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No restaurant can afford to ignore social media

Most restaurant professionals I speak to recognize that social media provides them with another potential method to connect with customers and increase sales. It would therefore be seemingly irresponsible not to at least find out what it’s all about. In fact, with available marketing resources remaining at a critical level, it would seem to be ridiculous not to avail yourself of these networking tools, if only at a rudimentary (i.e. free) level. A no-brainer, as sports fans would say. But then there are those I encounter who think these tools lack dignity, that they are only for children and those desperate for attention—the IT equivalent of wearing a sandwich sign. This attitude is especially prevalent among the most elite establishments, those with a month-long wait for reservations and a mantle full of James Beard awards. As in, “Why soil our hands with this common chatter? We rarely answer the phone.”

Glad you asked.

First of all, the idea that you are successful enough is deadly in itself. I don’t mean that you must beat the bushes for every last dollar or make monetary concerns trump all else. But that attitude can lead to elitism and complacency. I can offer anecdotal evidence for this, but I don’t want to hold anyone up to ridicule. The fact is that all great restaurants close eventually, and not always from natural causes. It can sometimes be a viral infection, for instance.

Word-of-mouth communication used to mean somebody told somebody who told you a place was good, bad or indifferent. Now, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and review sites like Yelp, that string has turned into a matrix that connects everyone in the restaurant-going population. Between re-Tweets and GPS-specific rating services, bad reviews of your establishment can go out to literally tens of thousands of people before you even know about it. A few key people start saying you’re not what you used to be and perception has a sneaky way of turning into reality. Better to be part of the conversation; that way, at least you know what people are saying about you.

And there was the very talented but somewhat smug GM who told me recently, somewhat patronizingly, that his restaurant operated at 95 percent capacity. I then explained to him (trying to avoid the same tone) that using social media tools would enable him to immediately communicate to thousands of his patrons who might love to take a canceled reservation spot at a moment’s notice. I also remembered the old saying, if you don’t constantly try for 100 percent, you’re not going to stay at 95 percent (and that was from my first boss at Howard Johnson’s.)

Social networking tools are not just another form of advertising. In fact, they have a lot more to do with the weather report or a radio talk show. They are about communicating, actually exchanging something of value. You wouldn’t listen to a radio show if it were only advertising; it’s the entertainment, or socially engaging content, that maintains your attention. It is a relatively simple trade. It’s the same with Facebook. On some level, if you’re not in the conversation, your audience is going to infer, rightfully or not, that you’re not interested in them.

I also hear, “I just paid thousands of dollars for my Flash website that includes the entire Tony Bennett songbook. That’s engagement enough.” Wrong. Wrong on almost too many levels to count. First of all, people listen to their radio or iPod to hear Tony Bennett. When they go to your website they want to see the menu, or find out how to get to your restaurant, not hear music. They also don’t want to wait for said menu to load. Your million-dollar website was created as a reflection of what you think your restaurant should look like online, which makes as much sense as having your menu sung to each table by a barbershop quartet. It’s all about communicating, efficiently and quickly. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be stylish or witty. But you’re going to entertain guests at the restaurant, not sitting in front of their PCs. Websites should direct visitors to anything they want to know within two clicks. And in conjunction, Facebook and Twitter can provide concise, targeted communications that people receive in real time, directing visitors to the exact information they need.

Feeding people is, on any level, a very personal act. It involves relating to a customer on an entirely different level than virtually any other retail business. It means fulfilling expectations, anticipating needs and responding to individual tastes. Maintaining a high level of success, therefore, is an ongoing process that needs to employ every method available to serve and satisfy your diners. Being too successful for social networking is like being too successful to speak with your customers—and is pretty much guaranteed to have the same results.

John Moore is a founder of His clients include Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and other prominent restaurant operators. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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