9 Things That Are Sending Your Restaurant Patrons to the Competition

Increase your profits by encouraging repeat customers.
Your restaurants success depends on a combination of good service, food, cleanliness and atmosphere. (Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Are your restaurant’s hard-earned profits walking out the door each night?


“Return customers tend to buy more from a company over time. As they do, your operating costs to serve them decline,” according to research by Frederick Reichheld, author and business strategist. Yet many independent restaurants don’t recognize the things they do that drive away repeat business.

Here are the most common complaints that send restaurant patrons to the competition.

Service issues

A 2016 national dining survey by Zagat reported that 28 percent of restaurant customers surveyed said poor service irritated them the most when dining out.

Too slow or too fast. Slow service is obviously annoying, but feeling rushed through a meal can transform a joyous occasion into an uncomfortable race against the clock for patrons. A server removing your plate or beverage before you’re finished is a top peeve according to a Consumer Reports national survey.

Impolite employees. The staff represents a restaurant’s brand. Disrespect for patrons sends the message that the brand doesn’t care for its customers. Employees who argue with the customer or make small requests seem huge do a disservice to the brand.

Inattentive servers. Patrons who wait too long before being noticed and asked for their drink order will have a bad taste in their mouths well before the food arrives.


(Photo: kryzhov/Shutterstock)

Cleanliness Issues

The Consumer Reports survey showed cleanliness issues were even more bothersome than service issues.

Dirty restrooms. If the restroom is filthy, can the kitchen and prep areas be far ahead? Floor drains that need cleaning; walls, toilets and sinks that need wiping; and empty toilet paper or paper towel dispensers leave guests wondering what happens in areas they can’t see. Diners could be thinking, “Are employees even washing their hands if there aren’t any paper towels in the dispenser?”

Dirty tables or utensils. Customers won’t care what the excuse is for finding food remnants stuck to a fork or a lipstick print on a mug; they will chalk it up to carelessness.


(Photo: Stasique/Shutterstock)

Food Issues

Atmosphere is important (for instance, customers are unhappy when tables are too close together, but most diners patronize a restaurant for the food. Problems with the meals that can send diners packing include:

Wrong orders. Incorrect food orders say “we don’t care” to restaurant patrons. Most orders pass through multiple competent hands before arriving at table, providing ample opportunity to correct the problem. (A kitchen printer can also help.) Also, servers should remember (or write down) which meals is whose.

Meal not as described. A salad described as “bursting with berries” is sure to disappoint when it arrives at table topped with six blueberries. Food should look and taste as described on the menu.

Inconsistent or unavailable items. Repeat customers return because they were pleased with their previous meal. The meatloaf special about which they raved to their friends shouldn’t look or taste different the next time they visit. Unavailable menu items are just as annoying. Some supply issues are unavoidable, but missing menu items usually means someone didn’t know how to order correctly.

Ignoring special dietary needs. Today’s diners are more likely than ever to request gluten free, nut free, dairy free or vegan dishes. Not offering any of these options, or be unwilling to accommodate your patron’s request, might encourage them to go elsewhere next time.

It’s worse still when a customer is assured by staff that a meal contains no gluten or meat, only to find out it was made with flour or chicken broth. Such errors are dangerous at worst and inconvenient at best.


(Photo: Uber Images/Shutterstock)

Keeping customers happy

Cynthia Mejia, Ph.D., has witnessed these problems in her 25-year career in the restaurant and hospitality industry. According to Mejia, an assistant professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at University of Central Florida, many of these problems point to either lack of experience or lack of training.

Mejia teaches her students that a restaurant is a balance of internal service (tools and support for the staff) and external service (the care and service given to patrons).

“If you provide excellent internal service, that translates into excellent external service,” she said. It is the responsibility of the owner/manager to provide excellent internal service so that the staff can, in turn, provide excellent external service as the face of the brand.

Mejia suggested these tips to help managers avoid or fix these common problems:

  • Cross-train employees to understand each other’s roles and build a strong team.
  • Staff adequately, especially during peak times. Short staffing creates stress that manifests as an inability to keep areas clean, rudeness to customers and kitchen errors.
  • Use your POS system fully, especially to track sales and determine staffing requirements to avoid food shortages or poor service.
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