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How to Create an Exceptional Dining Experience


Amanda McNamaraAuthor

Change is constant in the restaurant industry — especially when it comes to technology. And guest expectations have drastically changed thanks to COVID. 

The key is to use restaurant technology to improve the guest experience, not detract from it.  Because while restaurant technology can certainly make your restaurant more efficient overall, the best tech helps you focus on what's most important: delighting your guests.

Here are 23 proven ways — some staff-driven, some tech-driven — how to make guests happy in your restaurant in 2023 and beyond. 


Guide to the Restaurant Guest

Learn how to navigate changing guest expectations during and after the COVID-19 health crisis.


1. Genuinely welcome your guests.

If there’s anything COVID has taught us, it’s that guests are the lifeblood of our industry. So make sure they feel it.

Drop the scripted, "Welcome to [restaurant], my name is ‘Wish-I-Were-Somewhere-Else’? Train your staff to provide a real, hearty, genuine, glad-to-see-you welcome... just like they'd offer to guests in their own homes.

2. Give a pre-service gift.

Offer your guests a bonus something delicious right when they sit down — a sip of house champagne, or a small cup of soup, a special mini appetizer. This isn’t just for higher-end establishments: even more modest restaurants can offer a token of generosity to set the right tone, and to make your guests feel both welcome and anticipating what’s next.

3. Use the guest’s name.

It's been proven on brain scans over and over again: There is no word we love to hear more than our own names. Pass the guest's name from the host stand to the server, and be sure it's used when appropriate. Don't go overboard or it'll feel unnatural — dropping their name once or twice throughout the meal is perfect.

4. Train your servers to sell each dish.

Words matter. If a sandwich is described as "a steak sandwich with aioli and arugula," it sounds like a dictionary entry. If that same sandwich is described more fully (“The steak is marinated overnight in a special house-made marinade. It’s served on crusty ciabatta bread with fresh arugula and our famous garlic aioli”), it sounds like an experience. 

This goes for wine, too, where the difference between bottles can be significant to the check size. Make sure your staff has tasted everything on the menu. The staff will see these tastings as an investment in their food and drink knowledge, and they'll be able to sell to more authentically to guests. Win-win.

Download our free Menu Engineering Course to learn how to increase sales and lower costs.

5. Train your staff about dietary restrictions and allergies.

Be sure servers know the menu inside and out. They know what's vegan, nut-free, and/or gluten-free without having to “check with the kitchen.” Why? Checking with the kitchen automatically instills a subtle doubt in the guest, leading to a less enjoyable experience. 

Some systems include all ingredients in each menu item detail, so guests can simply check on their mobile POS right at the table for this information.

6. Allow guests to sample wine & beer.

This is a little thing that can go a long way: if a guest asks for a sample of wine or beer, always be willing to bring them one. Better yet: Offer before they ask as a way of showing superb customer service. 

7. Paying attention to creative non-alcoholic beverages.

Do you need to improve your drink sales? Nothing will raise your check average faster than ginger, lime, and mint spritzer on a hot summer day. It'll be the least-expensive item to make on your menu, by far, and yet it delivers in spaces. Creative non-alcoholic options offer exciting drink alternatives for your sober clientele who too often feel ignored. 

8. Give servers handheld technology.

That little computer you have in your pocket is far more than just a phone. It allows you to perform tasks of all shapes and sizes and instantly access a wide world of information, all in the palm of your hand. Imagine if this technology existed for restaurants. Well, now it does.

Toast Go™ 2 offers restaurants the full, robust functionality of a traditional POS terminal in a comfortable handheld. Servers can take and check on orders, send memos to the kitchen, split checks, take payment, and more — all without having to leave the table.

Restaurants that have adopted handhelds into their operations have been able to decrease table turn time, increase revenue, and consistently provide guests with a personalized, hands-on experience.

Gone are the days where servers would run back and forth from table to terminal, hoping to remember every guest's order and accompanying modifications or who paid for what on which card. Toast Go™ 2 offers restaurants a streamlined solution to cumbersome chaos.

9. Let guests order and pay at the table.

Guests love the ability to pay, sign, and tip at the table. When a guest asks for the check, they're ready to leave – they're full and happy. Don’t let their final impression of the restaurant be how long they waited to be able to leave. 

One great option for operating during a COVID world is Toast Order & Pay, which gives guests the ability to order and pay for their meal from the convenience and safety of their own device. This eliminates the need for menus, printed receipts, and handling multiple cards or cash payments. 

Guests can order and pay as soon as they are ready, with no waiting for a server and no handling of credit cards and pens needed. This ultimately improves table turn times, reduces your labor costs by freeing up staff, and increases tips with prompted gratuity.

10. Try self-serve kiosks.

Self-service via kiosks are a viable, sustainable option for quick-service concepts.

Honeygrow, a healthy-living, quick-service concept that offers guests a customizable stir-fry and salad menu, is a great example of how restaurants can successfully sustain a business and create a memorable dining experience on self-service alone.

Upon entering one of Honeygrow 28 locations, guests are met with self-service screens where they build and customize their own meals. Order tickets are then immediately sent to the line, where the Honeygrow team assembles the order and calls out the guest’s number when ready.

At no point in the entire ordering and delivery process will a guest interact with a server; this enables Honeygrow staff to devote all of their time, energy, and attention to delighting guests by creating the best dishes possible.

11. Take care of the kids.

Happy kids make for happy parents — especially in a restaurant. Offer a few kid-friendly options on your menu, and always have some Cheerios or plain crackers available. Make sure you also have plastic cups with lids. Such small gestures to placate a baby or toddler go a long way toward encouraging parents to relax into the experience.

12. Transfer tabs and split checks.

It can be frustrating for guests when they order drinks at the bar and are then told to close out their tabs before sitting down for dinner, so be sure your point of sale offers a pre-authorization functionality. 

Preauthorization allows restaurants and bars to start a tab for a customer, swipe their card once, and return the card to the customer, rather than holding it behind the bar. This allows restaurants and bars to charge the customer's card for their order in the event they leave the establishment or switch to table service. 

Similarly, it's equally frustrating for customers when a restaurant can't split a check. Your system should make it easy to split checks by table, person, or even menu items.

13. Give a post-service gift.

Get more creative than mints. One idea: Send dinner guests home with a small portion of scratch-made granola so they might revisit their lovely dinner over breakfast the next day, or even a postcard with your restaurant's photo on it.

14. Set up a loyalty program.

Rewarding your most loyal customers is a surefire way to transform them into lifelong fans. The more you invest in growing your repeat customer base, the less you’ll have to invest in getting new customers in the door.

And guests demand it: 25% of guests see loyalty programs as extremely important to their guest experiences, and 24% of restaurant professionals see them as extremely important to their retention strategies. 

An effective loyalty program is one that has a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) component, because it allows the ability to stay in touch with your customers and personalize their future experiences by centralizing customer preference data.

Toast Loyalty is a simple, integrated rewards program that restaurant owners can use to increase guest frequency. Guests can opt-into a loyalty program on the POS checkout screen by entering their email, and then track their progress by logging in online. On the operator end, you can keep track of customer data, customize sign-up bonuses, set accrual and redemption rates, offer birthday rewards, and much more. 

15. Invest customers in new product offerings.

If you're planning on swapping out a few beers, adding a menu item, or renaming dishes, get your guests involved! Post your proposed updates on social media, and invite input. Doing so invests them more deeply in your business as well as acts as ad-hoc customer research. 

16. Improve online ordering.

Online ordering is estimated to surpass $76 billion by 2022. Now, guests expect to be able to order food online for pickup in the restaurant or for delivery to their homes. 

As opposed to traditional call-in ordering, online ordering software is easier, faster, and more accurate. Plus, if it integrates with your POS system, you can fill orders faster and view online ordering analytics in your system. 

17. Offer delivery service.

Given current delivery trends, there is a huge opportunity to grow your sales by adding a delivery component to your restaurant.

One option is to go with popular third party delivery platforms, like GrubHub or UberEats. These also double as effective marketing channels with loyal users of their own, and an opportunity to attract new customers. Unfortunately, you also lose a lot of money in commissions charged per order, and you miss out on the customer data gleaned from these transactions. 

The other option is to keep delivery in-house. Toast Delivery Services work directly with DoorDash, allowing you to integrate delivery with your existing online ordering channels. Instead of relying on your own delivery drivers, Toast will dispatch a DoorDash driver when a delivery order is placed. This streamlines your delivery costs, lets you control your margins and guest data, and lets you delight your guests with a seamless and safer delivery experience. 

18. Allow for online reservations.

Online reservations are much easier to facilitate and organize than reservations made by phone and recorded by hand in a reservation book. Guests also appreciate this feature: 83% of restaurant-goers say the ability to make online reservations is very important to the dining experience.

By moving your restaurant's reservation capabilities online, you can also record and save data about each customer, and integrate it into your restaurant's CRM platform.

19. Offer online gift cards. 

An easy way to drive short-term revenue is by offering gift cards, both online and in person. Toast data has shown that guests who make a purchase using a gift card spend more than the value of the gift card. Make sure that they can be used over the phone, when ordering online, or in person at the POS system or kiosk using a contactless QR code.

20. Take advantage of chatbot technology.

Customer messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger or Drift allow companies to respond to common customer questions with automated responses. Say2eat, a messenger bot built specifically for the hospitality sector, offers customers a way to order, redeem promotions, or set up a reservation with their favorite restaurants. Since Say2eat directly integrates with the cloud-based restaurant POS technology like Toast, restaurant owners and operators can easily fulfill these orders as if they were placed on a handheld or traditional terminal. 

21. Publish the recipe for your signature dish.

Having a transparent restaurant culture could make your establishment stand out and connect you more deeply to your guests. One idea: give away the recipe of your signature dish. Have your chef share how they make it on social media — this is a good use of Instagram or Facebook Live. Your guests will still order at your restaurant; they may even order it more often!

22. Gather and implement guest feedback.

Ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft send users a “rate your ride” prompt and ask for instantaneous feedback about your experience. The same strategy can (and should!) be applied to restaurants. Toast's Guest Feedback feature helps you do this seamlessly. The best time to get honest feedback from your customers is right after they’ve visited your restaurant, while their dining experience is still fresh in their minds.

With Guest Feedback, you can ask every customer to rate their experience — thumbs up or thumbs down — while they're paying their bill on a handheld device, kiosk, or online. You also can ask if you can reach out to the guest for more thorough feedback. 

Regularly tally up all the responses submitted and looks for trends: What can you learn from the feedback overall? If there's something egregious that you can fix, contact the guest and thank them for their honesty, and invite them back to see the improvement for themselves.

There are many ways to gather guest feedback, and even old-fashioned comment cards are miles better than nothing. Wouldn’t you be more likely to become a repeat customer if a business owner demonstrated they genuinely care about your feedback?

23. Genuinely thank your guests, because they're the reason you can do what you love.

We started this piece by talking about the importance of a Welcome. Goodbye is equally important. Train servers to genuinely thank guests for spending time with you. Invite them back. Remember: Keep it real, no robotic scripts here.

Keep Serving Up Delight

Find ways to incorporate these little touches into your restaurant that are sure to make guests happy in your restaurant.

After all, the art of delighting guests is not about just giving them what they want; it's about giving them more than what they want. It's about anticipating what they want, exceeding their expectations, and creating raving fans who will happily return.

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