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Restaurants put social media on the menu

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New York City restaurant owner Sean Connolly says he “majored in babes and minored in booze.” That education led him to a successful career in the volatile world of high-end eateries.

The secrets to running three thriving restaurants in the country’s most demanding market in a weak economy are great chefs, creative menus, loyal staffs and a lot of luck, says Connolly. He opened Eatery during the 2000 recession. Whym debuted just before the current economy collapsed and he opened Ktchn this past spring. Despite the eye-popping timing, Connolly’s rolling in the black.

Yet, this experience didn't necessarily come with an education in social media, which is something Connolly mastered along the way. 

“It’s as much a part of the job as anything else,” he explains. You’d be a fool to ignore social media, or fight it, he says. 

Online review sites, such as Yelp, Angie's Lists and Trip Advisor, can make or break a restaurant. But they've come under increasing scrutiny, as some scammers have tried to blackmail owners, threatening bad reviews.  Others have questioned how sites appear to encourage payment for the placement of positive reviews, while studies have shown that some reviews are fake or have been posted by owners. 

Some restaurants are figuring out ways to fight negative reviews. One Canadian owner recently went to extremes by setting up a fake dating profile in the reviewer's name, casting her a transsexual who enjoyed group sex. The reviewer's crime: posting that she complained that her pasta came with diced olives – after asking for none -- and finding celery and peas had replaced the asparagus. 

Despite the controversy, these sites still provide powerful tools to help customers determine where people eat, and a little research can make sure you don’t get burned with a bad meal. “Customers want precision bombing, not scatter bombing,” says Connolly.

But negative reviews --real or fake -- can leave a restaurant feeling like it’s been carpet-bombed. They’re brutal, petty, and usually, anonymous. “Sometimes I see Yelp as ‘anti-social media,’” says restaurateur Deborah Snow of Blue Heron in rural Massachusetts. Though Yelp’s been good to them, says Snow, complaints without human contact don’t allow restaurateurs to determine the truth of the complaint and, more importantly, to make amends.

Connolly agrees saying that these days, “everyone fancies himself a food critic.” You just can’t please everybody, he adds. If customers like his food he asks that they say so on Yelp, City Search, Zagat, etc. “It’s not ethical to write your own reviews which used to happen a lot,” he says.

Connolly sees Twitter and Facebook as “mostly chatter.”  Yet, his business exploded when Kanye West’s tweet about Eatery’s brunch went viral. “We’d have him back anytime,” grins Connolly.

While he appreciates social networking, he also uses sites that lets him to tap into the power of the web, while not being at the mercy of customer reviews. With Singleplatform.com, he sends them specials and menu changes and they update all his social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter—as well as publisher sites such as Urbanspoon and NYTimes.com —simultaneously. He also uses Seamless Web, which lets customers input their addresses, sends them a list of area restaurants and processes on-line orders. 

That’s not an option for Chef Lea Forant of the French micro-bistro Café Forant just down the block from Eatery. She relies primarily on non-fee-based social media. It lets “us market our restaurant without marketing,” says her partner, Carolyn Montgomery.  Sites like Groupon and Living Social—which some chefs dislike because it favors bargain-hunters over those who seek good food—have been a Godsend for Café Forant. “They’ve given us a reach which we could never have,” say Montgomery.

They’ve developed a new customer base through the sites, which, says Forant surprisingly, does cares about food. The fact is, this “lousy economy” coupled with “an over-regulated business environment,” is killing “traditional mom-and-pop restaurants,” like ours, she says. Social media sites let her compete with larger restaurants.

Snow of Blue Heron in Sunderland, Massachusetts is 61, her partner is 69, so social media isn’t second nature. A staff of 20-somethings has kindly guided them into the 21st century, she jokes.

Snow started tweeting and Facebooking only in the last few months. Her challenge is getting her clientele of 40s and 50s-types, who like her aren’t automatically drawn to social media, to log on and drop by.

Facebook she gets, but she struggles with Twitter. It’s all about “self-promoting” which is “so boring,” she says. “I’m Midwestern and we’re not great self-promoters.” After wrapping her head around 140-character limit Snow found it “a creative outlet.” She tweets recipes and food poetry, “my own thing and sometimes not so good.” She wanted to do more with it she says, than just say, “eat here now.”

Social media is here to stay but Connolly sees Facebook and Twitter as less relevant for the next generation in terms of restaurants. People will adapt those sites for the long-term, “like keeping in touch with family, grandkids,” they won’t be searching on them, he predicts.

Young people will create their own next-generation social media technology. Whatever form it takes, it will remain a digital form of word-of-mouth, which essentially is what social media really is.