Today's diners have many opportunities to express their opinions about restaurants. They can blog, tweet or review them on at least half a dozen popular crowd-sourced sites, often before they've even left the restaurant. It's no wonder restaurants sometimes feel attacked from all sides. They once had to worry only about a handful of professional critics, but now everyone's a critic.
Restaurants, however, can also make use of the expanded possibilities of the Web. Just as diners have gained virtual loudspeakers for their opinions, restaurants have never had a better opportunity for communicating directly with customers.
Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Bar and Grill, which recently has grown to two locations (Robinson and Center Township, Beaver County), knew from the beginning that social media would be part of her business plan.
Bocktown has almost 2,300 Twitter followers and more than 3,400 "likes" on Facebook. Ms. Dilla also pays attention to search engine optimization, so when you search for Bocktown, the first result is its website, not Yelp or Urbanspoon.
"If you let the customer tell you who you are," Ms. Dilla says, "you will be what they say."
Even a tentative dip into the social media landscape can have positive results. At Stagioni in Bloomfield, chef Stephen Felder is primarily in charge of the restaurant's Twitter feed.
"I like it mostly because it's really accessible," Mr. Felder said. "It's quick and direct to our customers. If we're making something interesting or we're super excited about an ingredient coming in, we can write about it immediately or take a picture of it."
"We've definitely gotten [some good feedback]."
While Stagioni has only a little more than 100 followers, the connectivity of social networking sites means that any tweet could reach a much larger audience -- all it takes is a few re-tweets to broadcast a message to thousands of Twitter users.
It's hard to calculate what kind of impact this form of promotion has on business, but Ms. Dilla said, "Restaurant sales have grown in a way that mirrors how our Facebook and Twitter have grown."
Restaurants can also use social media to reward their most loyal customers. Ms. Dilla doesn't have a happy hour and she doesn't run specials at the restaurant. Instead, she offers promotions through Foursquare, a social media site where people can check in to locations they are visiting.
"We give away a bumper sticker or a key chain or beer or a cup of soup. We might have them buy something to get something," she said.
Dozen Bakeshop, which has almost 2,800 followers on Twitter and more than 5,000 likes on Facebook for its spots in Lawrenceville and Oakland, often tweets reminders of specials, like $2 cupcakes on Tuesdays. But restaurants don't have to offer deals to see bumps in business.
The Twitter stream for Salt of the Earth in Garfield, which has more than 1,700 followers, often includes photos of ingredients, such as quince and puffball mushrooms, and descriptions of dishes still in development, such as "duck ... parsnip, persimmon, spice bread, pistachio thursday-ish."
Kevin Sousa, the owner and executive chef, likes to tweet about dishes before they're finished, to give diners a sense of his process. But he's also seen the effect tweets can have on business. Last week, he tweeted that a popular beet salad was returning to the menu for the fall season. That weekend, "we saw 50 people come to the restaurant just for the salad," he said.
Chefs and restaurant managers already work long hours, but social media don't have to take a huge amount of time and they can be divided among multiple people. Mr. Sousa recently announced that Ehrrin Keenan, Salt's maitre d', as well as other staff members, would be contributing to the Twitter feed.
At Legume Bistro in Oakland, chef/owner Trevett Hooper handed over Twitter duties to Caroline Matys, the restaurant's sommelier. Ms. Dilla of Bocktown has empowered several employees to contribute to their social media feeds.
The idea is to make the social media experience as close as possible to the in-house experience, said Ms. Dilla. "Show them pictures of the food, show them pictures of the space, show them pictures of people having a good time in the space. Get them in the door. And once they're in the door, if you have a good product, they will come back."