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Archive | February, 2010

The Trouble With Yelp

Yelp Restaurant ReviewsThe food service industry as a whole has had decidedly mixed feelings about Yelp, the San Francisco-based internet company that provides user-generated reviews about a variety of businesses, including restaurants.

As I wrote last year, Yelp had many owners suspicious because it seemed like the only way to get good reviews to display at the top of a restaurant’s profile was to shell out a monthly “advertising” fee.  The fee has been pushed hard by Yelp sales reps and can run anywhere from $300 to $1,000 a month.

Paying the fee allowed owners to choose the top five reviews for their restaurant to display.  It seemed most restaurant owners had one of two reactions: resignation at having to pay the fee to avoid bad reviews or outraged, stubborn resistance to being forced to pay to make bad reviews go away.

Over and over again Yelp has denied manipulating bad reviews in order to generate sales of their advertising packages to small businesses.  And still to this day the suspicion remains among many inside the restaurant industry and out that Yelp just isn’t squaring with the subjects of their reviews on how the process really works.

Yelp’s decision to walk away from a $550 million dollar offer from Google late last year didn’t help the company’s image any either.  The inherent trust most people place in the Google brand could have gone a long way towards clearing the air with Yelp’s small business customers.Yelp Restaurant Reviews

The public relations problems that continue to dog Yelp seem to be a fix of their own making.  This is what you get for tangling with the strongest tradition on the internet: fostering the free flow of ideas and information.  Companies like Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook have succeeded because they opened up access to information and placed few filters on how that access was used and digested.

Yelp’s business model seems brilliant, even revolutionary on paper: collect user-generated reviews about local small businesses and then sell the opportunity to manage those reviews back to the businesses being reviewed.  But the approach flies in the face of what the internet has been all about since its inception.  It would be like Google selling celebrities “advertising” memberships to have bad stories about them pushed down in the rankings on search results pages.

Yelp’s leadership probably thought they were just following a Google-esque model: get businesses to pay for top search results.  After all, Google’s pay-per-click advertising is what has transformed that company into a multi-billion dollar operation.

But there is a key distinction here: Google’s paid listings come from a positive motivation – businesses wanting to sell products or be seen for specific keywords.  Yelp’s model comes from an inherently negative motivation: get people to stop saying bad things about you on Yelp.  No wonder they have an image problem.

The class action lawsuit against Yelp everyone’s buzzing about these days seems to be the natural culmination of a long-term problem the company has had dealing with its customers.  Regardless of how the suit turns out, the basic flaws of the Yelp model will remain.  And that is a lesson any business can benefit from.

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Mission Street Food: The Non-Profit Restaurant

mission street foodSome restaurant owners may feel sometimes like they’re running a not-for-profit restaurant, especially after last year, but for most the intention has always been to create a successful and profitable business.

That’s not the case at Mission Street Food in San Francisco, where a couple of ambitious restaurateurs are trying to raise enough money to launch a mostly non-profit restaurant.  They’re asking for 100 $500 donors to get off the ground.  Each donor would be considered an “investor” and receive a reasonable dividend each year from the profits made by the restaurant.  After salaries and expenses, however, the rest of Mission Street Food’s profits would go to charity.

The idea for Mission Street Food grew out of a program held at the Lung Shan Chinese restaurant on Mission Street in San Francisco.  Every Thursday and Saturday a volunteer chef from the area donated a night’s worth of cuisine to patrons and donated the profits to charity.  Soon organizers of the event started thinking: why not have a full time restaurant?

After Mission Street secures seed money, they plan to purchase a space for the restaurant in the San Francisco area and begin operations, with the goal of generating between $40,000 and $90,000 for local charities in their first year of business.

If the twice-a-week event that gave birth to this idea is any indication, Mission Street shouldn’t have any problems meeting their goals if they can get off the ground.  Lung Shan is routinely packed with diners happy to enjoy a special night of unique cuisine while donating to charity at the same time.

While you may not be going the full Mission Street just yet with your restaurant, that doesn’t mean there’s not an important lesson to learn from their success.  Sponsoring a charity event at your restaurant is a great way to give back to your community, get some great PR going for your business, and feel good about yourself all at the same time.  The possibilities are endless, and I guarantee you’ll gain a lot of respect and customer loyalty for your restaurant if you take the time to host Mission Street style event.

For those of you who are interested, you can donate to Mission Street Food here.

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A.I.S.: The Ultimate Social Media ROI tool for Independent Restaurants

Restaurant Social Media MarketingHere we are once again, the cacophony roared up after the SuperBowl over the legitimacy of ROI in social media whether it’s measurable, valid, does anything or whether it’s just a bunch of numbers the next “expert” throws up to validate his job/salary/cost.

The roar seems to be mainly coming from marketers, advertisers and mediums which like to stir up the noise level about how wonderful social media is and yet fail to explore it’s limitations.

For the independent restaurant A.I.S. is the only tool out there that even remotely qualifies as a specific measurement of whether their forays into online, print or social media advertising is effective.


Of course, like all solid measurement tools, there is some research; strategizing and work that go into this tool’s reliability and accuracy. Before utilizing A.I.S. we have:

1. developed a clear and defined vision of our business and goals;
2. specifically identified why we are in business and what our strengths and weaknesses are
3. formulated how those strengths and weaknesses play out to our marketing and, more pertinently, how we can wield them to our own and our guests’ advantage
4. defined where our guests are in relation to various advertising mediums and constructed a strategy for each of them

The specific advantage of utilizing A.I.S. is that it not only assumes but grants that your media strategy changes and develops as your organization matures. Working in real time, it can immediately gauge how your guests change; in both their perception of your company and their interaction with it.


One of the most pertinent variables of A.I.S. is that it also takes into consideration a few things that (it seems) many of the newly established SM “experts” overlook: specifically, to borrow from the music industry, RQ (recognition quotient) which means that my “engagement” is another form of getting my restaurant name out there for people to consider when they do make a choice of where to dine.

Random Tweets and Facebook postings about local events, charitable organizations and weather anomalies do in fact have a measurable impact within the A.I.S. system; as do the restaurant’s media in print, on video, on-line, in an email or in the local paper. The A.I.S. system looks at each of these individually and as a congruent whole.

A “branded company” within the A.I.S. system is one that is synonymous with outstanding quality and a solid perception of value for dollar, regardless of actual cost of your menu items. And, in an economy where necessity has outgrown desire or “bling,” this is a required advantage for the independent restaurant.

Take a moment here to review Oliver Blanchard’s excellent presentation about social media ROI. We’ll wait…

So here you go, you’ve read, you’ve pondered, and now you want to know the big secret behind The Ultimate Social Media ROI Tool for independent restaurants. Just what the hell is A.I.S. ? What tool helps me measure social media, standard marketing, email marketing, mobile marketing, online marketing, off line marketing, couponing, discounting, branding, advertisng, promotions, cause marketing, outbound marketing, inbound marketing….ARGGGGGH!

A.I.S. = Asses in Seats.

If what you do is not putting them there then something is amiss; and it is up top you to find out if that is internal, external or in delivery and execution. All the planning, strategy,marketing , analysis, or engagement on the planet is not going to mean a hill of chickpeas if, for all your efforts, there’s no one in the dining room.

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Is Your Food Safety Program This Hardcore? It Should Be.

McDonaldsMcDonald’s hasn’t grown into a multinational restaurant chain without doing a lot of things right.  And whatever you think of their culinary achievements (or lack thereof), you can’t deny that they’ve built an empire in food service. If one lesson is clear from the rise of McDonald’s, it should be that you don’t build an empire without a premier food safety program.  As a recent article in USA Today revealed, McDonald’s is one of the best rated companies for food safety in the U.S.

How do you get that kind of recognition for your food safety program?
Through a very clear, extremely stringent program that addresses temperature and contamination issues at every stage in the food preparation process.  Incidentally, these are the same principles called for in a HACCP food safety program.  The only difference here is one of degree.

So what does a hardcore food safety program look like?

Beef is trucked to a McDonald’s food processing plant in huge steel boxes secured by a steel bolt that can only be cut by an employee at the plant.  If it’s opened any other way, they send it back.Food Safety

The beef is tested for four or five different pathogens before it arrives at the plant, randomly during processing, and after the meat has been shaped into patties and frozen.  If a test comes back positive, two hours’ worth of processed beef is disposed of, as well as another two hours’ worth before and after the affected batch.

With those kinds of standards, McDonald’s can be fairly certain their beef patties will show up at any one of their locations clean and ready to serve.  And that’s when another round of food safety kicks in.

Each manager kicks off their shift by calibrating their thermometer.  Then each meat type that will be served during that shift (chicken nuggets, patties, etc.) is cooked according to specification and then temperature tested to make sure the product is out of the temperature danger zone.

McDonald’s also ensures every patty is cooked properly with a specially designed clamshell grill that does not open until the proper temperature has been reached.  That way even the greenest line cook can’t serve undercooked meat.  In a high turnover environment like food service, foolproof safeguards when it comes to meeting temperature requirements is key.

Finally, McDonald’s doesn’t forget about the most basic component of any food safety campaign: proper handwashing.  At the start of every hour every employee washes their hands, starting with management.  And at the half hour hand sanitizer is passed around for a quick cleanup.

Unfortunately, not every restaurant out there has a food safety program even approaching McDonald’s hardcore approach.  And not many have the resources or the buying power to dictate exact standards to their suppliers.   However, there are some basic things that McDonald’s does very well that can be applied to any food safety program, no matter what your budget is, including standardized temperature and handwashing procedures, a quantitative way to qualify suppliers and the product they provide you, and a system for disposing product that is suspect.

Your program may never get to be as hardcore as McDonald’s.  But if you want to build a food service empire, or even stay in business for any length of time, you’d do well to take your food safety to the next level.

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Community Based Restaurant Marketing: Get Some Real Bang For Your Buck

restaurant weekFine dining restaurants in Denver, CO are pooling their resources this weekend to kick off Denver Restaurant Week, an annual event that allows diners to sample the city’s fine cuisine over the course of a week for an incredible price: $52.80 for two.  Tons of restaurants are participating in the promotion in an effort to draw new customers.

This year’s restaurant week has been extended to two weeks, and the Denver Conventions & Visitors Bureau has also worked with city hotels, museums, and theaters to provide weekend getaway packages for really good deals.

As many of you know, The Back Burner is based in Boulder, CO, which is just outside Denver, and we’ve been hearing about this year’s Restaurant Week for a couple months now, and it got me thinking.  Any town, city, or burg could really benefit from holding an event like Restaurant Week, and more importantly, any restaurant that can get a restaurant week going would stand to benefit.

Feeling skeptical?  I understand. Who wants to offer a cut rate to diners, much less the same cut rate your competition is offering at the same time?

Well, consider some of the benefits of pooling your marketing resources:

Get diners to try something new. Every restaurant worth its salt has a loyal cadre of customers.  The problem is, most diners, especially when they are going out for a nice meal and expect to spend some cash, tend to stick to what they know.  That makes it hard for you to attract new customers.  Restaurant Week is the perfect incentive to get new people in your seats to try out your cuisine.  The prix fixe arrangement means they don’t have to worry about being disappointed, and you’ll have a chance to impress.

Get the community involved. When you’re trying to advertise by yourself you’re on your own.  Organizing a community-wide event like a restaurant week means you can get help in your marketing efforts from all kinds of places.  Denver’s restaurant week set up a dedicated website, Twitter account, and Facebook page for this year’s event.  They also advertised in local media and got the word out on the internet via press releases.

All of that might sound expensive, but it’s really not, and even the smallest community should be able to put together a similar program.  The only difference is scale.  Additionally, smart local governance should be willing to provide incentives or marketing dollars to help attract customers to the area.  After all, a boost in sales taxes helps them out as well.

You should also consider coordinating community events with your restaurant week that will encourage people to show up downtown and dine out.  The prospect of boosting local business should be enough to get any mayor energized and working to organize.

Brand appreciation. Finally, the positive reinforcement your restaurant’s brand will get out of being associated with a community wide event is incalculable.  Weaving your restaurant into the community fabric doesn’t have to be a shameless marketing ploy.  For many restaurateurs, it helps define who they are and brings great satisfaction to both their business and personal lives.

Marketing your restaurant doesn’t always have to be about competition.  A community-wide approach that benefits everyone can help you stretch your marketing budget and really get some bang for your buck.

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Restaurant Marketing: The Future Is Now

Restaurant Marketing ZagatFoursquare is a location-based application for mobile devices that allows users to discover and rate local businesses and then share those discoveries with their social network.  Since I wrote about Foursquare last year, the company has really started to take off, landing promotional deals with Bravo, Warner Bros., and HBO.

The latest feather in Foursquare’s cap is a deal with Zagat, which was announced recently and caused quite a stir in the food service industry.  According to Zagat, so many Foursquare users were “checking in” from Zagat-rated restaurants that it only made sense for the two companies to start working together.

Foursquare allows users to check in from their favorite restaurants and earn “badges” based upon how often they check in.  Clever restaurateurs have started offering special promos to Foursquare members checking in from their establishment, which encourages buzz in the social media sphere.  With the new partnership, ratings and reviews will be pulled directly from Zagat and shared with a Foursquare user’s friends, adding a Yelp type feature to the application.  In fact, Yelp hasn’t been waiting idly by, and recently they released a mobile device app of their own.

For restaurants, a clear trend is building towards hip young people in urban centers driving buzz about eateries and bars through social networking applications like Foursquare.  That trend is going to change how you market your restaurant.

Another interesting side effect of the rise of social networking-based reviews of restaurants and bars is the slow death of the restaurant reviewer in your local paper.  Print media is on a long, slow decline in general anyway, but foodie reviews in particular are declining as the process of determining which places are good which are not has been democratized by companies like Zagat, Foursquare, and Yelp.  Gone are the days when a single bad review in the paper could make or break the success of a restaurant.

Of course, there’s also a dark side to opening up the review floodgates to the masses.  As many restaurateurs have already discovered, a couple malicious reviews on a site like Yelp can have a serious effect on your online reputation.  This isn’t helped any by the anonymous nature of the internet, which makes it easy for random people to leave scathing reviews.  Effectively spotting and responding to what people are saying about your restaurant online (“online reputation management”) is going to be crucial to keeping internet buzz about your establishment positive.

Adjusting to the new realities of how word-of-mouth gets around about your restaurant isn’t going to come easily.  It’s going to require spending a lot of time on sites like Yelp, Twitter, and Facebook.  It’s also going to require learning the new language of social media, one which your younger customers already speak fluently.  The upshot is that an effective social media marketing program can also generate an enormous amount of business, and some restaurants have started coming up with ingenious ways to harness the power of social media.

In general, restaurants have been slow to adopt this new form of marketing.  As we get further into this new decade however,  those that embrace social media are the ones that will find a clear advantage over the competition.  Like it or not, social media is the medium of the future, and restaurateurs can choose to get on that train today or in five years.  Either way, it’s leaving the station, with or without you.

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Asian Carp Have Only One Predator: Restaurants

asian carpInvasive species take over new habitats so quickly because they usually have no natural predators in their new home, allowing them to reproduce quickly and overwhelm native populations competing for the same food.  The latest foreign invader to make headlines in the U.S. is Asian Carp, a fast-moving, quick-breeding intruder that has taken over the Mississippi and Ohio watersheds with amazing speed.

The carp was originally brought to the U.S. by catfish farmers in southern states to control plant growth in stock ponds.  Unfortunately, they escaped during seasonal flooding and ended up in the lower Mississippi.  Within a few years Asian Carp were being discovered all over the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  Now many conservationists fear the carp will end up in the Great Lakes, placing that entire ecosystem at risk.

The problem with Asian Carp is they don’t have any natural predators in American waters.  Some restaurateurs on the Upper Mississippi near Minnesota’s Twin Cities are looking to change that.

They’ve proposed placing Asian Carp on menus along the entire Mississippi and Ohio watershed in order to encourage a fishing industry that could lead to the decimation of the invader’s population.  Apparently, Asian Carp has a mild white meat with relatively few bones, which appeals perfectly to American palates.

The main obstacle in the way of successfully marketing Asian Carp on menus across the midsection of the U.S. is the name Asian Carp itself.  Nobody wants to eat a carp.  Some have suggested renaming the fish “Silverfin” to make it sound more appealing to hungry restaurant patrons.

Renaming worked for Chilean Seabass and Orange Roughy, both restaurant staples with previously unappealing names (“Patagonian toothfish” and “slimehead,” respectively).  Marketing silverfin has yet to find any serious traction, but it seems like it would take a relatively small amount of seed money to make it popular on menus from Minnesota to New Orleans.

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Want To Start An Independent Restaurant? Start With The Incubator

Mama's Small Business Kitchen IncubatorEvery restaurateur has been through the baptism by fire known as Opening Night.  Those who have survived can testify to the nerve-racking experience of preparing menu items for the first time for a dining room full of people.  Many hopeful entrepreneurs have had their dreams realized or crushed on opening night, and anyone wanting to start a restaurant had better be prepared for the big night.

The problem many new restaurant owners have is that building out a new kitchen often runs right up until opening, and that leaves precious little time to test out batches and recipes before the Big Night.  Any new kitchen is inevitably going to run into some kinks, but surprisingly few new owners get the chance to practice their chops before they have to come up big on the first night.

Luckily for new restaurant owners in Pasadena, CA, a local non-profit has styled itself as a “restaurant incubator.”  Mama’s Small Business Kitchen Incubator provides a state-of-the-art kitchen for rent at an extremely reasonable rate for aspiring restaurateurs.  Anyone serious about opening a restaurant can have full access to Mama’s kitchen for a small hourly fee and after taking a safe food handling course.

The opportunity to try out recipes and batch sizes, as well as experiment with the latest restaurant equipment, means that a new restaurant owner can identify problems before they start well before the most important night of a restaurant’s life.  Mama’s is also available for other segments of the food service industry like caterers, concessions, and even institutions.

The best part about Mama’s is that affordable access to all that shiny new restaurant equipment isn’t even the best part.  Entrepreneurs who have been there rave about the people at the non-profit, all of whom are veteran restaurateurs who can provide a lot of golden advice to the newbies.  Those that survive the reality check that Mama’s provide will more than likely find their opening night a lot less daunting.

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Text Message Ordering: Why Your Customers Already Love It

Text Message OrderingOne of the biggest shifts in customer behavior over the past few years has been the preference for take-out food.  All the major national chains (Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc. etc.) have added drive-up service for their customers.  And I’ve written on this blog about taking your restaurant’s food out, whether it be catering, drive-up service, or delivery as a way to diversify your revenue streams.

Consumers love using technology to make their lives faster and more convenient.  The explosion of “smart” phones and text messaging in the past five years is a perfect example of how the masses have adopted a new technology because it streamlined how they communicate.  The challenge for those of us in the food service industry has always been finding ways to leverage these technology trends to the benefit of business.

A new company has developed an easy way for restaurants to make their food more accessible: text message ordering. Zingle will give you a terminal that receives text message orders and prints them out for you as part of their service.  They’ll also provide you with some customized marketing materials to promote your new service.  The company charges a flat monthly rate for their service.

Text messaging is an unbelievably easy way for your customers to place orders, and from the looks of it, the service Zingle provides makes it easy for you to take orders via text.  Quite a few franchises have already started taking advantage of the service, including Subway and regional coffee chains.

The benefits to quick service restaurants from a text ordering service are pretty obvious, but what about all the independent operators out there?  For any independent that caters to younger customers, text ordering has got to be about as close to a no-brainer as you can get.  Even if you don’t do carry-out, let customers place their orders before they arrive so you can turn tables faster during the rush and cater to your regulars in a more timely way.

As technology changes the way we communicate, the traditional model for restaurants has begun to change.  Incorporating that technology into your operation not only makes things easier for your customer, it implants your brand in the evolving channels of communication where your customers are moving.

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