CLIP: The Philadelphia Inquirer – ‘Restaurant Regulars Can Count On Being Served, Royally’

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Restaurant Regulars Can Count on Being Served, Royally

By Yvonne M. Jones

Published March 5, 2006

If you’re one of the many people waiting to be seated during the always-bustling Sunday brunch at Figs, gazing at the one empty table smack in the center of the window might just drive you mad.

But don’t complain to owner Mustapha Rouissiya, owner of the Fairmount BYOB. He’s holding that spot for some very special people – and he doesn’t listen to hungry customers who petition the staff to open it up.

“I can’t help it,” he says unapologetically. “I have to save it for two of my favorite regulars.”

If you’ve always had the nagging suspicion that habitual patrons at your favorite restaurant get treated a little better than others, well – you’re right.

Beloved customers can garner free drinks, desserts, their pick of seating, free previews of new dishes the kitchen is working on, wait-list upgrades, dishes that haven’t been on the menu for months or even years, and more. Plus, there’s an ego boost that comes with walking into a restaurant and ordering “the usual.”

But it takes more than visiting your favorite eatery repeatedly to get the fringe benefits of being a die-hard patron, local restaurateurs and staffers say.

Not surprisingly, the quickest way to the staff’s heart is with a little extra green.

“Big tips always help,” says Amanda Congar, a waitress at Zocalo, a West Philadelphia restaurant serving contemporary Mexican cuisine.

“Tip more than the standard 15 percent and you’ve definitely got my attention,” she says, noting that some of her regulars often tip about 25 percent. “One generous tip probably gets you the recognition and devotion equivalent of four or five visits from a so-so tipper.”

A married couple who returned to Figs to take photos celebrating the anniversary of their first date there didn’t tip or even dine that night. But they had the right idea.

“I can’t help but be deeply flattered when my customers choose to spend a special occasion like an anniversary, a birthday, or a graduation here,” says Rouissiya. “They’re telling me Figs is a special part of their lives, and you can bet I’ll be on the alert for ways to reciprocate when they come back.”

Ian Moroney, chef and co-owner of Pumpkin in the Graduate Hospital area, will never forget the regular who went far beyond flattery just a few months after the Mediterranean restaurant opened.

“We were short-staffed that night, and a little stressed because we were getting dishes out by the skin of our teeth,” remembers Moroney. Things became tense in their tiny visible kitchen.

Suddenly, relief appeared from the dining room, in the form of a regular named John.

“He washed his hands, and just started prepping, chopping, basically pitching in to do everything we needed to be done in the kitchen that night. He pitched in here for the next week or so,” Moroney said.
“There’s no Pumpkin Hall of Fame, but if there were, he’d probably be in it.”

Sarah Johnson, who owns Majolica in Phoenixville with husband and chef Andrew Deery, says that adventurous eaters take the express train to the chef’s heart.

“Sometimes regulars are regulars because they love one or two specific dishes you make and they order it almost every visit,” says Johnson, a Phoenixville native who met many of Majolica’s regulars during years of bartending at area restaurants.

So when a regular puts down the steak knife and goes for the sweetbreads, the staff takes notice. Chef Deery will often reward such daring diners with a complimentary middle course not found on the menu, like the savory carrot sorbet with cilantro.

Moroney’s most adventurous eater at Pumpkin doesn’t order anything out of the ordinary. He’s a vegetarian who frequents the restaurant in spite of a menu heavy with veal loin, pheasant and lamb.
“I was surprised and flattered that he kept coming back,” Moroney says. “Now keeping him happy – and still vegetarian – when he comes in is a challenge I kind of look forward to.”

Some regulars earn more than a gratis cocktail, mid-course treat, or extra consideration from the chef – although Rouissiya can be extreme.

“One of my regulars knows that I’m from Morocco and that I go back for visits whenever I can,” says Rouissiya. “Last year, he asked me for advice on where he should go and stay during his Moroccan vacation.

“I sent him to my house there.”

Johnson admits that she occasionally scans Majolica’s wait list and bumps up favorite customers.
“Some of our regulars are such a treat to deal with, and so genuinely appreciative of what we do, that I don’t feel too bad about it,” she says. “I’ll do the same for any customer who comes in all the time, gets to know us, and makes us love them.”

Rouissiya, Johnson and Moroney have all made good, sometimes close, friends of patrons who have followed them from restaurant to restaurant over the years. In fact, Congar’s boyfriend is one of many Zocalo regulars who followed bartender Tracy Judge there from previous barkeep gigs throughout the city.

Are all regulars lovable by default? No, but most are.

“I don’t want to call it assertiveness,” says Moroney, “but the regular customers who make a point of introducing themselves, and make it clear – without being obnoxious – that they care about food and are vested in your success really stand out.”

Johnson agrees. “Our regulars are so gracious. Mistakes are rare here, but of course they happen at any restaurant. Our favorite customers understand the work that goes into everything we do here, and the ones who are patient with occasional mishaps and delays immediately win you over.”

But not all regulars are created equal. There are those whose repeated presence elicits groans and sighs.

“There are definitely grumpy regulars every restaurant staff loves to hate,” admits Congar. “But their grouchiness can be entertaining, even something you look forward to, like the grumpy relative you only see at family holidays.

“We must love them too, because we find ourselves cheerfully comping them with free drinks and things all the time.”
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