tips

We’ve now explored what a restaurant reward program is, and we’ve walked through a few different examples and types of programs. Hopefully, you’re brimming with ideas.

But, before you go making any grand plans, take some time to learn how to create a successful program with these 11 tips. After all, people may love a one-hit-wonder, but nobody wants to be one, so you need a restaurant reward program that’s built for longevity.

1. Make Sure You Have the Tech to Support Your Program

If you don’t yet have a restaurant POS system, make purchasing one the first item on your to-do list. Since most reward program software integrates directly with your POS, this will help you streamline your operations. It can also help you systematize your entire workflow, including sales made through your reward program, so that your restaurant can continue to grow.

2. Keep Your Restaurant Reward Program Simple

Earning rewards should be fun, not a puzzle your guests have to work to figure out. Keep your reward program simple by focusing on a few key pillars. For example, choose a format your guests are familiar with. Over 70% of customers say a point system is “very important” or “extremely important” to a restaurant rewards program, so you could start with that.

3. Create a Customer-Facing App

Today’s world is digital-first. Customers want a seamless, personalized user experience, which is exactly what you can achieve with a rewards program app. Nearly 80% of Americans say they’d be more likely to participate in a rewards program that doesn’t involve lugging a physical card around in their wallet. So, what are you waiting for?

Creating a web or mobile app – or using a customizable, pre-built Customer Web App like TouchBistro Loyalty – also gives you the opportunity to share content with your program members through the platform, helping to build greater loyalty. The way of the future lies in customer-centric marketing with various reward offerings, and an app with mobile payment options.

4. Offer Enticing Rewards

Who doesn’t want a little more fun in their life? One smart way to get your guests more engaged with your restaurant reward program is through gamification techniques. For example, you can create a tiered point system so your customers feel a sense of achievement every time they “level up.” Considering that 37% of customers would even pay to reach a higher level of a reward program, the tiered approach is a no-brainer to entice your guests.

Gift cards also make another irresistible reward option. Over half of respondents to a survey by Software Advice say gift certificates are a “very important” and “extremely important” incentive driving them to obtain a certain level of points.

5. Educate Staff on Your Reward Program

As the saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work. Your restaurant reward program won’t do your bottom line any good if you keep it a secret. Make sure your staff understand how the rewards program operates, and can communicate its benefits to your guests in a clear and convincing way.

You can even gamify this process by offering employee incentives for getting the most reward program sign-ups within a month. A little friendly competition can go a long way in driving sales.

Woman using a smartphone in a restaurant

6. Collect and Implement Guest Feedback

Once you’ve been running your restaurant reward program for a few months, you can start making improvements to the system. Ask your members what they like most about your program, and if there’s anything they’d like to see changed.

Leverage technology to help you gather this information. For example, if you have reward program software that allows you to gather customer feedback, use that platform to get the down-low from your guests.

7. Market Your Reward Program with Personalized Promotions

When a customer joins your restaurant reward program, it’s a good indication that they have somewhat of an affinity for your brand. Now, your job is to make them feel special and build an even stronger relationship. And with a digital reward program, you can use data to do just that.

Most loyalty software will enable you to segment your guests using behavioral data, such as the days of the week they typically visit your restaurant and how much they usually spend. Your next step is to create personalized offers to make those guests feel valued, and encourage them to come into your restaurant to spend more. For example, you could create a campaign targeting your reward program members who purchased high-ticket entrees within the last week, and send them a deal for 15% off their next visit.

8. Create Urgent Offers to Re-Engage Members

With a digital reward program, you can see how long it’s been since a guest has visited your restaurant. You don’t want to end up out of sight and out of mind, so consider sending your lapsed members an email with an urgent, one-time offer that they can redeem if they visit your restaurant within the next week. Then, once they arrive, be sure to wow them so they see what they’ve been missing!

9. Connect Directly with Your Customers Through Chat

With so much buzz around email and social media marketing, you may be surprised to learn that live chat is now the top method of online contact, preferred by 46% of customers over email (29%) and social media (16%).

With the right restaurant reward program software, you can chat directly with your customers without ever leaving the platform, enabling you to share news about menu additions and promos directly with your most engaged guests, exactly where they want to receive the info. For instance, with TouchBistro Loyalty Premium, restaurants will soon be able to send messages directly to diners in their Customer Web App announcing new menu items, special promotional campaigns, or even just general news and updates.

10. Encourage Your Guests to be Ambassadors for Your Program

Let’s face it – many potential customers would rather hear about your restaurant from satisfied guests than from you. In fact, user-generated content receives 28% more engagement on social media than business posts.

Urging your reward program members to post on social media about their experiences is a great way to generate hype about the program and get the word out to a wider audience. 

11. Promote Your Restaurant Reward Program Offline

We’ve talked a lot about digital marketing (because it works), but don’t forget to cross-promote your rewards program in-house. For example, add a blurb about your program to your printed menus in addition to your online ones, and put up signage that promotes the sweet member deals.

Ready, Set, Rewards!

You now know what a restaurant reward program is, and you’re familiar with card-based vs. digital programs. We’ve also covered a few examples of successful reward program structures used by various restaurants. 

Now, with these 11 expert tips for creating reward programs freshly under your belt, you’re ready to wow your guests with a program that keeps them coming back to your restaurant. Bottoms up!


Dana is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, sharing tips for and stories of restaurateurs turning their passion into success. She loves homemade hot sauce, deep fried pickles and finding excuses to consume real maple syrup.

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