How Telling Your Customers 'No' Can Improve Loyalty

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Ali Cudby is the founder of Your Iconic Brand. Ali Cudby is the founder of Your Iconic Brand.

Business usually try to convert customers into loyalists by giving them what they want. That statement seems obvious... until it's not. Take Milktooth in Indianapolis, for example. The restaurant has become a star of the food scene by telling customers "no."

This flies in the face of what most businesses consider to be standard operating procedure. But for Milktooth, saying no is simply good business.

Normally, when people go out to eat, there’s an expectation that restaurants will see diners’ requests for customization as standard. “Hold the onion,” “dressing on the side” and “can I get the farro salad but without the farro and with rice instead,” are the predictable-but-annoying drumbeats in most restaurant kitchens.

A kitchen that mostly refuses menu modifications? Almost unheard of – but at Milktooth, this message is emblazoned on the menu:


And they’re not kidding. The policy is clearly enforced. A diner who doesn’t like olives in their salad is invited to either choose something else or pick ‘em out – leaving olives off the salad is not an option.

The first time I saw Milktooth’s substitution policy, I was surprised. As a customer retention professional, saying “no” flies in the face of what I expect a restaurant to do for its patrons. I wondered why Milktooth would choose a policy that seemed, at first glance, so customer unfriendly. And I was curious to know how it was working for them.

I sat down with Liz Foster from Milktooth to dig into the impact of refusing modifications to the menu.

Cudby: What made you decide to create this policy?

Foster: It was one of the first things Jonathan (chef Jonathan Brooks) said when he decided to start the restaurant. He said, “I’m going to create these dishes and I’m going to serve them the way I create them.” So it was always part of the vision for Milktooth.

Cudby: Do some diners have a bad reaction to the policy?

Foster: Sure. Sometimes people sit down, look at the menu, and leave. In a recent situation, we had with a guest who could not get a hard-poached egg. When this gentleman ordered a salad with a hard-poached egg on the side, our server politely explained that he could get a 63-degree egg, scrambled egg, sunny side egg, over medium egg, hard egg, but we do not hard-poach eggs. When he was unable to get a single, hard-poached egg he decided to leave. The server told him the salad he already had in front of him was on us, and to have a lovely day.

Cudby: There must also be an upside to the policy.

Foster: Our servers really know the menu, so it’s easier for them to make recommendations. And because the chefs aren’t making adjustments all the time, the food is very consistent when it comes out of the kitchen. Our menu isn’t cookie cutter, and the people who come here try new things. You can’t just get something you already know, and that’s part of the reason people come here. They seem to have the mindset that they’re going to have an exceptional meal.

While Milktooth does make some effort to help diners with dietary restrictions, they take their policy seriously.

In thinking about Milktooth and my conversation with them, one thing became clear. This policy isn’t about a fussy chef being precious about his food. It’s actually good business.

One of the keys to business growth is being laser-focused on serving uniquely defined customer segments. The “ideal customer exercise” is a gold standard in business consulting and coaching for good reason, because it helps clarify every decision a business needs to make to cut through the clutter and speak to the people who will become loyalists.

For many businesses, refusing to tailor an order to a diner’s preference would be the kiss of death. For Milktooth, the opposite is true – and the consistent waitlist to get into the restaurant confirms it’s working.

In fact, the “no modifications” policy is part of what shapes Milktooth’s success. Customers are invited into more than a meal. For Milktooth loyalists, eating there is an experience they love – and the menu policy is an important part of it. For many, trusting Jonathan Brooks’ artistic vision with food is part of the draw, and loyalists buy into that vision.

At first blush it may not be obvious, but by saying “no,” Milktooth successfully serves its unique ideal customers.

How is your business serving yours?

Ali Cudby is the founder of Your Iconic Brand.

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