Are Restaurants Asking the Right Question About Social Media

I am a self-proclaimed foodie. I’m the head chef and bottle washer at home. My vacations aren’t planned around sightseeing but rather the restaurants in the area. If I have to go sightseeing, I prefer outdoor markets over museums. I’m a level 7 Google guide, having submitted 200 reviews and had my photos viewed over 3.2 million times. As a foodie, the pain I’m feeling during COVID-19 is an inconvenience at most. The pain of those in the restaurant industry is that of inconvenience at best. For many, the pain has been or will soon be catastrophic.

A day doesn’t go by where my local news feed doesn’t announce another restaurant closure. The week of April 10th, the National Restaurant Association conducted a survey of 6500 restaurants. From that study, we see more than a quarter of a million Virginia restaurant workers have been laid-off. Even worse, 1/4 of restaurant owners anticipate laying off or furloughing more workers in the next 30 days. We’ve heard the president of the United States say we are at war.

Along with other essential personnel, the restaurant industry is on the front line of battle. When you’re fighting ANY war, you need to be skilled with every weapon at your disposal. I’ve seen first-hand how social media has proven to be an effective and even business-saving weapon.

Our agency is joining restaurants on the front line. For many of these establishments, social media is their weapon of choice.

If you’re asking yourself if social media is the right tool for restaurants, you’re asking the wrong question. The question you have to ask yourself is: “Is my restaurant right for social media???”

Maybe this true and timely story will help you answer that question for yourself…

Here’s a real-life example of building community and focusing on content.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, the state’s Governor required restaurants to switch to takeout-only services. A local Chinese restaurant decided to wait it out and close. Realizing after two weeks, this was going to be a much longer reality; the owner called our agency to see if we could help them re-open. The restaurant had great food, and a small following, but was not very community-focused. While they had a Facebook page, the last post was in March of 2015. The owner didn’t even have rights to his own Facebook business account. We were able to get him access to the account and take over the Facebook management while he re-opened.

That was just half the battle. We convinced the owner to open with a limited menu and provide meals at cost for the first four days. The public saw the gesture and appreciated the effort to serve the community. Click here to see a presentation on the full details. He has since continued to offer a 10% discount during the pandemic. His commitment to the community has translated into a commitment from them and support for his restaurant.

It is sad to say, but the reality of COVID-19 is that an additional 3% of restaurants are going to close their doors for good in the next month. If you are on the front lines fighting this fight, the best weapon may be asking the right question.

Asking the right question is imperative. This is a lesson I learned early, and it changed my life for the better…

In high school, when I was preparing for my future, the option to attend college or to go straight into the workforce were not the only ones that I considered. I also gave serious consideration to joining the military. So much so that I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and met with a couple of recruiters. Even though I scored well enough to have any job in the military, I chose the college route – at least for the first year.

After my freshman year, a small recession hit in 1989, and there were very few good paying jobs available. As I needed to pay for college, I put the military option back on the table and decided I wanted to be a US Marine. The day I walked into the USMC recruiting office in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I learned the important lesson of asking the right question.

I was a cocky eighteen-year-old with one year of college under his belt. I felt no intimidation from the chiseled, square-jawed, highly decorated gunnery sergeant who greeted me. “What brings you in here today, son?” he inquired with a Southern accent. Knowing he was not from northeastern PA raised my already ridiculous confidence to new heights. I sat down, crossed one leg over the other and leaned back as if on a sofa in my fraternity house. I proceeded to explain that I had visited other recruiting stations. I bragged about my exceptional ASVAB scores. I let him know I was interested in learning what the Marine Corps had to offer me. Looking back at that moment, I realize that’s precisely when this savvy recruiter knew he had me. “Those other recruiters,” he said, “not Marine recruiters I take it?” I nodded. “Well son, let me explain something to you. In the Marine Corps, the question isn’t, “what do we have to offer you?” It’s “what do you have to offer us?”

Marine Corp recruits standing in formation on yellow footprints on Parris Island.
Young men from across the eastern United States sprint off buses onto the legendary yellow footprints Aug. 26, 2013, on Parris Island, S.C. Most of these young men, now recruits of Kilo Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, will be transformed during the next 13 weeks into basic Marines, representing the epitome of personal character, selflessness and military virtue. Kilo Company is scheduled to graduate Nov. 22, 2013. Parris Island has been the site of Marine Corps recruit training since Nov. 1, 1915. Today, approximately 20,000 recruits come to Parris Island annually for the chance to become United States Marines by enduring 13 weeks of rigorous, transformative training. Parris Island is home to entry-level enlisted training for 50 percent of males and 100 percent of females in the Marine Corps. (Photo by Cpl. Caitlin Brink)

He had me. That was Thursday, May 18th, 1989. On Friday, I went for my physical. Four days later, at 0330 on May 23rd, I was no longer a cocky 18-year-old kid with one year of college in Scranton, PA. I was now, in fact, standing on the infamous yellow footprings as a USMC recruit stationed at Training Depot Parris Island.

So you see, the question isn’t “Is social media right for restaurants?” Because the answer to that is a resounding yes. The question to ask is, “Is your restaurant right for social media?” you need to ask a couple of other questions.

You may be surprised to know the answer has nothing to do with the type of food you serve. It doesn’t have to do with your price point or your clientele. To answer the question, “Is your restaurant right for social media,” you have to ask a few more questions.

First: Do you see your customers as a commodity or a community?

Most restaurants and staff see their customers as a commodity, not a community. defines a commodity as:

“a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other goods of the same type”

We don’t want to admit it, but most of the time, we and/or portions of our staff see customers precisely that way. They are a table, not a family. They are an order number, not a person.

What you have to understand is that all social media platforms are built based on community. Protecting that community is their number one priority. Let’s take a look at the basic premise behind social media platforms and why they exist.

Facebook was first created as a way for college students to communicate. It soon became clear that a real opportunity to sell advertising on the platform existed. They figured out a way to monetize the existence of their online community. Today Facebook and all other social media platforms profit by selling advertising to their communities. That is a primary focus. They also know having a community on social media isn’t enough. You need an engaged community. The only way to have an engaged community is to have engaging content. Let’s talk about community first.

Ask yourself:

  • How many of your customer’s names do you or your staff know?
  • Do you have a good idea of what your “regulars” are going to order?
  • Even if you don’t know their names, do you see a lot of repeat faces?
  • Are the conversations your staff is having with the customers solely transactional? Or are there deeper interactions?

Answering these questions will help you understand if your customers are a commodity or a community.

People are creatures of habit. There are a lot of choices when it comes to where we get our food. People will tend to go to where they feel welcome, feel appreciated, feel like…part of a community.

For those who say, “Well, we’re a chain restaurant, so that’s unreasonable.” I disagree. Your staff is comprised of people, constantly interacting with people. That is the very foundation of community.

And it works! I’m still impressed by a recent event that took place in a chain-based sandwich shop and love to tell the story because it impressed me so.

Recently my wife and I met a couple for dinner. They chose a national chain sub shop. When the order was ready, I volunteered to pick it up from the counter. Seeing they were splitting a whole sub (hoagie if you prefer), I thought I would be nice and ask them to cut it into smaller pieces. The young lady at the counter said, “That’s for Bob and Denise, right? No, that’s not how they like it.” Even in a multimillion-dollar franchise, you can have community.

If those questions and that story help you realize you want your customers to be more of a community than a commodity, and you realize you need to make some changes, don’t despair. Not all is lost and we will talk more about that later. For now there are some simple directives you can implement to help move your approach in the right direction.

Make sure your front of the house sees this idea as a priority.

  • Be an example. Nothing is more effective than seeing what the boss does
  • If you are the owner but are back of the house focused hire a leader with authority that can model the behavior
  • Quiz your staff to see if they know their customers’ names
  • Challenge them to find out a fun fact about a customer
  • Encourage them to acknowledge repeat customers and thank them for coming back

Measure and reward progress.

  • When you see something done well, tell them right away and be specific about what you liked
  • If a server gets an “atta boy” from a customer on social media, make a big deal about it because it IS a big deal
  • Make sure you’re doing meaningful check-ins. Break your managers from the horrible habit of asking, “How was everything tonight?” Teach them to ask specific questions. Such as, “How did Jill serve you tonight?” “Tell me what you liked about your entrée.” This will let your customers know you really care what they have to say and aren’t just checking the box

That leads us to the second big question for a productive social media strategy…

Second, are you equipped to offer engaging content?

Remember when we said that a primary focus of social media is to sell ads? They do this by having a platform of engaged participants. This engagement makes it attractive to advertisers. Couple that with an enormous amount of data, which allows advertisers to place ads hyper-targeted to the most ideal prospects, so they can know who is seeing their ads. This combination has created a marketing goldmine. A goldmine worth protecting.

In the good ole days, the process was easy. A business could build a bunch of followers. They could then write posts safe in the confidence that most of their followers would see it. That’s not how it works today. Platforms like Facebook are continually monitoring the quality of the content. In simplistic terms, quality is measured by how many people who see the content engage with it. A business whose posts encourage customers to participate will reap the benefit of their posts being seen by a larger percentage of their audience. Conversely, a business with posts that are just scrolled by, will see the platform continue to limit their exposure.

Therefore, it’s essential to pay attention to the traffic your posts are getting. Be sure whoever is facilitating your posts is creating content that causes the reader to want to like, comment, or, best of all, share it. When platforms see their subscribers sharing something, they realize it’s content people are interested in. This will incentivize them to push it out to more people.

To do this well, it can be time-consuming, but if done right, it’s well worth the effort. A free consultation with a social media marketing agency could be well worth the time.

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