Intense competition pushes restaurants and coffee shops to improve their customer loyalty and retention. Big names such as Starbucks and Chick-fil-A have already made big changes to their rewards programs. One of the biggest moves they’ve made has been replacing plastic cards with restaurant loyalty apps.

But should you spend a bunch of money on mobile app development to build and maintain customer loyalty? Or is a traditional card-based loyalty program enough for you?

Here’s a look at why you should go mobile for creating customer loyalty, how world-famous apps reward and engage customers, what features to include in your loyalty app, and how to run a successful program.

Why go mobile for building customer loyalty?

With a mobile-based loyalty program, you can:

  • Learn valuable information about your customers. For example, you can learn about customers’ purchasing behavior, food preferences, and demographics.
  • Provide your customers with a personalized experience by offering special deals, custom birthday gifts, and content that’s meaningful to each customer.
  • Make your loyalty program easy to use. If you have an app, customers don’t have to carry your restaurant’s plastic loyalty card around with them. All they need to do is have their phone with your loyalty app.
  • Reach your customers anywhere and anytime. You can use push notifications to notify customers about happy hours, special deals, and restaurant news – and to introduce them to new menu items.
  • Ensure your customers feel they’re part of an exclusive group. You can provide your regulars with exclusive offers, content, news, and other incentives that will make them feel special. Also, you can allow users to share their feedback and suggestions, creating a sense of belonging.

Examples of great mobile restaurant loyalty programs

The most efficient mobile loyalty apps demonstrate how mobile technology can be applied to build and increase customer loyalty.


My Starbucks Rewards is one of the best loyalty programs in the industry. The first Starbucks loyalty program, called Starbucks Card, was introduced in April 2008. In November of that year, Starbucks launched another loyalty program called Starbucks Gold, offering their most frequent guests 10 percent off almost any purchase for a $25 annual fee.

A year later, they merged these two programs, added some gamification elements, and called it My Starbucks Rewards. The idea of this program was that customers could earn points based on how often they visited Starbucks.

The original My Starbucks Rewards program had three levels and offered different benefits for each:

  • Welcome level―This is the level everyone started at when they registered for My Starbucks Rewards. At this level, members received a free birthday drink.
  • Green level—Once a Welcome level member earned five stars, they were promoted to the Green level. At this level, customers could customize their drinks and get free coffee refills.
  • Gold level—After a Green level member collected at least thirty stars, they reached the Gold level. At this level, customers enjoyed all benefits of the previous levels plus a personalized Gold Card and a free beverage with every additional 12 stars.  

In 2016, Starbucks decided to switch from a visit-based program to a purchase-based program. They also kept only two levels: Green and Gold. Customers earned two stars for every dollar spent and had to collect 300 stars to be promoted to the Gold level. For a free reward, Gold level members had to earn at least 125 stars.

But this wasn’t the end of the story. Starbucks continued to develop their loyalty program. In 2019, they realized that My Starbuck Rewards was still quite complicated and confusing, so they decided to simplify it. With their new program, customers don’t have to collect 300 stars to start redeeming them for rewards. Instead, they can receive drink refills at 25 stars and a free drink at 50 stars.

Chick-fil-A One

Chick-fil-A is one of the dominant players in the quick-service restaurant industry. The Chick-fil-A loyalty program enables customers to earn points for every dollar spent at the chain. In 2016, Chick-fil-A launched the first version of their mobile app. Later that same year, they updated their app and added a tiered membership program, called Chick-fil-A One.

To participate in Chick-fil-A One, all customers need to do is sign up on the Chick-fil-A website or via the mobile app. Customers can earn points by ordering through the app and at Chick-fil-A locations. They can also use the app to order catering, track and redeem points, order on the go, customize orders, and save their favorite orders. Customers receive benefits based on their status and how much they spend at the restaurant.

Here are the Chick-fil-A One membership tiers:




Silver Member

Red Member


Anyone who signs up for Chick-fil-A One

Customers who collect 1,000 points within a year

Customers who collect 5,000 points within a year


$1 = 10 points

$1 = 11 points

$1 = 12 points

Point redemption

Menu items

Menu items

Menu items


  • Food rewards
  • Birthday gifts


  • Food rewards
  • Birthday gifts
  • Gift rewards to family and friends
  • Meal donations to Feeding Children Everywhere on member’s behalf
  • Chick-fil-A backstage tour
  • Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame tickets
  • First to get insider content and information



Dunkin’ also has one of the best customer loyalty apps. Dunkin’ launched its rewards program, called DD Perks, in 2014. To participate in the program, customers need to sign up for DD Perks online or using the Dunkin’ Donuts app.

DD Perks is a purchase-based program: customers receive five points for every dollar they spend. Using the Dunkin’ app, customers can earn, monitor, and redeem points, order up to 24 hours in advance, customize their orders, pay, send gift cards, and save favorites.

Actions to reward customers for

There are plenty of actions that you can reward your customers for:

  • Signing up for your loyalty program
  • Purchasing at your restaurant
  • Giving feedback
  • Referring a friend
  • Following you on social media
  • Sharing content on social media
  • Having a birthday
  • Placing a mobile order
  • Making a mobile payment
  • Ordering in advance
  • Completing challenges and tasks

Functionality to include in a loyalty program app

We’ve analyzed the top restaurant apps and outlined the features they have in common: rewards, the ability to order in advance, options to customize orders, and payment functionality.

  • Rewards. Customers should be able to earn, track, and redeem points. Make sure you clearly define what activities you’ll reward and how many points customers will get for completing particular actions. You can also offer customers to complete special challenges to earn bonus points. This will encourage them to actively engage in your loyalty program.
  • Ability to order in advance. Customers will definitely appreciate the opportunity to skip the line, instead placing an order and picking it up when they want. According to the Mobile Checkout Benchmark Report, on-the-go ordering will have an additive effect on the fast food industry. Mobile ordering apps turn out to improve customer loyalty, increase the average order size, and boost order frequency through easier checkout and order customization. To reduce wait times and lines, streamline your service operations, and save time on taking orders, consider adopting self-service kiosks or table ordering systems. Guests who are in a hurry and have no time to order on the go will appreciate the possibility to order and pay on their own and get their food faster than they would if they ordered with a waiter.
  • Order customization. Customers should be able to customize dishes by removing and adding ingredients.
  • Payments. Fast and smooth payments is a must for a custom restaurant app. There are quite a lot of payment gateways to choose from, including Stripe, Braintree, and PayPal. For in-restaurant payments, allow customers to pay using QR codes.

There are also some nice-to-have features that can be relevant for your loyalty program app or that you may want to add later:

  • Blog. You can share breaking stories and the latest news from your company on your blog. Customers may share your content on social networks if they find it useful. This is a great way to market your restaurant.
  • Geolocation-based search allows customers to find your restaurant. This functionality is especially great for restaurant chains.
  • Push notifications can notify customers about special deals and happy hours.
  • Social media integration enables customers to connect their social media accounts with their loyalty profiles.
  • Ratings and feedback lets you receive customer reviews about your service, menu, and app.

Useful tips on how to run a successful restaurant loyalty program

If designed properly, a loyalty app can be a powerful tool for delivering excellent customer service and turning your guests into repeat customers. Below are some useful tips for creating and running a successful program.

1. Provide personalization. Giving rewards isn’t enough. Show customers you care by providing meaningful value for each of them. For example, offer your regulars special deals on their favorite menu items or offer them for free. Make your service more personal and you’ll see how it helps you grow your business and increase retention.

2. Keep the loyalty program simple and accessible. Do you remember Starbucks’ story? They changed their loyalty system to make it simpler and less confusing. Build a loyalty program that’s easy to understand so customers don’t give up on it.

3. Listen to your customers. Customer loyalty increases when customers realize you care about their feedback and take it into account. Additionally, by letting customers share their experiences and thoughts about your restaurant, app, and menu, you’ll learn how to improve your service and direct your loyalty strategy.

Slava Ponomarov is the CEO at Steelkiwi and one of the 4City restaurant co-founders. Being involved in software development, he executed lots of projects on reducing restaurant costs and attracting new customers that delivered great results. He’s passionate about digitizing restaurant processes during last 4 years

Outside Insights, Story, Technology, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks