10. Case Study: Food Service
“I didn’t know what Twitter was — I thought I might be joining a cult or some 18-or-over club,” says JR Cohen, General Manager of Houston-based Coffee Groundz coffee shop. In just one year, Cohen has gone from Twitter newbie to case study, using the social networking tool for everything from to-go orders to in-store event promotion. Like many others in the food service industry, Cohen is taking advantage of Twitter’s customizable attributes to build meaningful customer relationships.
Why This Sector?
The food service industry showcases some of the most innovative uses of Twitter. Coffee Groundz paved the way with the first recorded to-go tweet, receiving a breakfast order via Twitter. The coffee shop has now expanded its Twitter-based service, accepting seating reservations and customer service questions in 140 characters or less. According to Cohen, the coffee shop’s sales have increased by 30% since joining the Twitter-sphere.
It’s not all about the orders; other food companies are using Twitter to provide information on new menu offerings and to engage with the local community. Twitter has become the perfect companion for every stage of food service evolutionary chain, from soon-to-be open restaurants to multi-national eateries.
Background & Methodology
What can you really do with just 140 characters? If you’re in the food industry, the answer is “a lot.” So don’t get bogged down with follower numbers, or defining success in terms of Ashton, Ellen, Or Oprah. If you’re a aspiring restaurateur, or even someone with a red wig, over-sized shoes, and thousands of fast food franchises, there’s a Twitter strategy for you.
According to research from Ohio State University, 57 to 61 percent of restaurants fail within the first three years. With statistics like that, it’s no wonder the food service industry is getting creative with its efforts to reach customers. Instead of turning to expensive traditional advertising, many restaurateurs are embracing free tools like Twitter, or other social networking sites like Facebook to attract (and keep) customers.
By following Thought Leaders in the food service industry; researching Websites and industry blogs; and using online tools such as Tweet Stats, Twitter Counter, Klout, and We Follow, I found a pool of restaurants that have been highlighted for their innovative Twitter strategies. Analyzing these Twitter streams and delving deeper into stories and profiles, I found food-related Twitterers who are integrating 140 characters into everything from business processes to customer service. From that narrowed list, I identified the standout stars — Twitter handles with unique stories that highlight the adaptability of this new social networking phenomenon. These accounts and their stories chart Twitter use throughout every stage of a restaurant’s life, from a nascent idea to the a global restaurant chain.
This chapter explores the food service industry’s use of Twitter for new businesses, day-to-day processes, community building, and customer service:
1. The essential ingredients – Using Twitter as a business incubator
2. Get it while it’s hot – Using Twitter for day-to-day operations
3. Gathering around the table – Using Twitter as a community builder
4. Food for Thought – Using Twitter for customer service
You’ve got a million-dollar restaurant idea and can’t wait to get started. Instead of scribbling notes on a napkin, why not jump into the Twitter stream. For budding restaurateurs, like Patrick Frank and Lydia West, Twitter is proving an invaluable tool for turning a culinary dream into a reality. The couple intends to open a restaurant within a year and is charting their journey via a blog and Twitter account. Without a physical location, menu, or staff, La Bocca already has 124 followers – enough to pack a medium-sized restaurant twice over. “We started a Twitter account to get people excited about our restaurant concept and to gain a loyal following before we even open the doors,” says West.
Frank and West started La Bocca’s Twitter account in May 2009, and tweet at least twice a day. The account serves as small-business incubator, providing location suggestions, menu feedback, and much-needed moral support. Through Twitter, Frank has connected with other chefs, local restaurant entrepreneurs, and prominent food blogger. “It’s putting us in touch with people that can help us realize our vision,” says West. “We’ve been able to network with others in the Seattle food community and have received a lot of advice and offers of help.”
La Bocca is not relying on a physical presence to cultivate a following; instead, the restaurant is forming relationships with potential customers through blog posts and Twitter updates. Frank and West have been conducting tasting sessions to refine the restaurant’s gastronomic persona. The couple tweets about the experience and hopes to open up similar events to Twitter followers in the future. This Twitter-based interaction is helping the couple solidify their vision for the restaurant. “You really have the ability to talk to a customer directly, which didn’t exist in the same way before,” says West. “It’s opened up a whole new line of communication. And, for restaurants, it’s an easy way to get some immediate feedback that’s quick, simple and to the point.”
La Bocca is using Twitter for community engagement, storytelling, and information sharing, which is shown in West and Frank’s last 100 tweets. The account is mainly used to unravel the story of the restaurant, with 41 statement tweets – these feature no links and mainly describe Frank and West’s experience with location scouting or menu ideas. The couple features links in 14 tweets, often linking back to the restaurant’s blog or other interesting food-related stories. La Bocca is also making a concerted effort to talk to other foodies – 31% of the restaurant’s tweets are @replies to other communities Twitterers.
West sees Twitter and restaurants as a perfect pairing and intends to continuing using the tool after La Bocca opens to the public. The future restaurant owner envisions Tweeting about special offers and enticing customers with information on daily specials and events. The couple is following other foodie-related uses of Twitter and hopes to incorporate these ideas into their burgeoning communications strategy. “We just learn lessons all the time from creative people who are using Twitter in new and interesting ways,” says West.
By the time Delancy’s pizza opened its doors on August 12, 2009, the restaurant already had over 1,700 Twitter followers. Like Frank and West, Brandon Pettit tweeted about starting a new business in trying economic times. The restaurant has a bare bones website and doesn’t even have signage outside the building, but is enjoying the benefits of Twitter-related buzz and high-ratings on sites like Yelp.
Pettit, who averages around 3 tweets per day, uses Twitter to distribute job postings, get feedback on menu items, and to talk to customers. Like La Bocca, Delancey’s Twitter stream is mostly statements and @replies. In fact, nearly 50% of Pettit’s last 100 tweets were used for storytelling purposes (see chart below).
Delancey and La Bocca prove that unraveling a restaurant’s story on Twitter creates a sense of emotional investment for followers, giving them a reason to visit once doors open.
Get it while it’s hot
Thanks to Twitter, 140 characters has become the social networking equivalent of an ice cream truck’s jingle, notifying foodies that their favorite tasty treat is just a few blocks away. It has become indispensable for street vendors like Kogi, who keep fans updated on their meals-on-wheels with location and menu information.
These alerts provide instantly measurable results in the form of increased foot traffic and sales. Most importantly, Twitter helps food trucks avoids potential customer dissatisfaction by giving followers notice of shutdowns, moves, or issues with inventory.
For roaming street vendors, forging customer loyalty used to be an uphill struggle, hampered by frequent location changes and inclement weather. Twitter accounts provide these businesses with a sense of permanence, a site (albeit in cyberspace) to create customer relationships, instead of relying on sales from random passersby.
Like most food trucks on Twitter, Kogi is using most of its tweets for one-way communication. Seventy-four percent of Kogi’s tweets are statements (location and menu information). The rest of the Twitter stream is filled with @replies and links for followers.
If the smell of freshly baked bread gets you drooling, look no further than the Albion Café’s tweeting oven. Thanks to a new device called Bakertweet, the café’s followers know precisely when baked goodies are piping hot and ready to eat. The London-based bakery has a wall-mounted twitter box, which is pre-loaded with information and photos for a variety of pastries. As soon as fresh items come out of the oven, the baker hits a button on the BakerTweet module, sending a message out to the café’s 1,026 followers.
Unlike Kogi’s Twitter account, @albionsoven is solely used for the Bakertweet system – the company doesn’t follow anyone back and doesn’t use the account for DMs or customer-related questions. Albion’s Oven averages 2 tweets a day, using Twitter as a newsfeed straight from the oven.
Kogi’s bbq and The Albion Café are integrating Twitter into day-to-day food service operations. Although a system that uses only 140 characters may seem limited, these businesses prove that Twitter thrives on the ingenuity and creativity of its users.
Gathering around the table
For Tidbit Bistro owners Nic Long and John van Deinse, Twitter has helped bring a personal touch to their brand. The Seattle-based eatery seats around 70 customers, but has amassed a Twitter following of 5,000 thanks to tweeted “tidbits of the day” and links to the restaurant’s blog.
“Since we have started using twitter, we can say that we have many more friends and we love that,” says Long. The owners average about 8 tweets per day, and spend anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours talking to followers and providing their take on food-related issues.
Although the public may be familiar with the Tidbit Bistro name, the owners tweeted statements (see pie chart below) are giving followers a glimpse into the real people and personalities behind the restaurant. For Long, authenticity is the key, which means no use of auto-feed functions. “People follow us because we are real,” he says. “We answer all questions with the @reply; we RT the tweets we find interesting. We are just ourselves — there are no secret plans.”
JR Cohen also believes in Twitter transparency. The Coffee Groundz GM is constantly in touch with the Twitter stream, averaging a whopping 19 tweets per day. Cohen also keeps up with DMs and @replies by phone. As the sole Twitterer for the coffee shop’s @coffeegroundz handle, Cohen believes in the importance of honest communication with followers. “Be yourself,” says Cohen. “Your personality will take over and people will know you and be able to read you, by just how you tweet.”
Twitter allows for a dialogue between customers and restaurateurs that extends beyond the four walls of their eateries. Creating that sense of familiarity also helps with customer service. Although individuals may not pick up the phone to ask about vegan eating options or today’s specials, they are more than willing to share questions and concerns with van Deinse and Long via Twitter. It’s no surprise that 55% of the owners’ last 100 tweets were@replies addressing customers comments and questions.
As one of Seattle’s only certified green restaurants, Tidbit Bistro is also doing its part to promote environmental issues in the city and connect with other small businesses. “We are meeting an incredible number of nice people from all over the world,” says Long. “We write back and forth, we promote our and others’ businesses, and give suggestions. It is so much fun!” The restaurant is using Twitter-based specials to increase sales, spotlight in-store events, and promote worthy causes. The owners recently teamed up with Bicycle Benefits, an organization that promotes the environmental benefits of cycling.
JR Cohen also uses Twitter to galvanize the local community. He created the “Support local, grown together” #SLGT to encourage customers to spend their money at local businesses. “I started these hashtags a few months ago when the economy started going down,” says Cohen. “I wanted to help put together a movement where more people would be able to take a second and rethink where they were going to spend their next hard earned dollar.”
Even though Cohen is getting national press for his Twittered to-go orders, he believes the coffee shop’s biggest achievement has been supporting local ventures like #SLGT. Whether it’s organizing Tweet ups, or spotlighting local artists like Andrew Karanavas at live music events, Cohen is transitioning his Twitter following into real-world, community-based support. Cohen also encourages local businesses to use the #SLGT hashtag and retweet special offers. Retweets are the largest part of Cohen’s Twitter stream – 35% of the last 100 tweets. “We are all supporting each other, so that we can grow together,” says Cohen. “Twitter has helped us grow with our community and local businesses.
Cohen is taking his initiative further with an SLGT-related non-profit organization. He has recently begun recruiting a board of directors and expects the new venture to be up and running very soon. “We are working really hard on helping our friends and customers out,” says Cohen. “In these trouble times, we have become a hub for connecting people and businesses.”
Food for Thought
You’re sitting at a booth at your favorite restaurant and decide to tweet about the scrumptious meal you just tucked into. Within minutes, a grinning waiter thanks you for your kind words and tells you the food is on the house. It may sound unbelievable, but this is what happened to one P.F. Chang’s customer thanks to the company’s carefully monitored Twitter stream.
“I saw a post that the Guest was dining at P.F. Chang’s so I looked at their profile to find the city and sent a picture over to the restaurant,” says Tiffany Hamby of PF Chang’s. “Imagine if you were eating in a restaurant and suddenly the waiter walked up to you and said ‘dinner is on us today.’ It would be a thrill to know that your tweet made such an impact.”
As the company’s Guest Relations Manager and designated Twitterer, Hamby is using Twitter to connect to guests in unique ways. The company positions Twitter as a communications tool rather than a marketing tool, and for Hamby that means actively listening to all conversations, whether good or bad.
“Sometimes people are saying great things and sometimes it’s an opportunity to make things right when a Guest is unhappy,” says Hamby. “We’ll take all the opportunities that come our way…The benefit of Twitter is that it allows us to communicate with these Guests individually.”
Unlike Tidbit Bistro and Coffee Groundz, which are trying to build a following, companies like PF Chang’s are trying to understand how to leverage a massive existing customer base. For large chains, Twitter provides a communication tool to traverse from national to local, solidifying relationships with individual customers.
This approach differs greatly from the traditional model of communicating to customers through mass media and marketing speak. Chains like P.F. Chang’s are reaching out to customers to show that there are human beings behind these corporate entities. Hamby averages 8 tweets a day, and uses Twitter to spur dialogue between the company and Followers, often asking about favorite menu items and responding to customer questions. P.F. Chang’s Twitter stream displays a large numbers of @replies (73%), illustrating a high level of interaction.
The company is embracing the opportunity to listen to customers at all levels. CEO Rick Federico, has recently begun conducting Twitter-based question-and-answer sessions. Federico is also using Twitter to get feedback from fans and gain insight into customer concerns and ideas. Although Hamby is the main Twitterer for the account, guests like Federico maintain the Twitter handle’s transparency by identifying themselves in tweets.
But it’s not just about listening to customers’ feedback — following up is essential. Acting upon a follower’s suggestion, P.F. Chang’s has begun organizing Tweet ups at restaurants around the country. Customers get together to taste menu items and tweet about their experiences using a designated hastag.
Tweet ups help P.F. Chang’s measure Twitter success by leading customers into the store. These events also position the company’s locations as neighborhood restaurants, reinforcing customer and community relationships built on Twitter.
PF Chang’s 9,000 followers are a microcosm of the company’s customer base. Having easy access to this stream of customer information has helped the company tune into what its guests really want. But does this new interaction also result in unreasonable customers demands? Will all customers expect immediate personal responses to their questions? Has the “tweet gets a free meal” story changed customer service expectations?
For Hamby it’s a matter of keeping guests happy. “We’re constantly trying to do things to show appreciation for our guests and I was excited to be part of this particular effort,” she says. “There isn’t a set system in place or set of expectations – I just try to contribute when possible and make our Guests feel special.”
Twitter has been credited for making small businesses big and big businesses small. This is especially true in the food service industry. The social networking tool has relevance at every stage of a restaurant’s evolution, from the humble beginnings of a culinary idea to identifying the needs of thousand-plus following. The power of Twitter resides in its adaptability — it can integrate into business operations or connect brands and followers in unexpected, yet meaningful ways. It erases any barriers created by traditional advertising messages or corporate speak, proving the value of one-on-one relationships. According to JR Cohen, “CoffeeGroundz grew into what it is today, by just listening and responding to what people were talking about. He adds, “we would have never been able to be where we are today if it wasn’t for our friends and followers.”
- La Bocca
- Dessert Truck
- Albion’s Oven
- Coffee Groundz
- Tidbit Bistro (profile by Sophia Agtarap)
- Dunkin Donuts
- Church’s Chicken
- P.F. Chang’s
1. La Bocca
4. P.F. Chang’s
*source for all chapter quotes