2009 was clearly a year of defense for the restaurant business. Aim One was to survive. Most operations were ecstatic if they just held steady or didn’t have to cede too much. When else have single-digit sales declines been disclosed with high fives and boasts of out-performing the pack? Few indeed were those brands that actually managed to increase the top line.
But while that retrenchment was squarely in foreground view, a few acts of audacious innovation could be spotted farther back, in the off-stage areas where a few of us poke around the sandbags and pulleys of the business, reporter’s notebook in hand. For us, the play’s the thing—the processes for supporting a restaurant business, not the art on the plate. And for we business journalists who scribble about food costs and new grills, menu strategies and better hiring, LTOs and menu items with stupid names, 2009 was a year of notable breakthroughs.
Below are my picks of the standouts. The list is admittedly biased toward the communications aspect of the business, since that’s the machinery most plainly in my view. And it’s no coincidence that virtually every honoree proved a master of social media, undoubtedly the industry’s Rookie of the Year for 2009.
The whoot-worthy of the year:
Dunkin' Dave: Dunkin’ Donuts’ parent company went through some significant personnel changes in the last year or so, including key departures from its communications staff. Fortunately, they didn’t deter Dunkin’ Dave from demonstrating how a consumer brand could use Twitter to carry on a new sort of conversation with customers, current or would-be. Tweeting from what he calls the “DD mothership,” Dunkin’ Dave, a.k.a. Dave Puner, kept up a steady patter with the public, highlighting new products, promoting special deals, relaying compliments from brand loyalists, even publicly defusing the occasional complaint. Random suggestions that a Dunkin’ coffee would hit the spot sent me scurrying to my local outlet more than once. And Dave does it with a humor and a dose of personality that perfectly fit the medium.
If you want to know why there’s so much hubbub in the business about Twitter’s potential, join the 40,000 DunkinDonuts followers who hear from Dunkin’ Dave throughout the day.
Honorable mention: The designated tweeters for Carl’s Jr. and Kimpton Hotels; schnitzeltruck; RickshawTruck.
Ellen Malloy: If you don’t know the name, you probably never write about restaurants. If you’re a food or restaurant writer and still don’t know it, shame on you.
Malloy, a chef-turned-publicist, has hit on a way to provide the information we journalists appreciate and actually use, a sainthood-worthy departure from the usual approach of burying writers in hyperbole and flowery bullshit about clients. Church choirs would no doubt sing of her if they had to wade through clunky releases studded with words like “brilliant,” “trend-setting,” “world-renowned,” or—brace yourselves, writers—“exciting.” And that might be for a shrimp de-veiner.
Instead, through her virtual Restaurant Intelligence Agency, Malloy offers journalists the capability of receiving short, precise e-mailings containing actual news about her clients, on topics we’ve specified—menu changes, say, or business issues and trends, or green initiatives. They often provide surprising nuggets that are filed away for future round-ups or trend pieces.
I can’t say I look at each e-mail that hits my inbox, but the volume is reasonable enough to usually merit a scan. And seldom do I write a story that’s menu or trend-related without searching RestaurantIntelligenceAgency.com for examples embodied by the agency’s clients.
Best of all, I can do it all myself, without having to call a publicist, wait for a response, then wait to see if an interview can be scheduled, then go back and forth about the logistics. Everytime I’m on that hamster wheel, I visual the old movie scenes where pages fly off a wall calendar. With RIA, info is provided to contact the restaurateur or chef directly, and I’ve done it a bunch of times now. They’ve figured into a number of my stories, and I’ve even used the site to line up a speaker for a panel.
Honorable mention: Lauren Barash for Moe’s Newsroom, the Wordpress site she set up to provide a quick, easy-to-digest overview of developments within the Moe’s Southwest Grill chain. It works.
People Report Best Practices Conference: Those of us who’ve had the waterboarding joy of trying to find replacement dollars for lost ad revenues know meetings are usually high on the list of possible sources. And for awhile, the opportunities were indeed sweet. If you could come up with a compelling reason for people to get together, chances were high that you could draw paying participants, then line up sponsors. Ka-ching!
Then came the gold rush, when any meeting idea that worked was copied two or three times by media, associations or seemingly anyone who could print a name badge. There were too many meetings chasing attendees who all but staggered from conference fatigue. And the brain food served up at many of those purported intellectual buffets was of the overcooked-pasta variety: Decidedly unsatisfying mush. Half the restaurant industry’s meetings could disappear without anyone but the producers caring.
All of a sudden, from a part of Dallas you’d hardly call a destination, came a blizzard of tweets and other bloggings from attendees of Best Practices, a human resources conference presented by Joni Doolin’s People Report restaurant research consortium. From the very first event, a field trip to prepare free meals for the disadvantaged, participants proclaimed the conference a life-changing event, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. Clearly the content spoke to them, professionally and personally. The postings made the conference sound like a cross between a religious retreat and Allen & Co.’s famous Sun Valley Conference.
Following the tweets from afar, I felt as if I was sitting home while the rest of the industry was at Woodstock.
I won’t make that mistake again.
Honorable mention: The Culinary Institute of America, for have the chili peppers to hold a foodie fest on street fare (Frontiers of Flavor, held at its Greystone campus in Napa). Remember, this is the CIA, the industry’s version of Harvard, an institution with a mission of preserving culinary classicism. Convening the nation’s food intelligentsia for an immersion in peasant food is like scheduling Green Day instead of a Mozart tribute.
U.S. Foodservice, for having the cabbages to try a radically different form of marketing to restaurant operators.
There isn’t a supplier or service provider in the business that isn’t fretfully watching the boom in new media and wondering how to wield it. “Oh, yeah, we know we have to use Twitter, Facebook or YouTube—but we’re not sure how.”
U.S. Foodservice took the plunge of backing the Clockless series, a videotaped and hyper-tweeted 24-hour blitz of a city’s restaurant scene (first Las Vegas, then Los Angeles). The look at little-known gems and cult favorites, including places even the most daring sports diner might’ve missed, was aimed at consumers rather than restaurateurs. But by trying to inject pizzazz into customer restaurants’ home markets, the distributor was presumably fostering relations with its own clientele.
For those of us who are frustrated by the reluctance of suppliers to shift more of their marketing to new media, USF’s efforts provided a ray of encouragement.