Monday, May 10, 2010

Social Media & the Independent Restaurant

The restaurant industry and social media platforms have always had a tenuous relationship.  With the advent of the message board and blog, suddenly the phrase “everyone’s a (restaurant) critic” became excruciatingly true.  Next time you’re going to go out to eat, hop on your computer and Google the restaurant you’ve chosen.  No matter where you’re going, - a rural truck stop diner or Jean-Georges, I guarantee there will at least be a couple dozen (if not hundreds) reviews.
I’ve heard a number of friends and peers in the industry lament the fact that “any hack with a blog” can smear a restaurant (deservedly or not) and damage its credibility, but fail to acknowledge or fully understand the enormous potential that free web-based platforms offer the restaurant industry – especially the independent operation.

The gleaming boxes of corporate kitsch in your local suburban mega-mall have the budget to pull off equally ostentatious websites (see The Cheesecake Factory’s website), buy endless ad space in popular magazines, and afford the rent in spaces that are prime for a constant flow of diners.  Smaller restaurants – from your mom & pop diner, to your farm-to-table fine dining establishment – have to be much more resourceful and reliant on media reviews or word-of-mouth. 
For help with the questions I had about independent restaurants (and indie business in general) maximizing their exposure on a minimal budget, I turned to three of my friends – Tyler Hayes, Andy Santamaria, and Jonny Thompson – who also happen to be involved in social media consulting, web design, entrepreneurship, and are just generally good, tech-savvy guys.
1) Twitter is a great way to reach the masses, and a lot of chefs and restaurants are using it, but are there any particular strategies to capitalize on that potential level of exposure?
[Tyler] They are? Nice. The fact that they're using it is probably the best strategy.  Those who choose to do something of their own will, rather than because an "expert" told them to, will be more successful.  But you did ask a legit question, and it's a foregone conclusion at this point that the best specific strategy on Twitter is authenticity.  People are unbelievably good bullshit-detectors, so being true to who you actually are - not some alternate version of yourself - will bring you the most success long-term. It may not be sexy, but it's smart, kind of like saving money by paying your credit card bill on time.
[Jonny] Yes, you can do a lot with Twitter but not all the principles and strategies for Twitter would apply to a restaurant. In the restaurant industry reputation can make or break you. As the social web landscape continues to grow, Twitter continues to play a stronger role in “word of mouth” marketing. There’s definitely tactics to focus on and tactics to avoid.
Restaurant Twitter Strategy: Dos and Don’ts of using Twitter
·         Seek:
o   Do: start following users who are located near or around the restaurant. Do this gradually.
o   Do: follow restaurant industry leaders.
o   Do: follow local media outlets and restaurant related critics.
o   Don’t: massively follow as many people as you can. Your account will look spammy when the number of “Following” vastly outnumbers your “Followers”.
·         Engage:
o   Do: send out event notifications, specials, and creative restaurant updates. Think about what’s important to your day-to-day customers. Tweet a photo of a really colorful drink right before happy hour on a Friday afternoon.  Make sure your tweets are useful.
o   Do: If a customer mentions something positive about your restaurant, retweet it. If a customer says something negative, reach out to them and ask how you can help. Attempt to diffuse or address the issue.
o   Don’t: send out irrelevant commentary or unrelated updates. Your followers are following you because they expect your messages to be about the restaurant. Don’t dilute your messages. If followers want news, they will follow CNN. If they want sports, they will follow Sports Illustrated. If they want an obnoxious commentary, they will follow Glenn Beck some Joe Schmoe.
o   Don’t: start a Twitter account and neglect it. You need to update it regularly.
·         Listen:
o   Do: Twitter (as well as other social mediums) can be very powerful for extracting feedback and reaching out to your customers. Use Twitter’s search ( by plugging in your restaurant’s name or some related keywords to monitor what people are saying. Take this information as an opportunity to get a beat on what your customers are saying.
o   Don’t: neglect what people are saying. If retweeted, negative customer comments can spread quickly.
Also, consider using a free service like to shorten URLs when you place them inside of your tweets as well as track how many users are clicking on your links.
[Andy] As far as using Twitter to get gain influence with your audience, I have a little experience from my friend who I consulted. Laura Bonicelli ( She has a home-cooked delivery meal service. The best thing for her was to answer questions. A lot of people have questions about cooking and it's amazing how effective it is to say, "what are your cooking questions that I can answer?"
2) For a small restaurant with a tight budget, what are some website essentials that are either missed or not used to their full potential?
[Jonny] Free Tools & Resources that Every Restaurant Website Should Have
There are a lot of great tools and resources out there, but there are the critical ones that every restaurant website should include.
·         Google Analytics – is a free tool by Google which allows you to see how many visitors are coming to your site, where they are coming from and much more. This is a no brainer and this will show you everything you need to know about how your users are navigating your website.
·         Google Alerts – (again) a free tool by Google that monitors information posted across the internet based on keywords that you specify. It then sends a email alert to you when it spots new content. This can be useful for tracking what’s being posted on the internet about your restaurant (or your competitors).
·         Google Local Business  -
·         WordPress – you’ll have to work with a web developer in getting this setup, but WordPress is a free intuitive content management tool which will allow you to make content updates to your website without having to call your web developer all the time. This is great for keeping your website up-to-date.
·         Social Media:
o   Start a Twitter Account – get your Twitter account setup and start aggregating content.
o   Start a Facebook page – go to Facebook and create a page for your restaurant. Aggregate the same content that you push out to Twitter. Post pictures and relevant information.
o   Add yourself to Yelp and Urban Spoon – you may be reluctant to do this but if you don’t do this, someone will for you. By creating it yourself you can ensure that the information is correctly represented. People will post reviews and feedback. Check back often to read what others say.
Website Essentials
You shouldn’t expect your restaurant website to be a common hangout for web users. The truth is that users have specific goals when going to a restaurant website and in my experience the top three things people are looking for are:
1)      Menu options (and price)
2)      Location
3)      Pictures
Every restaurant website should make sure they have the accounted for the following.
·         Home page – this is a no brainer but it’s important to point out that this page must be properly setup. Ensure the following:
o   Utilize great imagery – don’t cut corners here. It is essential that you have near perfect images for food and atmosphere. People really pay attention to those things.
o   A nice opening intro message – this is your 30 second elevator pitch to tell the user what you’re about. This is also great for getting more traffic from search engines.
o   Your address in the footer – place this on the homepage because Google, Yahoo!, and Bing will pick this up and will sometimes add special features to your listing within search results.
·         About page – this page will act as a continuation of your 30 second elevator pitch on the home page. Great for search engines and also a way to highlight the deeper details behind the restaurant.
·         Site pictures – again, don’t cut corners here.
·         Location – people will want to find you. Don’t hide your directions or location.
·         Open Table – include a link that will allow customers to make reservations online.
·         Employment – an often overlooked visitor to a restaurant website is somebody who is looking for a job. Setting the correct expectations on your website with how to seek employment options can save a lot of headaches.
·         Fresh content – while the restaurant website is still not a very appealing place for users to hangout, adding fresh content to your site will greatly improve your standing in search engines, which will add to exposure. A great way of doing this is by either adding a blog or News & Events section.
NOTE: Do yourself a favor and do not add music to your website. Usability studies continue to show that this is one of the most disliked features a website can have. If you have music, you can be assured that users will leave quickly or not return again.

3) Are there any particular social media platforms that could be useful in the restaurant industry that haven't necessarily been marketed to that niche?
[Jonny] (Not positive if this has been marketed much yet) There are so many great social media platforms and tools out there but one tool that I keep hearing more about in the restaurant industry is Guest Pulse ( Guest Pulse is a tool specifically for restaurant owners and managers for tracking reputation around the web and within social channels. It particularly does a good job of monitoring reviews from critics and user review sites.
[Tyler] That completely depends on context. But I guess if you want a short answer: no.  As with any client, I would advise to think strategy first, tactics second.  This means define your goals - preferably holistic goals based on valid, reliable data, not information that comes from silos like just the Marketing department or the CEO's gut intuition.  Then get the smartest people in the room together to define the best strategy to meet those goals.  Don't make 5-year plans, or even 1-year plans, they're worthless. Just define what needs to be solved now.  Try something, then adapt & iterate again.  Then ask for feedback from everybody - not just the whiz kids - on what you might not be seeing; that's crucial, get as many outside ideals as possible.  Always heed outside counsel, that's often where the best ideas come from.  Just ask Google or 37signals.
4) Is a Facebook fan-page a useful marketing tool in your opinion?  What can an independent restaurant do to get the most out of it?
[Jonny] A Facebook fan-page will only be a useful marketing tool if you make it useful to your audience. If you’re going to setup a Facebook fan-page, you must commit to updating it and providing good content. In the Facebook environment, users are drawn to pictures and video.  Make sure those are a part of your Facebook strategy.
When starting a Facebook fan-page, find some of your close friends to help you start promoting it by asking them to become fans. This will help jumpstart your fanbase.
A great way to get the most out of your Facebook page is by creating spreadable content. When users find something that is of value to them, they like to pass it on. A good example of spreadable content could be a special promotion or deal.  It could even be an event with your restaurant.
Tip: Try to get a local celebrity or news personality to become a fan of your restaurant and you’ll see a nice jump in fans.
[Tyler] Sure, as long as you use it for something novel.  Too many companies don't.  They just toss the responsibility to the youngest worker bee, but why should she give a shit?  She's being paid horribly and is constantly under threat of losing her job.  Independent restaurants could easily become top dog by using Facebook, but it's just a tool.  Again, strategy first. "Who is our primary customer base?  Do they exist on the Internet?  Do they care about us enough to visit our Facebook page?  Or should we try and harness a different group who use the Internet more, but maybe don't know us very well?" Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, these are all just tools.  If an independent restaurant really wants to get the most use out of Facebook, they better have a damn good reason to be on it in the first place.  If they have a damn good reason, and a damn good person running their Facebook page, I guarantee they will get the most out of it.

It's all just a matter of connecting with people. No one gives a shit about your restaurant dude, sorry. Well, maybe your mom does.  But everyone else wants to know about you, why you make the decisions you do, why you put basil instead of garlic in the recipe, why you changed the # of seats.  Why don't I follow Microsoft on Facebook? Because I don't care about their company, it's too huge and they've got nothing to say as a company.  But I follow Bill Gates on Twitter, because he's making huge strides in human rights advocacy and has something to say that I care about.  Don't worry about the people who don't care about you, not everyone is going to like you or care about what you have to say. Just focus on the people that do care, and care back.  You will succeed so much more than the people who don't, I promise.

(By the way, that's something we need to collectively stop doing. We all - everybody - assume that young people are good with technology.  Trust me, they're not. I worked at a college IT Helpdesk for 4 years, and young people are just as dumb & helpless with technology as their parents. They just use it more.)
5) Aside from cooking great food, how can a chef/restaurant make peace with the food blogger without pandering to them?
[Jonny] Making peace with the food blogger may be an ongoing struggle but one step in the right direction is to reach out to the food blogger. Accept criticism as constructive feedback. When a blogger writes something up about your restaurant that is negative (or positive), you have the great opportunity to acknowledge and respond to them. Instead of lashing out, try to address their concerns. You’re not always going to make them happy but in the social channel, a lot of the times people just want to be heard.

[Tyler] Act like they're your grandmother. Respect them as a human being and act decent.  In the grand scheme of things, your food isn't a big deal.  F***ing up a relationship over your food is. Decide, RIGHT AWAY, whether you want to interact with this person or not.  Don't hover in the middle.  Either develop a relationship with them or don't,
depending on what you feel is best.  If you mess up, at least you were committed 100% and they can still respect you for that.
6) What the hell is Foursquare?  And does it do anything for a chef/restaurant owner?
[Jonny] Foursquare is a location based social platform that allows users to “check-in” at commercial establishments and receive points and badges. Foursquare users can become the mayor (within Foursquare) of different establishments if they check-in often enough. It’s important to ensure that your restaurant’s information is correctly represented on Foursquare.
Overall, I think the verdict is still out on how restaurants can truly benefit from Foursquare but here are a few things you can utilize.
·         Customer Monitoring:
o   Find out who’s been to your restaurant and follow them on Twitter.
o   Find out what people are saying about your restaurant by checking out the ‘Tips’ column.
·         Customer Rewards and Benefits
o   You can claim your restaurant on Foursquare and offer specials and promotions for frequent visitors.
Either way, keep an eye on Foursquare because there will be more features coming out in the following months.

[Andy] Now here's what I'd do with it. Sign up for the businesses part if you can. Make sure all the information for your restaurant is accurate. Sometimes people make their own locations so you can have duplicates or incorrect information for the location. Make sure it's all correct.

Then, periodically check out the website to see who is "Checking-in" to your restaurant. Make sure to let people know that you can check-in on Twitter. If you see someone check-in who has a prominent twitter account or is an "influencer" find them in the restaurant and give the a free drink.

Someone did this to me one time when I was in Punch Pizza. I checked-in and the manager came over to me and asked, "Are you AndySantamaria on Foursquare?" When I said yes he gave me free pizza on the house. I then let my twitter followers know that checking-in to punch pizza could randomly result in happiness.

I'd just do it sparingly. Maybe look into setting up a promotion for people that become mayor of your restaurant? Check out the bulldogNE on foursquare.
[Tyler] Foursquare is the most disgustingly awesome digital tool (yet) to come alone (so far) for businesses catering to customers.  It is a smartphone app that determines the phones location via GPS, and estimates what locations are nearby (e.g. restaurant, bar, convention center, barber, event).  Many apps do this.  Foursquare's unique value is that it created a game on top of all these locations, allowing any user to digitally "check in" at these venues.  This may seem pointless.  It's not.  It's useful for consumers and for business.  For example, bars can see - among Foursquare users - who "checks in" the most at their bar; this person is called the Mayor. Businesses can reward their Mayor by offering a free drink whenever the Mayor checks in on Foursquare and shows their check-in to the bartender.  As a consumer, I get a free drink.  The game aspect really comes into play when more people check in, fighting for the Mayor status.  That's just the beginning.

Follow us on Twitter and check out our websites for more fantastic (mostly) relevant content!
Andrew Garrison (me) - @BooomCity,
Andy Santamaria - @andysantamaria,
Jonny Thompson - @jonnytee,
Tyler Hayes - @thetylerhayes,
Follow Chef’s Blade on Twitter, too! - @ChefsBlade
Many thanks to Tyler, Andy, and Jonny for take the time to offer up their opinions and expertise.


  1. Great content. Really loved what the Jonny and Andy had to say; they know their stuff.

    Thanks again Andrew.

  2. No, thank you, sir. You all provided perfectly complimentary perspectives.

  3. Awesome Blog, really great content for independent restaurants.Really, Really good stuff!