Tweets about eats help fill seats
With perishable product and an economy that has made people think twice about going out to eat, the need to embrace social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be more crucial for restaurants than for most businesses — especially independent eateries that rely on loyalty and repeat visits.
Seattle Times staff reporter
When the co-owner of a Capitol Hill bistro is out running errands or standing in a line somewhere, he uses his cellphone to get the word out about a half-price wine special he's offering that night or to throw out a nugget of information about his native Italy.
Likewise, when a downtown Seattle chef received a shipment of Moroccan lamb sausage, he "tweeted" about it to his Twitter followers, asking them for suggestions about what he should prepare.
With perishable product and an economy that has made people think twice about going out to eat, the need to embrace social media such as Twitter and Facebook is proving especially crucial to the restaurant industry — particularly neighborhood eateries that rely on customer loyalty and repeat visits.
Compared with traditional forms of marketing, social media are fast, easy and mobile, and can create the sense of urgency that tech-savvy food enthusiasts find enticing.
"It feeds this instant need," said executive chef Brian Cartenuto of Wallingford's Cantinetta restaurant. "People want to know what's going on at that moment."
Seattle restaurants suffered an 8 percent decline in revenue in 2009. Fewer customers came in, and many who did skipped the wine bottle in favor of a glass — or even just water — while bypassing steak or seafood entrees in favor of cheaper ones.
"We've definitely seen a drop," said Nicola Longo, co-owner of Capitol Hill's Tidbit Bistro. In the past year, using his iPhone, he's built a Twitter following of nearly 12,000 — likely the largest such following of any Seattle-based restaurant.
"The most important thing is, it's not expensive," Longo said. "It's just me doing it in my free time."
Facebook is the laid-back site, letting restaurants set up "fan pages" that promote upcoming events or ongoing discussions. Twitter is its fast-paced cousin, where "tweets" — limited to 140 characters — depend on prompt response.
"It delivers a powerful kernel of information with little effort," said Robin Leventhal, owner/chef at former Capitol Hill bistro Crave and a recent contestant on the show "Top Chef."
Longo prefers Twitter. For him, it entails more than touting Tidbit's Tuesday half-price-wine specials: He also serves up bits of Italian cultural trivia, in a bid to foster community.
"Otherwise, people think it's all an advertisement," he said.
That, said Karen Rosenzweig of Seattle's One Smart Cookie Marketing, is social media's appeal — — the behind-the-scenes access it seems to offer. "The food is important, but people want to feel special," she said.
Offering insider deals or sneak-peeks at new items — for example, when executive chef Wayne Johnson of Andaluca wondered what to make with his lamb sausage — is what makes people feel like part of the family. It's the "Cheers" concept, the notion that you can walk into a place and find your drink already made.
"The foodie world is all about, 'Well, I know how that item's made, I had that already,' " Rosenzweig said. "It's very third-grade, but very fun."
A former personal chef, Rosenzweig launched her company to advise the rising number of restaurants looking to beef up their online personas. Nine months ago, she started a list of Seattle restaurants and chefs with Twitter accounts. Though she's no doubt missed some, that list has gone from about 50 to about 225.
The ways in which restaurants use social media are many: For some, it's as simple as announcing daily specials, new dishes or last-minute table openings on busy nights. Some, like Wedgwood's Black Pearl or downtown's BOKA Kitchen + Bar, employ a quote-of-the-day approach.
Rosenzweig said Twitter could also help a restaurant salvage a slow night — say, by offering half-off specials for the next five customers through the door.
But as Tidbit's Longo has found, the most important role social media may play for restaurants is the sense of community, and the bonds with customers, they can help create.
Late last month, a few dozen people armed with laptops and smartphones showed up at Belltown's Local Vine, ready to sample wine and simultaneously post about it online.
The so-called "tweetup," designed in this case to showcase Washington state merlots, was held at wineries, private parties and wine bars throughout the country.
Though Local Vine sommelier Cole Sisson was originally skeptical, he now considers social media a useful marketing tool.
"It's going to show dividends if you can learn how to interact and use it," he said. "For us, as a wine bar, it was 'Look, we're doing something fun' ... We're getting people to come in and saying to them, 'You're not just a bunch of geeks.' It creates this buzz."
At Queen Anne's Canlis, when a woman tweeted that she planned to celebrate her birthday there, the restaurant — via the person handling its Twitter profile — took notice and began a brief exchange, asking what day, how large of a party and whether she'd yet made a reservation.
The response: "No I haven't. May have about 15 ... but haven't confirmed #. Will call soon, hope it's not too many people!"
Canlis: "15 is not a problem as long as we have the space. Mention that you're a Twitter friend."
Occasionally, chefs call on their networks to reciprocate: Chef Ethan Stowell used Facebook to seek a last-minute line cook for his Capitol Hill restaurant, Anchovies and Olives. Meanwhile, when Leventhal, of "Top Chef," planned to go out of town, she found people willing to housesit from among her Facebook fans.
When the details that Tidbit's Longo shares about his native Italy spark interest from followers, some reply with a question. A conversation begins. In the process, followers become regulars.
"You get to know a lot of people," Longo said, noting that in a couple of days, he would be having lunch with a pair of new friends — whom he met on Twitter.
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or email@example.com
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