Social media tools are a great way for restaurant brands to engage with customers, but navigating all of the options available requires focus and commitment, according to participants in the American Express Restaurant Trade Program at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.  

The program featured both a panel and a workshop in which participants including high-end chef Grant Achatz, Darden Restaurants executive Mike Church and TV star Andrew Zimmern, shared strategies for engaging their audiences and turning bad experiences into good ones.

“At the moment, I’m obsessed with Vine,” said Atlanta-based chef, restaurateur and TV personality Richard Blais of the short-form video application from Twitter.

Blais has more than 240,000 Twitter followers, and he said he likes using Vine’s stop-motion picture, which allows him to get up to 100 frames so he can show how dishes are plated.

Celebrity chef Chris Cosentino, owner of Incanto in San Francisco, showed attendees examples of that same thing in a workshop on social media. He said he particularly likes posting Vine videos of daily specials. “We sold out in 45 minutes,” he said of one dish.

Blais also has a YouTube show called Burger Lab. He puts the featured burger on his menu, encouraging customers to visit and try it.

Blais said he shoots three episodes of the show in one nine-hour session.

Similarly, Grant Achatz — chef-owner of Alinea, Next, The Aviary and The Office in Chicago — works with his staff to shoot a video for YouTube highlighting the upcoming incarnation of Next, a restaurant that reinvents itself every three months.

“It’s no different from a commercial,” Achatz said, adding that it allows him “to directly control the PR.”

Moderator Steve Dolinsky, food correspondent for ABC-7 in Chicago, showed a clip of the video promoting the latest version of the restaurant in which Next’s staff is shown stealing produce from other Chicago restaurants.

Keeping it personal

As vice president of “interactive ecosystem” for Darden Restaurants, Mike Church must focus on much bigger tasks than shooting videos. He’s working on integrating the social media of the more than 2,000 restaurants owned and operated by the Orlando, Fla.-based company, as well as figuring out how brands like Red Lobster and Olive Garden should interact compare with higher-end restaurants such as Capital Grille and Seasons 52.

Church said he wants the company’s customers to feel more connected with the individual restaurants they’re visiting. At the end of the day you’re in your neighborhood eating a meal with your family,” he said.  

Darden has started to give employees guidelines on how to engage in personal and relevant ways online. He added that he is currently thinking about how to encourage customers to check in electronically at restaurants — something everyone does in person when they arrive. He’s also looking into how to integrate information about those consumers with their point-of-sale systems to record their favorite food and drinks, allergies and other special needs, and possibly to give extra perks to regulars.

Blais said some of his customers complain electronically — via Twitter, for example — while they’re in his restaurants. He said he has his chefs electronically connected, even in the kitchen, so they can address complaints in the moment. “Your guests will love you for that,” he said.

In the workshop, Cosentino said that he also liked to follow Twitter in the kitchen and provide special treats to guests who share their excitement about eating in his restaurants. “It’s random VIP treatment to people who have the courtesy to tell us they’re excited to be there,” he said.

That workshop also featured Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, who also stressed the importance of managing your own social media. He noted that he writes 75 percent to 80 percent of his own tweets. The rest — promotional information about his personal or television appearances — are pre-programmed.

He said he gets up to three million impressions per day on his seven social media outlets and websites, so he always has someone in his office monitoring activity.

“For me, the real pleasure, and why I’m so active in social media, is it’s how I get a lot of my information and keep up with my friends,” he said, adding that before he visits an exotic locale, he asks via social media for advice about places to visit.

He also follows the #bizarrefoods hash tag when his show is airing and participates in the conversations as his fans tweet about the show.

“It freaks them out. It’s like I’m sitting on the couch with them,” he said.

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