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June 25, 2022

For delivery orders at Hungry House, Barnett includes a handwritten thank-you note with every order to remind customers that there’s a human behind the food. She also emails regulars directly to thank them for their business and solicit any feedback they might have. “I’ll just be like, ‘Today, David’s going to get an email,’” Barnett says. “It’s probably kind of creepy because I will just write, ‘I really hope you’re enjoying everything!’”

Sending a note or gifting a customer’s favorite dish requires thought and care, but such moves are also good for business. Restaurant regulars increase food sales by spreading the word, Barnett says. Since opening in summer last year, new customers reported that they’d found Hungry House via recommendations in their workplace Slack channels, friend groups, and on social media. The extra touches are also just fun for the staff, says Dunn. “That personal element was taken away from everyone who works in a restaurant” when the pandemic hit, she says, “and that’s the best part of the job.”

Customers who order food online also want to connect with their favorite restaurants. During the pandemic, Grace Clarke, a 35-year-old marketing consultant living between Paris and New York City, found herself compelled to send little poems to her favorite sushi spot whenever she ordered online. Sometimes Clarke gave updates on her life: “I’ve been gone for months; I made your rolls for my aunt; Obv, they weren’t as good!” Other times she’ll confess: “I’m ghosting someone; he is driving me CRAZY. I feel bad. And yet.”

While her delivery drivers have never discussed the content they find in the notes, Clarke says that’s not the point of them. “There’s this pleasant unknown,” she says. “Do they read them? I have no idea. But I do wonder if they get an order and think, ‘This girl. What an odd duck.’”

These brief digital interactions help promote a sense of belonging, says Marisa Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert and the author of the forthcoming book, Platonic. The pandemic eroded many weak ties—the fleeting and spontaneous interactions we might have had with people, like a local barista or colleague in the break room. When these ties are suddenly cut off, “it becomes hard for us to understand ourselves,” says Franco.

In-person communication is the holy grail when it comes to developing intimacy. But that doesn’t mean virtual or long-distance connection—like the kinds Barnett and Dunn are forging—can’t be fulfilling. “When we don’t have other means of interaction, how we communicate online matters even more for our satisfaction in a relationship,” says Franco. “Because fundamentally, in the online world or off of it, the same things create connection: being vulnerable and showing and receiving affirmation.”

Over time those small virtual relationships add up; they make both restaurants and their customers feel affirmed. In Hudson, feedback from regulars helps validate Dunn’s hard work opening Buttercup during the pandemic. “I remember last year someone called up and said, ‘I just want to say how excellent everything was.’” Hearing that message, Dunn burst into tears. “Everyone is so quick to write something negative on Yelp. So for the regulars that come time and time again, it’s just really nice to know you’re doing something good.”

For Clarke, it’s comforting to know the strangers on the other side of her sushi order might be following along with personal milestones: “When I move, if I’m dating, if I’m working late and mad at a client and rewarding myself with five rolls at 10:30 p.m.,” she says. Along with generous tips, the most tangible form of appreciation, Clarke hopes her haiku’s bring joy to the recipients. “They’re an attempt to brighten their hour, make them feel appreciated, or at least make something potentially boring a little more interesting,” she says.

In Harlem, Clay’s small acts of kindness are equally validating for Shanika. “They make me feel that my support is being acknowledged despite the obstacles, twists, and turns we’re all experiencing in our personal and professional lives,” she says.

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