"I love People magazine," says Joanne Chang, the vivacious owner of Flour Bakery and Myers + Chang. "What's Suri up to? Angelina? I try to think of Twitter as that peek behind the scenes for people curious about the food business."
Thanks to social media, where chefs can broadcast tales of memorable customers or photos of new dishes, the curious abound. Every Twitter missive or Instagram snapshot is an opportunity to bring artful humanism to the food industry, bridging the gap between cook and customer.
Chang's 140-character dispatches offer glimpses into restaurant life more exciting than most reality shows, whether she's crowdsourcing cookbook titles or congratulating a staffer who aced a midterm. Her Flour posts are upbeat. South End hangout Myers + Chang is "friskier," she says. It's a boon to business: Naturally, diners want to see if her food is as tasty as her tweets.
Michael Scelfo, readying his Harvard Square restaurant, Alden & Harlow, to open in January, is known for his Instagram photos. Like cooking, it's instinctive. "I shudder at the word 'brand,' '' he says. "Not every picture is perfect, but they're 100 percent real. This is an opportunity to connect with people, through honesty. I'll post a photo of a burnt steak or walk people through my Thanksgiving dinner preparations with my family." Realism resonates. "Alden isn't ready yet, but I got five e-mails yesterday asking for reservations. It puts me on cloud nine, and I know it's because of social media," he says.
Potential customers become friends, and so do other chefs. Social media unites far-flung colleagues, generating support in an industry short on free time. Matt Jennings, chef and co-owner of Providence's Farmstead Inc., follows his Boston counterparts and purveyors to swap ideas and share photos. "I'm a gregarious teddy bear who loves people," he says. "Here's a way to connect with my buddies across the country, since we never have time to see one another. I got an e-mail the other day from an Instagram follower who's a dad and a chef, like me. He was having a hard time finding the right balance and needed advice. I never would've been connected to him before."
Camaraderie is nice; it's also good business. In the past, restaurants measured satisfaction by tips and success by reservations; self-promotion was limited to traditional ads. Now chefs have an instant barometer. With every Facebook "like" and Twitter retweet, they know who likes what — which helps them anticipate the public's desires and thus improve their bottom line.
Marc Shulman and his wife, Patty Chen, ran Central Square's All Asia nightclub for years before opening Patty Chen's Dumpling Room down the block in September. Years ago, "It was painful to get the word out. We used fliers. After a while, we built up a reputation, but it was very unstructured," Shulman says. Now the couple is hiring a social media manager who can target their ethos to the Cambridge demographic. "Entrepreneurs have ideas all the time, but the issue is communicating them in an efficient way so the customer knows about it," he says. Today the Facebook page boasts photos of Superman delivering dumplings on a bicycle and parody contests where diners suggest dumpling-themed tunes like "Now You're Just a Dumpling That I Used to Know."
What's good for restaurants is essential for food trucks. Grappling with weather whims and food shortages, they couldn't exist without social media. "One of our busiest spots is Dewey Square," says Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese truck owner James DiSabatino, who tweets daily. "We had trouble one day with our generator, and we were sitting on 250 sandwiches. We put the word out, and Lovin' Spoonfuls food rescue picked them up. Every sandwich was eaten, and that felt really good."
Plus, when generators inevitably break, social media lets chefs run public interference. Unlike reviewing site Yelp and its ilk, where disgruntled patrons can spew unedited venom, shrewd chefs address gripes in full view.
Ayr Muir, whose Clover food trucks and restaurants endured a salmonella scare this summer, used his following to ameliorate an incident that could have spread — literally. "We shut down and were honest with our customers,"says Muir, who posted detailed inspection updates on his website and social media. "As soon as you think you own your brand, you're wrong. Your customer owns your brand. We ended up having 198 tweets about the incident, and only two were negative." Muir says the outbreak was tracked to a Mexican poultry farm, not Clover. Thanks to social media, his transparency is what's remembered, not the ordeal.
"People reach out with complaints, and while I'm bummed they had a poor experience, I'm glad they contact me about it," says Chang. "A customer tweeted me that it was the third time he didn't get his order. I immediately tweeted him back, gave him my e-mail, took a photo of the tweet, sent it to managers, and they made it right. That's the best use of Twitter," she says.
"Every customer deserves a response," says John Pepper, a founder of the Boloco burrito chain and until recently its CEO. "When we first opened, that meant using my AOL e-mail address to respond to each customer." He joined Twitter in 2007 and grew to rely on its symbiosis. In addition to acknowledging customers, "You're leaving a trail of your brand and what you believe in. We talk about Boloco being 'human' in the eyes of customers, through this very inhuman piece of technology," he says.
Humans are imperfect, of course, and in the restaurant business nights are late and emotions run high. In 2011, a Boloco staffer vented via Twitter: "my job sucks too! I work at this place called @boloco." Pepper, known for his cheeky online persona, tweeted back, "Sorry Not anymore," which raised eyebrows. Pepper was accused of "twiring" (that's Twitter-firing, for the uninitiated) the employee. The employee wasn't actually fired, Pepper says. He says he forgot to use an emoticon indicating sarcasm, which "is too often forgotten, especially in sensitive areas like this. How does a brand show its true personality in 140 characters?"
Of course, he then issued an apology. Where else? On Twitter.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.