How Is Social Media Changing the Restaurant Industry?
The benefits — and challenges — social media platforms and crowd-sourced websites present to restaurateurs.
Penne vodka at Chef Antonio’s — in both the real and virtual worlds.
photograph by andre baranowski
Once upon a time, when customers had a negative experience at a restaurant, they could either talk to the manager, vent to their friends, or vow privately to never return.
If chefs and owners wanted to let customers know about a new dish, special, or new hours, they bought ads in magazines and newspapers, ran radio spots, and hoped that information would be spread by word of mouth.
How times have changed. Through Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zomato, and neighborhood Facebook pages, everybody is a food critic. Food shots have taken over Instagram feeds. Chefs not only have to know how to cook but also how to take photos and promote themselves. Restaurateurs say that social media is definitely a part of their jobs — both the positive elements and the more negative ones.
Christian Petroni, chef/owner at Fortina, with three restaurants in Westchester, wholeheartedly embraces social media. “It’s a truly great tool for a restaurant to figure out what it’s not good at.” The managers from his restaurants monitor review websites, and Petroni handles Instagram. “I want customers to have a direct line to me — my photos aim to be authentic and take people behind the scenes.” And when people post comments on Instagram, he is the one to respond to them.
Mogan Anthony, chef for the Village Social Restaurant Group, with three restaurants in Westchester, says social media definitely helps him gain attention and build excitement for his restaurants and food. But, he cautions: “You have to have the hype, but it has to be backed up by quality.” The Village Social Group does employ people to monitor ratings and has an employee dedicated to monitoring social media. “You have to listen when people are trying to tell you something. I used to take comments more personally, but I want to be in business for the long term, and this is the world we live in.”
Anthony and Corina Livanos, among the owners of the Livanos Restaurant Group, which includes Armonk’s Moderne Barn and City Limits in White Plains, say their customers’ ages factor into social media usage. “It definitely is a generational thing,” Livanos notes. Corina says to communicate with guests in their 20s, “Instagram is a great way to showcase what’s going on in our kitchens; we really forge a connection.”
Nick Triscari, chef/owner of New Rochelle’s The Wooden Spoon and Christina Safarowic, co-operator with her husband, Matt, of Katonah’s The Whitlock, say social media is a whole other job — but a crucial one. “You need a real grasp of your target market to get out the right message,” Triscari explains. He says that prior to social media, when a dish came out sloppy-looking, it wouldn’t be appealing to a customer, but “now it goes beyond that: I tell my kitchen everything has to come out picture-ready.” Safarowic honed her social media skills while working at The Cookery and The Parlor (both in Dobbs Ferry) and has found social media vital for her space. “Getting photos out and having a brand is super important, so potential customers know what to expect when they come through your door,” she says. Both Triscari and Safarowic say the majority of their customers are local, but Safarowic says, “with certain hashtags, we draw from a wider radius.”
Some long-running Westchester restaurateurs, such as those at West Harrison’s Aquario and Mamaroneck’s Chef Antonio’s, have been slower to embrace social media, as their customers skew older and have been loyal for many years. Emilia Randazzo, manager at Chef Antonio’s, did start a Facebook page three years ago to draw younger families. And Alice O’Leary Kerrigan, owner of the classic The Blazer Pub in Purdys, says after urging from young employees, she has embraced Instagram. “Pictures of wings and burgers definitely get liked and shared.”
On social media chatter from the customers, all the restaurateurs urge patrons to think before they post negative reviews and to consider talking to a server or manager on duty before leaving a restaurant and going home to post. And they say that readers should take reviews with a grain of salt. They do take conversations offline and strive to fix an issue to a customer’s satisfaction. The restaurateurs who live in towns where they operate have found local Facebook pages to be both a bane of and a boon to their businesses. “Especially for a new restaurant, give it a chance before posting; our businesses are labors of love,” says Livanos. Safarowic terms it “unfair bullying” when people immediately start commenting on a new business. “We want people to feel understood and heard, but they may not realize how damaging public comments can be.” Fortina’s Petroni notes: “Unfortunately people find it easier to go home and write something on a computer than talking to somebody in a restaurant … it’s the times we’re living in.” But O’Leary Kerrigan, who doesn't respond to online reviews, puts it even more plainly: “I can’t fix a problem once a customer leaves
Abbe Wichman of Goldens Bridge writes frequently about food and drink. She loves meeting and talking to the talented chefs behind their Instagram pics.