Anybody who wanted to nosh on free lump crab fritters at Whist or sip promo-priced cocktails at Blue on Blue during the two Los Angeles-area restaurants’ “Nine Days of 2009” promotion in January first had to flash proof that they were friends of the restaurants on Facebook. Chef Hoss Zaré’s zany, after-hours costume parties at Zaré at Flytrap in San Francisco also are exclusive to Facebook fans. You have to be a new Facebook fan to be entered in a drawing for a free dinner for two at the Mermaid Café in New York City or to get invited to the fun events Rocca Kitchen and Bar has been hosting in Boston. Add to this The Publican’s Chicago brunch, which has been promoted by periodic, live “tweets” via Twitter, and you have a plethora of proof that restaurants and bars are starting to tap into the power of online social networking sites.
“It’s huge,” says Christopher Mullins, an owner of McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Philadelphia. “Social network sites give us direct, two-way communication with guests and save us a lot of time and money.”
Sending invites to 700-plus Facebook fans for its Friday the 13th party in March garnered the pub more than 350 R.S.V.P.s and packed the house. “Because these people sign up to be fans, we know that they are engaged and interested,” explains Mullins. “If we ran an ad in the local daily, we’d never get R.S.V.P.s from more than half of the people who saw the ad! With Facebook and Twitter, the response is so direct and so immediate.”
Because the captive audience Mullins speaks of can be a tremendous boost for promotions, restaurants are doing what they can to build their Facebook fan base. Big restaurant public relations firms and social media consultants all over the country say most restaurants and bars they represent have only just begun.
“People are so new to this, they’re still trying to figure it out,” says Clark Nesselrodt, a vice president at New York public relations restaurant specialist, Bullfrog & Baum. “One thing many don’t yet understand is that the social media networks are meant to engage people, requiring action on their part. They’re not just billboards.”
Among those leading the “action” pack, The Mermaid Inn, with locations in the East Village and on the Upper West Side of New York City, did a March email blast to 35,000 guests telling them about its Blue Plate Special, a Lobster Sandwich with Old Bay Fries and a Blue Point beer for $20. The email included a link to “Become a Mermaid fan,” plus the alluring message that anyone who did so would be entered in a drawing for a free dinner for two.
The strategy worked. Within two weeks, 800 new fans joined, pushing Mermaid’s fan base to 7,800. Twitter tweets and posts about the Blue Plate Special abounded. “The whole thing feeds on itself,” says owner Danny Abrams. “We do a Facebook promotion which gets more people in here, which makes us want to do more stuff.”
Meanwhile chef Hoss Zaré at Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco, a Mediterranean and Persian bistro, has been hosting monthly, Saturday night costume parties. You have to be a Facebook fan to get the invitation, though. That and the fact that there’s a dinner for two prize for the best costumes has prompted more people to sign up. For the first party, which happened in January, guests had to wear wigs to get in. For the second, they had to wear a hat, and for the third, ’80s garb.
“In the beginning, I was hesitant to get involved with Facebook. But I soon realized that this would be a great way to promote anything fun and fantastic we have going on,” says Zaré. The restaurant now has close to 400 fans, and it has created new business by doing the parties during hours the restaurant normally is closed.
Operators such as chef Michela Larson of Rocca Kitchen and Bar and Chef Paul Kahan of The Publican in Chicago say they like the “spur of the moment” spontaneity of Facebook- and Twitter-promoted events.
Instead of sending out emails weeks in advance, posts to Facebook and tweets on Twitter were the sole means of announcing brunch service at The Publican restaurant in Chicago. Kahan then “tweeted” live updates from the kitchen throughout the actual brunch.
Circulating through the dining room that morning, Kahan says he was shocked at the number of guests who not only found out about the brunch through Twitter, “but were sitting there tweeting about it while they were eating.” This, in turn, filled the Publican’s reservation book for the following brunch.
At Rocco’s in Boston, chef Larson also has had great results with quick-turnaround Facebook events. If it’s bad weather, or she doesn’t have many reservations, a clever off-the-cuff promotion tweeted on Twitter or posted on Facebook can bring in business, she says. This past winter, the double whammy of recession woes and rotten weather prompted Larson and co-owner Gary Sullivan to shape a series of fast Facebook promos that proved very successful. “We’re having a snowball fight—come join us!” one cold-weather post prompted. Guests that responded were treated to free cups of house-made hot cocoa topped with pink-marshmallow and coconut “snow” balls. Similarly, hot “Scoop of Soups,” free cups of hot soups, also brought guests in. And a morning post by the bartender saying that he’d be serving mini flights of his new winter cocktails that night packed the bar.
“The fast ‘it’s there and it’s gone’ nature of these events really gets guests interested,” says Larson. She also says using social networking for promos gets staff invested. “But it takes some adjusting on our part as owners. We’re used to planning things out and promoting them weeks or months in advance, which gives us the feeling like we have more control. But in reality,” she laughs, “how much control do we really have over anything anyway?”
In some regards, social networks give owners more control and responsiveness. “We had a guest tweet on Twitter that he had had a bad experience at the bar,” Mullins recalls. “Within minutes of him posting that, we were able to contact that customer to apologize and correct the problem.”
It turns out that the disgruntled guest was a communications professor at an area college. The man was so impressed with McGillan’s prompt response, he then lectured about the incident as an example of what a powerful communication tool Twitter can be.
“We’ve just scratched the surface with this,” says Mullins. “I’m really excited to think about what more we can do.”