Taming the Techies
Foodservice gears up for blogs, Webcasting and other interactive media.
Although it may still seem novel to watch a cooking demonstration on a computer monitor, digital-savvy operators have moved beyond basic e-mail marketing to the world of broadcasts via the Web and menus delivered on handheld iPods. What’s more, with the direction technology is heading, diners may soon be able to order meals on their Blackberry mobile device or via an online call center.
To foodservice operators this means a wealth of potential new guests seeking them out. Linking to the right technology can lead to substantial business building.
“Regardless of size, restaurants are able to use the same tools to drive customer frequency and incremental revenue via the Internet,” says Michael Allenson, principal with Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc. “There are few, if any operations that have truly harnessed the Internet to the point that they can today. There’s always going to be further innovation to allow operators to do more with it. Loyalty programs are important, but few restaurants fully use that data to figure out what each customer wants.”
Segmenting guests according to needs and wants is one way in which Allenson says restaurants can get more from online marketing efforts. It requires commitment and a staff dedicated to developing customer relationship marketing initiatives by “mining the data.”
Get Your Live Lobsters!
Orlando-based Red Lobster is at the forefront of making online connections with guests. Updating its www.redlobster.com site weekly, the chain keeps content fresh with new promotions and acts as a regional resource for guests.
“We’ve used the site to be that entry place for people to make decisions that they normally would ask a server about,” says Michael Friedman, Red Lobster interactive marketing manager. “We bring all that information to the forefront— beyond basics such as locator information and the ability to purchase gift cards. We have content for all ages: kids, families and people who are more culinary-inclined.”
The San Bernardino City Schools Nutrition Services Web site features printable meal plans for everything from the administrative building’s cafe to the high school cafeteria. The site also supplies information on this California school district’s catering program.
B.R. Guest Restaurants Inc., New York City, offers a variety of loyalty- and community-building programs on its Web site. In addition to newsletters and gift cards, the site offers virtual tours, event-planning resources, menu information and news for each of its 14 restaurants.
One interactive feature involves selecting all the ingredients, including specific spices and seafood, to create a dish. The Interactive Kitchen allows guests to come up with unique recipes that are then sent to Red Lobster’s executive culinary team for feedback. In addition to activities on the site, the marketing team uses www.redlobster.com to introduce new offerings.
“We have used the Web to do product launches such as the Lighthouse menu and targeted people in the right demographics,” Friedman says. Its Lighthouse menu features seafood entrées with reduced carbohydrate, fat and calorie contents.
Red Lobster’s site also invites visitors to join its Overboard Club. Members receive an e-newsletter sent 13 to 14 times annually with news about promotions such as Lobsterfest; members-only contests, sweepstakes and prizes such as vacation rental prizes; and special offers such as gift cards and overnight live-lobster shipments, which only members can get.
Beyond e-commerce efforts such as gift-card sales and meal deliveries, Friedman says the brand is promoted with pay-per-click and traditional banner advertising during traditional gift-giving/gift-buying periods.
Friedman believes message boards and sponsored chats around a guided topic are effective at building community online. Chains could take a tip from the auto industry, which uses sneak-peek online advertising to lure consumers, he suggests.
But Friedman says he doesn’t see Weblogs (or blogs, informal, interactive online journals) as the way to go for national chains such as Red Lobster just yet, believing fine dining may be better suited to such intimate relationships.
Horsefeathers Restaurant in North Conway Village, N.H., agrees. Owner Ben Williams has moved beyond posting menus and event notices on a static Web site, which the restaurant did a decade ago, into the “blogosphere.”
“What I do here is concentrate on loyalty marketing,” he says. “We still do the frequent-dining programs but in order to support that we wanted some kind of communication to keep people coming back.”
Horsefeathers uses its blog (hihowaya.blogs.com) to continue restaurant conversations online, or at least that’s Williams’ goal for a constantly changing electronic journal about everything from happenings in the community and sports to wine and local entertainment.
“We try to give guests a feel of the restaurant rather than hard sell it,” Williams says.
Blogging lets guests sample a restaurant’s culture and build an online community. Williams believes that the sense of belonging he creates through his blog brings guests to Horsefeathers and keeps them coming back. It also is an inexpensive and more personal way to get word out about specials, promotions and events.
Williams says blogging helps his operation stay ahead of the competition. “It’s the best cost-per-exposure advertising that you’re going to get,” he says. “An operator couldn’t get more targeted. It’s also a way to differentiate ourselves from chain restaurants.”
Meet the Chef
Chef-restaurateur Emeril Lagasse’s lack of online savvy is a standing joke on his Food Network television show, where he often stumbles in reciting the network’s Web address. But New Orleans-based Emeril’s Homebase corporate staff is well versed in tapping online potential and they are transforming the www.emerils.com Web site into a multifunction portal. Visitors can download restaurant information, menus and recipes to their iPods and other interactive elements have been added.
“We love blogging,” says Damion Michaels, part of the Web development team for www.emerils.com. “We’ve basically converted our site into a blog.”
The company uses blogging on the Web site because it allows for more open and quick communication with visitors, according to Michaels. While Lagasse may not contribute to the blogging activity due to his busy schedule, the Web site team manages cooking question-and-answer sessions and other activities, which change regularly on the site.
In the realm of blogging, Lagasse is not alone. Chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Jamie Oliver and Todd English have blogs that update fans on their activities.
Juliette Rossant, creator of www.superchefblog.com, a site dedicated to food and chefs (recently she has been lobbying for the White House to appoint its first female head chef), says that chefs and restaurants should use blogs to better connect with customers.
“Restaurants need to let guests know about special dinners and other promotions to get them into the restaurant,” she says. “Most newspapers aren’t covering all the changes that are happening at restaurants in a major city. Running a successful operation is all about promotion and reminding people to come back to the restaurant. Blogging is perfect for that.”
Horsefeathers’ Williams says the “lack of restaurant blogging is phenomenal. I don’t get it.” He expects “it’s going to be a big ‘duh’” when other restaurateurs discover blogs.
“It doesn’t cost anything, I’m talking to the people I want to talk to, I can say what I want and it stays fresh,” Williams says.
Blog This Way
For restaurant owners and operators or chefs who are new to blogging, it is defined as a Weblog of journal entries and has evolved from personal diaries to restaurant critiques and press-release portals in the restaurant industry. Similar to Web sites, blogs use simple design templates to create pages quickly, often without spending a dime. To set up a blog, David Chambers of MentalWhir.com, a Web-site development company, recommends:
- Visit a blog site such as www.blogger.com, www.blog-city.com or www.bigblogtool.com, among others. They can provide software to create your blog as well as host it. (You also can add blogging functionality to an existing restaurant Web site.)
- Name the blog and set design parameters by selecting a template style. A blog can contain images and text, however many blogs maintain a text-only format.
- Add your copy—and optional images. Keep in mind that content needs to be easy for readers to digest and fresh so they return. It’s also necessary to update information and postings several times per week.
Podcasting: Words and Music
After the past holiday rush to buy iPods sent shoppers into a tizzy, it’s no surprise companies are finding ways to add more than music to the handheld device. While transmitting recipes and restaurant locations to an iPod may seem out of reach for most operators, Damion Michaels of Emeril Lagasse’s Web-development team believes any company with a brand to promote can take advantage of podcasting, or transferring data to an iPod or similar device.
Percent of U.S. adult owners of MP3 players such as iPods who say they have downloaded podcast programs from the Internet.
(Pew Internet & American Life Project)
Via www.emerils.com, users can download mFinder 1.1, podMeals 1.0 and ReciPods 1.0, which will debut in the near future. In the “fun” section on Lagasse’s virtual domain, mFinder technology can be downloaded to access address, phone number and parking information for any of the chef’s restaurants. PodMeals delivers weekly menus, helping users answer the ever-burning question: “What’s for dinner?” The ReciPods application, when available, will offer 1,000 recipes at the scroll of a finger.
Unlike downloading music from sites that requires pay per song, emerils.com offers its services free of charge.
Michaels recommends podcasting for a restaurant owner with multiple locations in many cities. Since updating recipes can be cumbersome, he suggests starting with details such as hours and location. Creating a podcast only requires a computer, text editor and an iPod.
“I think it’s one more tool in the marketing arsenal,” Michaels says. “This is an additional way to get our brands in front of the customer. But podcasting’s usefulness can only be determined by the operator."