Food & Drink

Restaurants, breweries build their brands via social media

Rodney Blackwell takes a food photo at Bacon & Butter. “In this day and age, social media is almost as important as having a phone line,” the social media expert said.
Rodney Blackwell takes a food photo at Bacon & Butter. “In this day and age, social media is almost as important as having a phone line,” the social media expert said.

Before you ever set foot in Mother, the influential vegetarian restaurant on K Street in Sacramento, there was a good chance you already knew what the place was about.

You saw pictures of the food, learned plenty about the people who cooked it and probably saw a series of videos that made the eatery look forward-thinking, fun and delicious.

The cost to tell you that story? Thanks to social media, nothing more than time and effort.

In fact, Facebook, Twitter and, increasingly, Instagram are vehicles for Mother and scores of restaurants and craft breweries to tell their story, define their brand, develop a rapport with customers and lure new ones. Posting pictures of food and drinks is merely a starting point. Many owners and managers now take it so seriously that they devote up to half their time creating ever more sophisticated content and interacting with followers to compete and prosper.

With little to no money allocated for marketing and advertising, these local businesses are able to target consumers and grab the attention of people who rely on their phones to guide them to what’s good, what’s exciting and what’s next. Some restaurants have seen so much return from social media they have hired consultants to craft a strategy, handle all of the marketing and basically become the online persona of the business.

“More and more, people are adopting their phones as a means of learning about different things and defining the world around them,” said Ryan Donahue, a partner at Mother and Empress Tavern. “Social media is a really powerful tool. Fifty or 60 years ago, your brand was tied to a logo or how you painted your trucks. But people these days have an insatiable need for information. You have the ability to let people in.”

It happens in all kinds of ways. The strategy can be long-term or immediate. For instance, Donahue can tweet, “Hey, we’re doing donuts tonight,” and scores of people show up asking for doughnuts.

How important and potentially lucrative is social media? Donahue estimates he spends half of his time either planning it or posting to it.

The same kind of thing happens at Bike Dog Brewing in West Sacramento. A.J. Tendick, one of four partners, handles most of the social media, whether it’s telling folks about a new beer, announcing news about the new taproom on Broadway or responding to a customer who tweeted a photo and said something nice about the Mosaic Pale Ale.

Bike Dog is known as a fun brewery and a cool place to hang out and drink beer. Part of that brand awareness comes from the friendly tweets and posts from Tendick.

“In an ever-growing beer market, you need to do more than make good beer,” said Tendick.

Does social media activity make the cash register ring?

“Absolutely, both directly and indirectly,” he said.“If we have a new beer and we promote it, we see an uptick in the tasting room immediately.”

That happened recently with Retro Grouch, a new hazy-style India pale ale that was a departure for Bike Dog. Tendick tweeted about it and Retro Grouch was the best-seller in the tasting room that night.

Andrea Lepore, co-founder of Hot Italian, the pizza and panini bar with locations in Sacramento, Davis and Emeryville, is widely respected in the industry for her marketing savvy. She was quick to embrace social media soon after Hot Italian launched in Sacramento in 2009.

“When we first started, it was really just me with my iPhone. As the years went on and people got more sophisticated about the content they demanded, I ended up hiring photographers and videographers,” Lepore said. “I love print and other forms of media, but you have to go where the people are – and they are on their phones and computers all day long.”

Some restaurants are becoming more aware of how their food looks in social media photos taken by customers. When Pushkin’s opened its Capitol Avenue restaurant last month, the custom fixtures were designed in part to throw good, warm light directly over the tables – essentially studio lighting for the many photos that would soon appear on customers’ social media accounts.

Then there are the many restaurants who just aren’t that into tweeting. Is their aversion to posting photos, explaining new menu items and engaging in a lively give-and-take with customers hurting business?

Aimal Formoli doesn’t see it that way. The owner of Formoli’s Bistro in East Sacramento would rather cook than tweet. The restaurant will celebrate its 10th anniversary in March.

If the restaurant posts on Facebook, it tends to be about something personal and fun. Formoli doesn’t like to make the hard sell.

“I don’t know that people appreciate that,” he said. “We’re one of the very few mom-and-pop small operators left. We make decisions about what we want to see and how we want people to feel. We don’t agree with the idea of putting something up every day. If there’s something funny happening with the staff or something out of the ordinary, we might do it.”

Formoli, whose restaurant is on Instagram and Facebook but does not have a Twitter account, realizes he’s probably missing a potent marketing vehicle.

“I would love for more people to know we’re around and expand our reach of where our customers come from. But what we’re trying to portray is we’re still mom-and-pop and we still do things the old-fashioned way.”

Billy Zoellin used to feel that way, too. The owner of Bacon & Butter loved to cook and create – but he wasn’t that into social media. Eventually he hired someone to keep his popular restaurant on the minds of customers. In an ever-crowded restaurant scene, photos of pancakes and burgers or short videos of French toast with sexy theme music are potent marketing tools.

Three years later, Zoellin continues to pay Rodney Blackwell for his social media skills. Blackwell, known as @burgerjunkies on Instagram and elsewhere, carefully crafted a Bacon & Butter presence. He enlisted the services of photographer Rachel Valley and went about showcasing Zoellin’s food and reminding people what’s cooking – over and over again. When the restaurant remakes a menu, Blackwell and Valley are on it right away to spread the word.

“We knew it was huge for us and we knew we had to get on it,” Zoellin said. “It’s the best money I spend every month. Rodney reminds people of how tempting our food can be.”

Blackwell has become something of a social media folk hero. A former web designer, he created the Burger Junkies online presence, posting photos of hamburgers he enjoyed. With a social media presence that grew into the tens of thousands, he parlayed it into the annual Sacramento Burger Battle, a charity fundraiser that routinely sells out and has become a fixture on the local foodie circuit. He also handles social media for de Vere’s Irish Pub.

“In this day and age, social media is almost as important as having a phone line,” Blackwell said. “It’s in the hands of everybody. A new restaurant can build up a buzz as they are building the restaurant and creating the menu, so by the time they launch they can have a base of customers who are already invested in what they are about to put out. Whether you are a restaurateur, a brewer or a blogger, you have the same tools and it levels the playing field with the big corporate restaurants (that have large advertising budgets).”

Blackwell pointed to a relatively new restaurant, Binchoyaki Izakaya on 10th Street, as an example of a place using videos to show personality, make the restaurant look fun and create brand awareness.

Tokiko Sawada, who owns Binchoyaki with husband Craig Takehara, said she realized from the outset that social media could help build the business. She even researched the best times to post online. Turns out, it’s 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

One night, she posted a photo of a specific bottle of sake and a customer came in and asked about it. On a cold, rainy night recently, she was strategic about the dish she would showcase – a piping hot bowl of curry ramen.

“That night, we literally sold out of the curry ramen,” Sawada said.

But Blackwell says there are still many restaurants that are reluctant to delve into taking photos and making posts. Those restaurants, he says, are losing out in more ways than one.

“People are on their phones all day looking at Facebook posts of their friends and looking at cat videos on YouTube. One of the things you’re competing for is to get their attention. If you’re popping up in their (social media) feed with great photos of food or a funny post, that could remind them that you’re out there and it might influence their decision about where they want to go out to eat.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob