Customer Experience

4 Customer Appreciation Ideas from the CEO of Zunzi’s Restaurants

By Debra Weinryb

Headshot of Chris Smith, the CEO and Owner of the fast casual chain Zunzi’s.

Coming up with customer appreciation ideas is essential if you want to increase loyalty and drive repeat visits to your restaurant. In fact, the U.S. Small Business Administration found that 68% of consumers won’t do business with a company that they believe doesn’t care for them. 

Whether you plan to offer a promotion, a discount, or run a customer appreciation event, expressing gratitude for the people who support your business can go a long way.

However, making a good first impression isn’t always easy, especially with the ever-changing expectations of Millennial and Gen Z diners. How do you align your business goals with the needs of your customers so that they feel appreciated and keep coming back? Is offering discounts or giveaways the best way of showing customers that you care?

To answer all these questions and more, we talked to Chris Smith, Co-Founder and CEO of Zunzi’s and Zunzibar, to find out his perspective on why customer appreciation is so important for restaurants. Keep reading to: 

  • Meet Chris Smith, Co-Founder and CEO of Zunzi’s and Zunzibar
  • Find out why customer appreciation is important for restaurants
  • Discover 4 customer appreciation ideas you can use today

Meet Chris Smith: Co-Founder and CEO of Zunzi’s and Zunzibar

Chris Smith’s restaurant career began when he signed up as a franchisee with Five Guys during his student years at the University of Florida. Over the span of nine years, he opened seven high-performing business locations in Coastal Georgia and South Carolina. While looking for new business opportunities, he decided to try Zunzi’s, a popular dive sandwich shop in Savannah.

During his first visit to Zunzi’s, he heard customers raving about the food and friendly dining experience. He knew he had to try one of the restaurant’s signature Conquistador sandwiches – a crusty French bread topped with baked chicken, romaine lettuce, tomato, and Zunzi’s sauce and dressing. Despite the venue’s lackluster atmosphere and secondhand furniture, the sandwich was so delicious that he said to himself, “Someday I will buy this restaurant and franchise it.”

To build a rapport with the owners, Chris visited the restaurant once a month to chat with them over a soda and a sandwich. As everything went to plan, Chris got a call in 2013 from Johnny, one of Zunzi’s co-owners, saying he wanted to sell.

Without hesitation, Chris set into motion the process to sell his Five Guys franchise business and bought Zunzi’s in 2014. From there, he pursued restaurant expansion and built up Zunzi’s takeout/delivery business. He also created a new bar concept called Zunzibar, which Chris describes as a NextGen Casual restaurant focusing on the guest experience, a gray area between fast casual and full service restaurants. 

Beyond working to improve day-to-day operations, Chris also spearheaded a strategic customer appreciation initiative called ZUNZIFEST! In addition to running this quarterly event that celebrates customers, his team, and the community, Chris is constantly looking for new ways to show his appreciation for his customers and to say “thank you” to Zunzi’s many fans. 

People eating on a busy patio at Zunzi's restaurant.

Why is Customer Appreciation Important for Restaurants?

Before diving into the details of how Chris gives thanks to Zunzi’s valued guests, it’s first essential to understand why customer appreciation is important to running a successful restaurant business.

Customer appreciation is important because it typically leads to increased guest loyalty. Simply put, when customers feel appreciated, they are more likely to visit your restaurant and order from you again in the future. 

Here are a few more benefits of practicing customer appreciation for restaurants: 

Stand out From Your Competition

Customer appreciation is a great way to set yourself apart from competitors. In fact, 89% of companies compete against each other to deliver the best customer experience possible. Differentiation is how brands stand out. By making your guests feel heard, you can differentiate your business from other restaurants that don’t show appreciation for their loyal guests.

Improve Customer Retention

In addition to helping your restaurant brand stand out, customer appreciation can also help you boost guest retention. This is because customers who are satisfied with your products are more likely to visit your venue or order from you again in the future.

Boost Your Brand’s Perception

Finally, customer appreciation can help improve guests’ perception of your restaurant brand, which can in turn increase revenue. One study found that 83% of companies who believe it’s important to make customers happy also experience growing revenue.

4 Customer Appreciation Ideas

It’s clear that showing customer appreciation is essential to running a successful restaurant. However, coming up with restaurant customer appreciation ideas isn’t always easy. That’s why we asked Chris to share his top customer appreciation ideas, so that other operators can learn from the success he’s found with Zunzi’s and Zunzibar.

1. Throw a Customer Appreciation Event

Chris’ first suggestion to show your customers that you recognize and value their support is to come up with ideas for a full-fledged customer appreciation day. 

If you’ve never hosted a customer appreciation day before, consider it as a single day or event dedicated to thanking customers for their support. Examples of customer appreciation day ideas include hosting a restaurant grand opening or soft opening event to attract new customers to your venue, celebrating your VIP customers by giving away special treats or free merchandise, or offering an exclusive one-time customer appreciation sale to reward your customers. These customer appreciation day ideas can help guests feel rewarded in new and exciting ways, helping them remember your brand for years to come.

Alternatively, some restaurants may choose to come up with customer appreciation week ideas to offer an extended thank you to guests. Celebrating customers for an entire week gives even more of your guests a chance to participate in your events. Plus, you’ll have more time to promote customer appreciation giveaways and contests on your social media channels to boost interactions and brand awareness. While customer appreciation week ideas are often more complex to plan than single-day events, they offer more opportunities to engage guests and build meaningful customer relationships. 

Chris has found a lot of success running his own customer appreciation event called ZUNZIFEST!

Zunzi’s Customer Appreciation Event: ZUNZIFEST!

Chris hosts a restaurant customer appreciation day at Zunzi’s on a quarterly basis called ZUNZIFEST! During this event, every Zunzi’s restaurant location serves approximately 1,000 free Conquistadors, the brand’s award-winning sandwiches, over the course of four hours. Alternatively, a free vegan or vegetarian sandwich is also available.  

For Chris however, it’s not just a free sandwich day. It’s a chance for him to recognize the wants and needs of his customers so that he can serve them better. By giving away free sandwiches, most of his guests stick around to buy a tea or snack, or chat with Chris to learn more about the restaurant.

For this reason, Chris recommends that restaurateurs consider their goals when coming up with ideas for a customer appreciation day. For example, he recommends finding a way to explain your brand’s purpose outside of making money. This can spark interesting conversations and also help you find alignment with your guests’ interests.

“There’s more than just food, drinks, and transactions happening. There’s a business with culture and purpose behind it. I think especially Gen Z and Millennials want to know that now,” says Chris.

A Conquistador sandwich at Zunzi's restaurant.

2. Share and Respond to Customer Reviews

Hosting a party or celebratory event is just one way to show customer appreciation. Another effective way to show that you respect your customers’ time and their experiences dining at your restaurant is by sharing and responding to customer reviews. Sharing customer reviews on your restaurant’s social media channels or on your website demonstrates that you’ve not only read a customer’s review, but also that you’re acknowledging and appreciating the fact that they took the time out of their day to write you a review.

In addition to learning how to acknowledge positive customer reviews, it’s also essential to learn how to respond to negative restaurant reviews, which is decidedly more tricky. The answer, according to Chris, is to find an opportunity to fix the guests’ problem – whether that means refunding their meal, sending them a gift card, or something else entirely.

“Guests want to be heard. For example, having a ‘Shit Yeah!’ experience is our brand promise, and if the customer didn’t leave saying ‘Shit Yeah!,’ then we have to keep on working on that relationship to get that business,” Chris explains.

Having a brand promise, as mentioned by Chris, is another way that restaurateurs can evaluate whether or not they have met their guests’ expectations. It means setting a standard of service that your patrons should expect every time they visit your restaurant. The more your restaurant lives up to this promise, the more likely your brand will be perceived positively. 

For example, Zunzi’s promises guests that they will have such a great experience that they won’t be able to stop themselves from saying “Shit Yeah!”. In addition to just being a promise, it’s become a popular catchphrase that fans love saying when they are having a great restaurant experience. 

3. Offer Free Delivery

An additional way to show customers that you value their time and support is by offering free delivery. After all, who doesn’t appreciate saving money? 

This customer support appreciation idea comes in handy for online ordering. For example, you can incorporate a free delivery minimum per order for every customer. Zunzi’s does a stellar job at this by waiving its delivery fee for orders over $26 worth of food to show customers that their generous purchase is appreciated. Alternatively, you could create a special free delivery offer for VIP customers who have signed up for your loyalty program to show that you appreciate their ongoing support.

While you’re at it, delivery is also a great opportunity to include customer appreciation offers and discounts, especially for repeat customers whom you want to retain. Customer appreciation offers could include a coupon, like a buy one get one free discount for a future purchase. Other ideas include gift cards, branded stickers, pens, notebooks, phone accessories, or even invitations to your next restaurant customer appreciation day event!

Two smiling women cheersing with cocktails at Zunzi's restaurant.

4. Thank Loyal Guests with Special Offers

As mentioned, guests often appreciate getting things for free, whether that’s free delivery, complimentary food, or branded merchandise. These types of freebies are especially useful for thanking loyal customers who come into your restaurant regularly. 

Chris recommends finding opportunities to go out of your way to find ways to thank guests with a special offer or personalized recommendation. Not only is this a polite gesture, but it can also help show that you value your guests’ loyal support and repeat business. 

For example, Chris encourages his bartenders to remember customers that come into the restaurant regularly by taking notes about their preferences. This way, the bartenders can surprise loyal regulars every so often with their favorite side dish or a free dessert.

“We want our staff to know our loyal guests,” Chris explains. “We want them to say thanks for coming in. You come in every Wednesday. This one’s on me.” By remembering customers, Zunzi’s bartenders can provide an outstanding experience that incentivizes return visits. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Now that we’ve covered Chris’ top customer appreciation ideas, it’s time to put them into practice! Finding ways to thank customers for their support could make these guests more likely to order from you instead of your competitors. Fortunately, there are so many ways to recognize and reward restaurant guests, whether you consider running contests with customer appreciation giveaways, hosting a customer appreciation day or week, or simply saying thank you.

But before coming up with customer appreciation ideas, Chris suggests that restaurateurs always ask themselves, “How are you performing?” According to Zunzi’s marketing philosophy, execution trumps everything. If your business is operating successfully and hustling harder than the competition, then it’s time to start prioritizing customer appreciation.

Debra Weinryb author photo
by Debra Weinryb

Debra was a Content Marketing Specialist at TouchBistro, writing about the latest food and restaurant industry trends. In her spare time, Debra enjoys baking and eating together with family and friends.

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