Today people expect to be able to learn a lot about a food establishment before they walk in the door. Web sites (a necessity) give prospective customers an immediate impression of the businesses' style and substance.
Now restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries and cafes are dipping a tentative toe into the world of social media, figuring out whether they can "tweet" and "friend" their way to more customers and a healthier bottom line.
Only a few local food establishments have Facebook pages, and most offer little more than a pared-down version of information available on their Web sites. In fact, one of the most lively pages is about a restaurant that has closed. Cafe Allegro Memories, dedicated to the South Side restaurant that closed last year, has 67 members and provides past employees and customers with a place to share restaurant memories and stories.
While businesses may still be puzzling over how to get the most out of social networking sites like Facebook, many local food professionals and operators have joined the tweeting community. (For the uninitiated, Twitter users post messages on a Web account to a personally created network of "followers" in short bursts of 140 characters or less, and those followers can post -- or "tweet" -- right back.)
Twitter's use as a marketing tool is more obvious than Facebook's. No matter the content of tweets, they give followers a little reminder that the place exists, making it that much more likely that they'll stop by soon.
"We're a LocalSteal this month! $.50 OFF the new Locavore ...," tweeted Franktuary just before 6 p.m. last Wednesday. Franktuary, a Downtown lunch spot that sells creative hot dogs with an emphasis on sustainable ingredients, joined Twitter in March and tweets weekly specials and soup selections along with Pittsburgh events and the occasional pun.
Most restaurant Twitter feeds include specials and the occasional coupon. On April 12, Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton Restaurant, Downtown, tweeted, "mention Twitter to your server at the Carlton and receive 20% off!" Sonoma Grille introduced itself to Twitter on June 2 with a link to a coupon good for a free glass of wine with an entree purchase.
One challenge that all businesses face is promoting themselves without turning their Twitter feeds into streaming advertising. A food business that tweets well can help establish its culinary personality and give customers a way to feel personally connected -- the way a regular or a friend of the owner might.
Dozen Bake Shop in Lawrenceville is one of the most popular Pittsburgh food places in the Twitterverse, with 443 followers as of Wednesday. Its tweets range from up-to-the minute reports on baked goods ("July 1, 5:27 a.m.: Blueberry pie today. But only 6 slices left! Hurry") to updates on its newest location.
Over at East End Brewing, another popular Pittsburgh feed, owner Scott Smith often answers tweeted questions about home brewing, reminds people about "growler hours" and tweets warnings when he's running low on certain beers.
At the moment none of these feeds has attracted enough followers to be considered successful marketing tools. But Starbucks recently topped 248,000 followers. Kogi, a Korean barbecue taco truck in Los Angeles, has more than 35,000 followers. Kogi is credited as being one of the first businesses to successfully harness the power of Twitter to communicate with customers.
Right now, finding individual businesses or people on Twitter is a matter of guesswork. Some businesses are listed under owners' names, others under a version of the business name. I tracked down a few tweeting chefs and a wine director (check out Kaya executive chef Sean Ehland @SwEhland, who supplements his tweets with lots of pictures), but I'm sure there are other tweeting Pittsburgh food professionals. If I can't find them, I can't follow them.
Ironically, it all comes back to businesses' Web sites. Before they tweet, they should make sure they have a great Web site where all the basic information (location, hours, reservation policy, up-to-date menus) is easy to find and attractively laid out. Then, if the business or someone at the business tweets, they should promote it.
China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman . Follow First Bites (openings) and The Buzz (coffee) and find maps to farmers' markets and outdoor dining venues at post-gazette.com/food.