Monday, December 1, 2008

What hath Al Gore wrought?

The complexities of the restaurant business continue to deepen, courtesy of the medium you're using to read this. Consider a few of the advantages and complications the fast-changing internet presented to the industry in the last few weeks alone, starting with the scandal of the naked-woman photos.

In case you missed the news reports, McDonald's recently found itself in the center of a controversy that would've been a slice of bad science fiction ("Flesh Gordon," maybe?) to Ray Kroc. A customer reportedly left his cell phone in an Arkansas unit and was contacted to come pick it up. The staff had apparently poked through the info stored on the phone to track down its owner. The patron apparently thought nothing more about it until his wife started getting e-mail messages about nude photos of her that had been posted without her knowledge on the internet.

It seems the woman had e-mailed the shots in a fit of naughtiness to her husband, who'd kept them stored on his, um, hand-held. According to the slew of coverage, employees of the restaurant found the pics, uploaded them, and never said a word about it to the phone's owner. Now he's said to be suing the franchise, the unit's manager and McDonald's Corp. for more than $3 million. McDonald's is certainly one of the more progressive chains in the business, but it's doubtful the operation has a section in its manuals about how to handle that situation.

About the same time that mess was starting to stink, news arose from Australia of another unprecedented development involving restaurants and the web. A fish house in Melbourne had reportedly been skunked on a $520 (Australian) bill by a party of five indulgent youngsters. According to the news coverage, proprietor Peter Leary remembered that one of the deadbeats knew a waitress at the place. Leary spoke with the woman, who provided the name of her acquaintance. It dawned on Leary that he might be able to find the young man by looking on Facebook, the social network that's all the rage with young people. Sure enough, after a few searches, Leary found a photo of the offender and the information he needed to track down the chew-and-screw group. He got his money--plus the tip.

Those might've been extraordinary, newsworthy events. Less noticeable but more profound is the change that's slowly taking place in restaurant marketing. Clearly a new internet medium is arising, and restaurants will have to master it if they want to stay competitive with places up and down the street. If you doubt it, consider a few of the "tweets" I fielded today from Twitter:

--From Dunkin' Donuts, at about 9 a.m.: Good time for a cup of coffee. It was followed up at 3 p.m. with, "Dare I say, it's another good time for a cup of coffee?" Talk about keeping a possible purchase top-of-mind.

--From Rickshaw Truck, the mobile version of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, a popular concept in New York City, right before lunch: "RickshawTruck Is in the financial district on Wall and Williams Street. We've got those dreamy dumplings and a brand new addition to our sides, miso soup"

--From Riley's Cafe, an independent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at about 3: "Twitter Tuesday Special: free coffee, pop, ice tea or lemonade with meal purchase"

Anyone familiar with Twitter and its competitors would probably agree that they're the new frontier in restaurant marketing. The key phrase there is, "anyone familiar." If you're not, I'd strongly suggest that you take the plunge and visit ASAP.

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