Unlocking Loyalty: How AI Can Boost Customer Engagement in Restaurants

How technology brings customers back – again and again

Creating and keeping loyal diners has never been so precise.

Customer data via AI models can be leveraged to understand and market to restaurant-goers. These models can tell operators which customers are returning, and which aren't as well as the offers and incentives that get them to revisit. They can also reveal the effectiveness of new menu items, and if they’re catering to different audiences and personas all to help create the most loyal customers. But how?

By staying all-encompassing, laser-focused

“We know what people spend on their average check, what they typically order and the drinks they purchase,” says Carissa Newton, Cunningham Restaurant Group’s vice president of marketing. “We are also able to track frequency of visits along with if they are visiting multiple concepts within our group.” Indianapolis-based CRG operate 42 restaurants across three states (Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio), and Newton has been using POS data for years, but in January 2023, after migrating their systems to Paytronix, she had real-time access to data across Opentable (reservations), Paytronix (customer loyalty) and Toast (point of sale).

“Since then, we have been able to monitor our sales by every single campaign we implement on email and within our loyalty database,” she says. “Prior to Paytronix, it was a very manual and siloed approach to gathering the data. With the Paytronix capabilities and its AI, we can see down to the item level what our loyal guests are purchasing and at what frequency. We can then tailor our campaigns to those audiences based on their spend patterns.”

For example, invitations to special events, or new opening announcements to guests that frequent specific concepts the most, or campaigns to thank guests for visiting or 'we miss you' if it's been longer than usual since a guest's last visit.

“We achieve much higher open and click rates than any industry I have ever worked with,” Newton says. “In addition to the engagement metrics, we get conversions because they are clicking through and making reservations. People connect with brands when they feel a brand understands them. There is no better way to do this than personalization with AI.”

Newton and her team use AI for social media captions and design as well as email campaigns, marketing collateral and product descriptions. “To me AI delivers across the board, and there are so many opportunities to maximize the data in real time,” she says. “It can increase incremental spend, which can add up over time and create higher volume spenders in your loyal customer database. And that leads to overall revenue success for an organization.”

By answering every call

In Denver, The Culinary Creative Group is just getting started tapping into AI. Founder and CEO Juan Padro is using Popmenu to streamline technology and marketing efforts for all concepts and locations.

“In our industry, we are seeing a focus on efficiency, so this is going to be a huge time-saver,” he says. “We can control the guest experience by keeping them on our website, ordering directly through our site and texting them direct links to place an order or fill out a hiring form.” Padro relies on Popmenu's AI marketing and AI phone answering across all locations and has already seen a huge benefit.

“Our phones ring off the hook at our restaurants, so we need to make sure we answer every call so we don’t miss any revenue opportunities and that’s historically been a huge issue for us,” he says. With Popmenu, Padro can access a dashboard to, see exactly how many calls they are receiving, what top topics guests are calling about, and the resolution rate for calls. “We can customize responses, promote specials and other news, and automatically send callers a link to make a reservation or place an online order.”

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By watching what customers eat

As for AI-generated automatic emails, Popmenu takes information from their website – including new and popular dishes, reviews and events – and automatically builds a monthly calendar of emails, texts and social posts that are specific to each brand. “All we have to do is approve or edit the content which I do find that we need to do, but it helps create a discipline for us,” Padro says. “Both tools free up time for our staff while helping to bring in new and repeat customers.”

With Popmenu's interactive menu, they can even test the effectiveness of new menu items. “If we see a high level of engagement – likes, reviews and orders – on our website, we’ve got a fan-favorite. The AI marketing tech will automatically work the new dish into the monthly calendar, so we get more exposure through different marketing channels to gauge guest interest.”

When guests like a dish, leave a review or place an online order, all of these are valuable data points that help Padro and his team build a more robust profile for loyal guests. “We can automate more personalized marketing that speaks to their preferences,” he says. “Not only can we be more targeted with segmented lists by each location, event, etc., but we can also send overarching messaging across all our followers directly through our parent account in the same way.”

Although they are just in the beginning stages of tapping the powers of AI, Padro believes more personalized guest interactions will lead to a better ROI and set the Culinary Creative Group apart from competitors.

“Ultimately, this is all about data,” Padro says. “So how can we capture the most data and use that to enhance the guest experience?”

By Improving Customer Service

As dietary needs continue to diversify, the AI-powered restaurant training and operations platform ExpandShare streamlines the process for staff to accurately address guests' dietary inquiries and allergen concerns on the spot. When a guest has a garlic allergy, a team member can immediately search “Is there garlic in the signature buffalo sauce?” within their ExpandShare app. Operators feed the algorithm by simply uploading their recipes and standard operating procedures into ExpandShare, allowing the AI tool to provide accurate answers.

“This technology is changing the game for our clients’ kitchens, enabling us to uphold high standards effortlessly and seamlessly meet guests' needs,” said Randy Wilder, a manager at ExpandShare.

Implementing AI into everyday operations increases kitchen efficiency and significantly improves the dining experience, fostering a level of trust and satisfaction among guests that gets them to return.