Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How Local Chefs Are Using Social Media

"I love sharing the crazy, zany, obsessive, inspiring, exhilarating, demanding, mortifying, satisfying, frustrating aspects of running a restaurant and bakery."
Joanne Chang

Aaron Cohen, Founder of @eatBoston.

I'm sitting in a conference room at the Cambridge Innovation Center on a rainy day. It's a shared office facility for growing tech and life sciences companies. The reason I am here is for a social media workshop for locally owned and independent restaurants called GET SOCIAL sponsored by Somerville Local First. I've come to find out what local restaurants are doing with social media. The field is new and although many companies have earmarked funds to be used for social media in their 2010 budgets most don't know where to begin. There are no college degrees in social media. It's too new a subject. So what this workshop is doing is bringing together a group of panelists with some experience to share.

It begins with a discussion of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, how to set up pages and using them to start conversations and build communities. Did you know that if Facebook was a nation it would be the third largest country in the world, with over 400 million people? Jon O'Toole, part of the founding team at BzzAgent speaks of using these tools to create word of mouth marketing. Christine Liu (Twitter handle @liuliuliu) Boston Editor of Citysearch, speaks of building communities. There are general questions about how one gets started using social media.

Aaron Cohen (@eatboston) has almost 9,000 Twitter followers. I had met him a week earlier at a dinner at Trina's Starlite Lounge. He reiterates to the participants that content is key, a theme that will resurface often. Randy Barth of Pixability, a video production service, speaks on how the use of video in blogs is the wave of the future. We are glad to be ahead of the curve on that one. TBF is one among very few local food blogs regularly using original content video not seen anywhere else. Jordyne Wu of Hubspot, an inbound marketing firm, shows us tools for optimizing our audience. If you are a blogger you should check out their free blog grader tool. Throughout the morning, however, there is one name that kept coming up over and over again: Joanne Chang.

Jordyne Wu of Hubspot and Matthew Lishansky of Upstairs On The Square.

Chang is a prolific Tweeter. With a burgeoning food empire of Flour bakeries (the third of which is set to open soon in Central Square) and Myers + Chang, how she finds the time is beyond me. The panel agrees, however, that Chang is a model for local Chefs using social media. So, we decided to ask Chang how she felt about that.

"We don't have an official strategy nor are my managers required to use social media," she says. "For both Flour and M+C I Tweet (and these posts link directly to my FB accounts for both) simply because I enjoy doing it." That, perhaps, may just be the key. "While I am aware that there is a marketing aspect of social media I firmly believe that if you engage in it purely to market your restaurant you quickly become uninteresting to followers. People are more likely to be interested in what you have to say if you engage them in topics that are interesting to THEM and not just to YOU. Yes I am very interested in promoting our Cheap Date Nights during Restaurant Week but then I'd be using social media as advertising. More fun is to post about when someone has a Cheap Date Night experience that makes them want to propose to our Chef (true story), " Chang says. "I love sharing the crazy, zany, obsessive, inspiring, exhilarating, demanding, mortifying, satisfying, frustrating aspects of running a restaurant and bakery."

Randy Barth of Pixability.

Matthew Lishansky, Director of Operations at Upstairs On The Square (@Upstairsonthesq), is also on the panel. Upstairs, with all of its glorious pink, gilt and zebra stripes was once thought of as the favored spot for octogenarian ladies who lunch. "We still love those ladies," Lishansky says. Yet the use of social media has broadened the base and created more of a hip caché. Case in point: on his recent trip to Harvard to collect his Hasty Pudding Award Justin Timberlake chose, over hundreds of other restaurants at his disposal, to dine with his girlfriend Jessica Biel at Upstairs. Of course, Twitter was abuzz with the news.

A myriad of special events and email blasts are also part of the Upstairs strategy. As the recipient of these I have always been intrigued by them. I can intuitively detect when an email is written by a PR/Marketing person. Proprietor Mary-Catherine Deibel of Upstairs, however, insists on writing each of these emails personally. And it shows. They are more like personal invitations from a friend. Lishansky also mentioned that he strongly encourages all employees to update their social media status on Facebook (FB) or Twitter when arriving at work for the day. All those mentions keep Upstairs on the radar. He is also the first to admit that he is not at all a tech nerd as he waves his old school flip phone for the audience to see.

Joanne Chang of Flour Bakeries and Myers + Chang.

A while back I received a post card in the mail announcing that a new restaurant would soon be opening in Harvard Square. That evening I Tweeted about it and instantly received two replies from local bloggers who also received one. I immediately knew that Russel House Tavern had identified local food bloggers to start the buzz. Apparently it worked. Russel House Tavern (@russellhousetav) now has over 1400 followers on Twitter and a blog and it has not even opened! Food bloggers who have been at it for years (almost three years here) have made a commitment and gained readers. Lots of readers. Just a handful of bloggers can easily be read by 100,000 readers every month. TBF alone has hit 30,000 readers in a month. Enter Michael Scelfo (@mscelfo), Chef at Russel House Tavern and Temple Bar.

Scelfo jumped into blogging and Tweeting feet first about a year ago. At one point he was Tweeting hourly and found all of it to be just too much. "I was getting the stink eye at home," he says, laughing. It can be rather addictive. Surprisingly, he told me it was a conversation with Joanne Chang, where she encouraged him to continue, that made him go on when he was ready to give up. With Russell House, the management (The Grafton Group) decided to start a new blog, Facebook page and Twitter account just for the new restaurant. That is the sole responsibility of the management group. The goal, Scelfo says, was to tell their own story. "We thought, rather than have someone else tell our story that may be inaccurate or not what we intended, let's be our own news outlet for what's going on with this place." Key point number two: bypass the mainstream media. That postcard directed me to the blog which I, of course, began to follow. It was interesting to see the genesis of opening a restaurant from the inside. I felt I was in an exclusive group of people who was the first to know about it and, as bloggers will do, I began telling everyone about it. Like all of the others who received those cards I now want to be the first inside and then the first to dine there. The strategy has clearly paid off by creating unprecedented buzz and pent up demand. And, key point number three: all without a penny spent on advertising.

Abbie Waite is Events and Communications Manager at Tigers and Bears, the group that operates, among others, Miracle of Science and Middlesex Lounge. The latter has hosted several "Tweet-Ups", impromptu social networking events organized and arranged for and by those on Twitter. "It's exciting for us to be able to interact with customers before they arrive and then extremely beneficial to be able to get any feedback afterward," she says. "Twitter enables us to better serve our customers by providing a way for us to listen to their needs and respond in a way that affirms they're being heard. And, if nothing else, it's fun!"

Not only restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, even large corporations have embraced Twitter as the ideal customer service platform, employing dozens of full-time staff to monitor Twitter searching for key words relative to their product or service. Have a new gadget? Don't understand the features? Post a Tweet and you're quite likely to receive a quick reply. It sure beats calling a toll-free number, navigating the automated menus and then waiting ... and waiting on hold.

Mary Anne Carlson, a Manager at Dalí in Somerville, is attending the workshop looking to expand her social media horizons. "Dalí has been in business over 20 years and built its reputation through word-of-mouth only, no advertising. As many people said at the workshop: social media networking is the new word-of-mouth. I think it's time for Dalí to join that party, make new friends, renew relationships," she says.

Does she feel, however, that Dalí HAS to use social media to stay competitive? "Now that's a tough question," she says. "I want Dalí to start using social media marketing. I think it can be great but do we NEED it? Dalí does have a niche, a loyal customer base and a great reputation. Will our using social media networking contribute to that reputation? Take away from it? Will it increase business, sales, etc., especially on the weeknights? I don't know."

To see some reaction about all this you can follow us on Twitter. @TheBostonFoodie

1 comment:

  1. Great post! We're new to Boston, but we're using social media to bring local foodies together to check out new restaurants! We're hoping to launch our first event in May! If you get a moment, please check out http://MysteryMeet.org