Eats, Friends and Tweets: Restaurants Keep Social Media Marketing on Simmer — For Now

It seems as though everyone has a personal Facebook page and a corporate fan page and hundreds, if not thousands of Twitter followers. Except restaurants.

According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), repeat customers represent more than 70 percent of the business done by all but “fine dining” establishments -“ and there it’s 60 percent. “How many times do we have to say this?” asks the Association in its recent annual report to its members. Apparently the answer seems to be “a lot.” Many restaurants -“ whether they are full service with wait staff; quick service, where you place your order and then eat at a table; and even ‘off-premises’ or carry-out operations -“ are lagging behind when it comes to connecting with the 70-plus percent of their customers via even the simplest forms of social media.

In a survey conducted in 2010 the NRA found that more than 8 out of 10 of their frequent diners were “social-media savvy” -“ but they’re not planning on connecting with them anytime soon, however-¦ they’re “likely to incorporate several social media tools within their business in the next year or two.” Given the speed of change in the social media sphere “the next year or two” is akin to saying they’ll trade in their Edsels when the warranty runs out.

One mid-sized Midwest group of restaurants has embraced social media to the point where they have nearly 30,000 Facebook fans and a couple thousand Twitter followers. Olga’s Kitchens has outlets in Ohio, Illinois and Michigan and, in addition to promoting specials and new products, they link to their YouTube videos of their new commercials. They also “give back to the community” by promoting special days for local charities to encourage their members to have a sandwich or Orange Cream Cooler and 25 percent of the net goes directly to the charity. More than $50,000 has been raised this way.

On the other hand, what appears to be a more typical situation is occurring at the Meritage Hospitality Group, a management company with more than 80 quick service and “casual dining” locations throughout the country. One of their casual dining concept restaurants, Twisted Rooster, is in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Heather Halligan, Marketing Coordinator for Meritage Hospitality Group.

Heather Halligan is Marketing Coordinator for Meritage and is trying to establish a presence for the Twisted Rooster in the social media scene. It’s been somewhat of a challenge. “The company that I work for has been a little more traditional in their marketing strategy,” Halligan explains. The Twisted Rooster is an original concept and, as Halligan says, “it offered an opportunity to dive into some more non-traditional media.”

“That was a hard sell,” she continues. “Nobody in the company was on Facebook, or had heard of Twitter and didn’t know what it was. My management had a number of colleagues in the area who head large corporations and they had heard horror stories about what people could say about your brand in such a public arena, so they were very nervous. I did a lot of research and saw it was a pretty powerful medium for us to step into but I needed to be able to prove that.”

Halligan started a corporate “fan page” on Facebook that “exploded -“ we had more than 1,000 followers before we had even opened. We saw that people were engaged with the brand, they were interested to hear our story, they wanted to share their experiences and were excited about the restaurant coming. They gave us a lot of feedback about what they were looking for, too.”

Mark Noseda II, the executive chef of Twisted Rooster in Chesterfield Township, shows off some of his menu creations. Photo by Craig Gaffield, Macomb Daily

Halligan says that not only was it good for Meritage to get feedback from potential customers, she was also getting reactions from Mark Noseda, the new Culinary Institute of America-trained executive chef who was making the transition from California to Michigan. ‘”What are they saying, what are they like? Will you post this on Facebook? Will you see what people want?’ he wanted to know,” Halligan explained. “It’s a great way to test out a new idea.”

One of the advantages of using social media in the restaurant business is the instant reaction some customers will provide while they’re dining. Halligan recalls a couple of situations where customers have tweeted about having to wait too long or there was some other problem. “I intercepted the tweet and I was able to contact the manager and he found that person in the restaurant and took care of the situation immediately.”

“They’ve taken the time to let you know they’re not happy, so you can fix it, Halligan says. “Others, who are watching, are seeing that you are invested in that customer and you’re passionate about your brand and willing to address a situation publically. It has helped turn customers around and retain them.” Important, because as noted earlier, the NRA says repeat customers make up the largest portion of a restaurant’s business. Even better for Twisted Rooster, says Halligan, “Those customers have become loyal brand ambassadors for us.”

“People are talking about you whether you have your own page or not. Wouldn’t you rather hear what they’re saying?” Halligan asks. To augment her customer connections, Halligan says she has Google Alerts and other tools to monitor mentions of the restaurant on the Web. “Everybody is a critic, everybody’s a foodie. Everybody who’s ever watched the Food Network is going to tell you what to put on your menu.”

A Twisted Rooster customer tweeting about his dining experience.

Her management is becoming convinced that using social media to promote the Twisted Rooster is, perhaps, a good thing. “It used to be ‘Put out this press release, put it in the newspaper, put it in the newspaper.’ Now, it’s just ‘Put it on Facebook,'” she laughs.

“They’re still not on Facebook but they hear about it,” Halligan explains. “They realize that it’s contributed to the buzz and we’ve gotten a lot of articles written about us because of our social media presence.”

Halligan has done a lot of research on her Facebook fans. “My demo is 25-54 year-olds,” she says in describing her target audience demographic. “We get a lot of women who’ll come in in groups on Thursdays for our half-off bottles of wine. We get families but we also get grown-ups who tell us they’ve left the kids behind so they can have a night out.”

Unlike Olga’s and other restaurants that offer special coupons and other deals for the Facebook fans and Twitter followers, Twisted Rooster isn’t there yet, but some things are on Halligan’s to-do list. “I’d really like to be able to reward our fans and followers -“ and maybe add a Foursquare component as well so you can get a deal when you check in,” she says, talking about the social media site that allows members to use their mobile devices’ GPS capability when they’re at the restaurant.

When Halligan talks about rewarding customers, though, she doesn’t plan to do it with couponing. “People come to our restaurant not because we give them a coupon. We were kind of locked in to coupons with some of our previous restaurants,” she explains, referring to a chain affiliation Meritage no longer has. “You know, the $20 meal for two or the $5-off coupon in Advo.”

Twisted Rooster chef appears on local television and is posted to YouTube.

Groupon is, at the moment anyway, on Halligan’s do-not-call list. “I get calls from them or Groupon-like companies 4-5 times a week. What I find, and this is just my opinion, is that people tend to be loyal to Groupon -“ they’re not necessarily going to be loyal to us. You do this huge giveaway where you’re discounting 70 percent of your product and Groupon says ‘this is free’ -“ but it’s not free! There’s a lot that goes into preparing the food, especially when it’s from scratch. We end up giving away a lot of product to a customer who may not come back -“ not because we didn’t do a good job but because they know that they can get a huge discount somewhere else, too.”

“I’d far rather reward our loyal fans and followers on social media with a deal no one else can get.”

Halligan says that she’d like to expand her social media outreach to Yelp or UrbanSpoon, a “restaurant-specific” site where patrons post comments and reviews. She also works with the award-winning Pure Michigan campaign and has adopted her own buy-local theme which is featured prominently on the Twisted Rooster website -“ Commit to the Mitt (referring, of course to the mitten shape of the state’s lower peninsula.) “I can’t take credit for it as I read it somewhere,” she admits. It’s appropriate for what is now a group of three restaurants that source local products as much as possible -“ and then promote that on their social media pages.

Twisted Rooster has 500 Facebook fans in Kalamazoo, Mich. “We don’t even have a restaurant there but if we put a restaurant down there we’d already have a good start,” Halligan laughs.

Coming in the near future will be YouTube videos that feature “Twisted Tips” -“ short, easy to duplicate suggestions from executive chef Noseda.