How Loyalty Programs Give Customers the Biggest Bang for Their Buck

… and bring them back to restaurants for more.

Digital loyalty programs surged 124 percent during the height of the pandemic, helping restaurants drive more frequent visits and higher check averages from devoted customers, according to market researcher NPD Group. The popularity of online ordering is motivating big fast-food chains to use rewards programs to hold onto new mobile app customers.\

Having a loyalty program today is table stakes. Rather than being an afterthought, all restaurants should consider copying what has worked well for QSR giants. Following are some loyalty program ideas that have fueled restaurants’ success by rewarding and exciting customers with what their respective programs offer.

Loyalty Lessons Learned

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted chains to create, improve upon and increase mobile app and loyalty program adoptions, aligning customers’ shifting preferences toward safety. In fact, while business waned for restaurants failing to meet consumers’ needs through delivery and pickup, business for brands like Chipotle grew.

Before 2020, the 2,800-location chain had fewer than 10 million loyalty program members. In 2021, that number jumped to more than 20 million. With online orders comprising most of Chipotle’s business, the brand pushes loyalty by offering some items, like its quesadilla, through its digital channel only.

Another loyalty program guru, Chick-fil-A provides four tiers, enabling participants to increase point values as they climb from a Chick-fil-A One Member status to Silver to Red to Signature. Not to be left out, Starbucks Rewards program credits members with stars – with one star per dollar redeemable for free drinks, food and more.

Think What Would Incentivize Customers to Join 

When building a successful loyalty program, consider what other known brands have done and keep customer needs and wants top of mind. For instance:

  • Please patrons with points. Point-based programs provide customers with points for their purchases, which add up and are turned in for rewards such as money off an order, a certain item or a meal. If you go this route, as many restaurants do, make sure tracking points is easy for your customers and remember to reward them with something desirable. Money talks as does free food. Rewarding them with a trinket bearing your brand name might not go over so well and can adversely affect customer adoption and loyalty.
  • Celebrate good times, come on! Many successful programs reward loyal members on their birthdays. Jimmy John’s Freaky Fast Rewards® members, for instance, get a free sub sandwich of choice on their special day – as do many other restaurants. You can take this idea even further. Why not offer free food to celebrate a high schooler’s graduation or the one-year anniversary from when a patron first dined with you? 
  • Share an experience. Customers like experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Consider rewarding loyal diners with something like a virtual cocktail mixing class or teaching then them to toss their own pizza crust followed by trimming it with their favorite toppings. Take photos of patrons during your restaurant’s special event and share it on your social channels. Ask reward recipients to do the same. 
  • Think creatively. Ask your most loyal customers what incentives they would like you to offer. Perhaps treat them preferentially by allowing them to make reservations before others. Or dole out double points on your slowest day of the week and turn it into the busiest.

Long Live Loyalty 

Today’s customers are hungry for digital loyalty programs. The more robust and rewarding your restaurant’s incentive program, the better. Loyalty programs help secure future orders, enable a way for customers to become more devoted to your brand and provide you with specific insights into their purchasing behavior. Such data can help you identify order trends, view purchasing history and understand your establishment’s peak and slower times. Restaurants laggards lacking such programs are leaving money – and customer loyalty – on the table.