This summer, Pizza Hut is hiring college "twinterns" to help the company learn how to integrate Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging and other social media into its marketing plan. • In Los Angeles, Kogi, a Korean barbecue taco truck with a cult following, divulges its location and route to 26,000 followers via Twitter every day. • Online social media networks are increasingly valuable to retailers, musical groups, nonprofits and business-to-business efforts — perhaps even more so to an economically hobbled restaurant industry eager to broadcast its message to would-be diners.
Tampa Bay area restaurants have been slow to adopt these new tools, but just in the past month Twitter has taken off. Tre Amici @ the Bunker in Ybor City may have been our earliest adopter (first tweet: Jan. 14), but Savannah's in St. Petersburg is the most prolific (1,737 followers, 373 posts). Bowled Restaurant in St. Petersburg, Acropolis in Clearwater, Café Hey and Splitsville in Tampa, and others have followed suit.
Bars and nightclubs used to use MySpace to attract young, media-savvy customers. It's essentially a free, unhosted Web site on which bars could express their personality with music and graphics, showcase upcoming events and convey basic information like address and hours of operation. Its numbers stagnating, MySpace has ceded dominance to Facebook (which recently reported it had topped 200 million members worldwide, up a third since January). Twitter in the United States is estimated to be growing by millions every month, according to Quantcast, which tracks Web site statistics.
The national restaurant "twitterati" are using their 140-character posts to give followers a behind-the-scenes look at what happens in the kitchen (check out @gachatz, the Twitter handle of Chicago's Alinea chef Grant Achatz), to exchange recipes (the art of these "twecipes" is squeezing them to that 140 limit) and to engage in culinary discourse with other chefs.
Essentially a blog of blurbs, it's egalitarian, it's real time, and posts are short enough to be read on the road, in line at the coffee shop or even as one pauses in a doorway, wondering what to do next.
And that's what bay area restaurants have seized upon.
Jessie Stehlik, the self-proclaimed "head twit" at Tre Amici @ the Bunker, says she signed up in May 2008, long before the recent Twitter stampede.
"I just did not get it. I was the most vocal anti-Twitterer. But then I started doing it just for fun, got incredibly addicted, and realized it was a useful way of getting out information quickly. I have two things I do every day. First, I search Ybor (with Twitter's search function) to see if there's anything I should be aware of going on in the neighborhood. And second, I post about special promotions."
Cameron Ferguson, general manager and the main Tweeter at Savannah's Café, uses the tool to actively recruit new guests. When he has time, he looks through the "follower" list of those people following the cafe (so, the friends of friends) to determine if they are local and extends a welcome accordingly.
"It grows exponentially," Ferguson says. "It allows us to communicate to people who would be interested in coming to the restaurant, and it acts as a new form of comment card, allowing us to get direct feedback from diners."
Stephanie Rowley (@srowl), a 31-year-old insurance fraud investigator in St. Petersburg, signed up to follow Savannah's when she noticed her stepmom (@dolcedebbie), a catering chef, was following the cafe. Last weekend the two women, with their dogs Rudy and Freckles, attended Savannah's first-ever "yappy hour" — a direct result of reading a Tweet.
It's not all about the bottom line, though. Restaurants are having fun with the networking site and expressing themselves creatively. A Tweet from Savannah's: "Desserts are stressed spelled backward." And one from Tre Amici @ the Bunker: "And now, a Bunker mini-haiku: Short sleep, Tall latte, Mmmmm. (deep bow)"
Says Stehlik, "It's a fun, flippant way to connect to people who like you and 'get' you."
Rowley, fairly new to Twitter, has used it to follow local chefs and restaurants: "Chefs will post links to great recipes. My family is Italian, so food is really important to us."
Michael Cecere, owner of Bowled Restaurant in St. Petersburg, explains Twitter's appeal thus: "The way I look at it, we have these new technologies for a reason. We all long for connection."
He is promoting his Tuesday half-off wine nights, premium beer specials and other promotions via Twitter, but a part of him remains resolutely old-school: "All the technology in the world can't do the same as good word of mouth."
In essence, though, Twitter is word of mouth, its ability to tap like-minded friends of friends like that old Breck shampoo commercial: "And they told two friends, and so on, and so on."
Still, Stehlik doesn't believe Twitter is the final word for restaurants.
"I fear that Twitter is already passe and going mainstream. But I'm open to new things and interested to see what the next thing is going to be."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter (@lreiley). Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.