Hard as it is to believe, online social networking is still relatively new. But the seeds of the current Twitter craze that’s gripped all manner of restaurants, from latter-day chuckwagons to tony white-tableclothed eateries, were sown decades ago.
In 1984, Jonathan Waxman, the chef generally credited as the culinary pioneer who bravely lugged Californian cuisine east, opened the uber-trendy Jams in New York City. While the restaurant is fondly recalled for its roast chicken, perhaps its most significant innovation was its design, which featured a wide-open kitchen.
Ever since Waxman literally tore down the wall between cooks and customers, restaurants have edged their kitchens (still quaintly referred to as “back of the house”) further and further into their dining rooms. Today’s diners, fed a steady diet of food-themed reality shows and celeb chef tell-alls, have grown suspicious of the concealed kitchen: They want to watch cooks jiggle sauté pans and listen to them curse. The aura of calm composure on which great restaurants once prided themselves is long gone.
If the open kitchen upset restaurants’ traditional appearance of effortlessness, Twitter has shattered it. Restaurants—including many here in Asheville—now use the microblogging program (which enables users to send up-to-140-character digital “tweets” to computers and cell phones) to trumpet menu changes, share musings about customer traffic and pose open-ended questions.
“On the surface, we may seem very official, but we’re working as hard as everyone else to figure it out and put it altogether,” says June Thomas, who handles the Twittering duties for Nine Mile. On any given day, Thomas might tweet out the daily specials, bemoan the restaurant’s problems getting its new menu printed and wonder aloud if the real Gordon Ramsay was behind the @RamseyGordo account.
“We’re not perfect, and I think people can relate to that. It adds a little bit of humanity to the company,” she says.
Nine Mile is widely acknowledged by local foodies as a master of the Twitter form. Thomas, who initiated the account back in March 2008—“I went to Aaron [Thomas’ husband, who co-owns the restaurant and serves as executive chef] and said, ‘This might be kind of nerdy, and I don’t know if it’s going to work”—is an indefatigable tweeter. She routinely runs exhaustive searches for terms like “Asheville,” which might lead to tourists wondering where to eat, which might lead to more customers.
“Chiming into someone’s conversation can lead to someone walking in the door,” says Thomas, who recently steered a gluten-free visitor to Rosetta’s Kitchen and Laughing Seed. “They wrote back to say thanks for the help, and then they came in to eat.”
Thomas’ innate understanding of technology and the restaurant’s commitment to transparency have made for a highly personable, funny and useful feed. But other local restaurants are also playing the Twitter game, finding smart new ways to reward customers’ loyalty and cultivate new fans.
“Friday Twitter Treat!” Rosetta’s Kitchen posted last week. “Today only, free homemade lemonade, peppermint tea, or coffee with your meal. Tell cashier you are our twitter friend!”
Jim Barton, who maintains Rosetta’s Twitter account in exchange for free meals, is an active Twitter user who enjoys the network’s salon atmosphere. But he’s found it’s harder for commercial enterprises to engage in the free-ranging conversations that typify Twitter.
“While the business account will share your personality, just as your restaurant will, it is inevitably more about broadcasting specials,” Barton e-mails.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Thomas reports that many Nine Mile diners have told her they were lured to the restaurant by the promise of, say, “#todaysspecial : Grilled Mahi w/ apple fennel salad, squash, rasta peppers & zucchini tossed w/ linguine in a white wine basil butter sauce”
Kevin Schwartz, assistant director of food and beverage at The Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, says restaurant owners usually figure out how to post specials and highlight menu changes long before they learn how to retweet (an essential element of Twitter-etiquette) and reply to other tweeters.
“Restaurants aren’t using it to its best potential yet, but we’re learning how to inform our guests about events and specials,” says Schwartz, who handles the Twitter account for the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association. “It’s slowly building.”
AIR’s tweets aren’t quite as candid as Nine Mile’s—a typical tweet from last week read, “Had a great lunch today at Burgermeister’s. If you’ve never been, take the time to do so—delicious!”—but Schwartz says he’s excited about the medium’s possibilities.
“I feel old when I do this, but this is where we have to go,” he says. “This is the most progressive way for us to inform people.”
According to Schwartz, many AIR member restaurant owners are still Twitter holdouts, citing age or—more persuasively—a lack of time.
“We don’t have to spend a mint, we have to spend time, and when does a restaurateur have time?” Schwartz asks. “That’s a real trick.”
The Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau is helping save some time for busy restaurant owners with the energetic Twitter feed it administers in conjunction with its “Foodtopia” campaign, dedicated to cementing Asheville’s reputation as an epicenter of farm-to-table eating. Foodtopia tweets out local food news at least three times a day.
“I think Twitter enhances the local food scene because it connects the local food scene,” says online-relations manager Sherida Buchanan, who twitters as @Foodtopia. “It takes information and puts it all in one place so the Asheville food scene can become even stronger.”