By Gregory Furgala
Remember charcoal? Remember how it was suddenly affixed seemingly every menu? If you don’t, here’s an incomplete list of what it made its way into: burger buns, pizza, lemonade, ice cream (and cones), lattes, macarons, croissants, crepes, waffles, wontons, ravioli, mozzarella and crusted on tuna. Chatelaine proclaimed, “This dark and moody food trend is popping up everywhere”; in its Life section, a Globe and Mail headline proclaimed “Charcoal cooking heating up restaurant kitchens”; and CBC called it “the new MVP of wellness.” Even the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal endorsed a charcoal-laced bagel.
Notwithstanding the CBC headline, charcoal’s dubious toxin-busting health benefits were, for the most part, only meekly touted by foodservice operators (although Health Canada concedes that it’s an effective antiflatulent). The smoky nuance charcoal lent to food saw some kind words as well, but the trend was really about the social cachet of eating the next big thing. Shots of monochromatic food had become top fodder for social media, and several operators took note, taking to the charcoal in droves to get their share. The headlines, social media and word-of-mouth buzz confirmed that Canadians loved charcoal.
Except they didn’t. Not really.
IMI International, a foodservice marketing consultancy, asked 100 people if they would be encouraged to go to a restaurant that featured charcoal-infused food. Only two people answered in the affirmative. By contrast, three in 10 people — and four in 10 adults over 45 — said all-day breakfast would encourage them to visit. Despite Canadians’ overwhelming preference for pancake dinners, however, charcoal ate up all the bandwidth. Going by demand, charcoal was a niche product, but Twitter, Instagram and food media generally had declared it the big thing, anyway. It’s easy to see how the sheer volume of charcoal content could sweep operators up in the free-for-all.
Noting the discrepancy, Sarah Stovold, managing director at IMI, warns operators that it’s a mistake to make decisions based on what they read in magazines and online against what they see in their own business, because hype, quantified, doesn’t necessarily add up to much. “There’s a big difference between editorial content and fact-based content,” says Stovold.
Conventional wisdom also falls short. Phone-addled Millennials and Gen-Zers, well, aren’t — at least they don’t take what’s flashing in front of their eyes as critical gospel. IMI found that 68 per cent of Millennial and Gen Z consumers prefer giving and receiving restaurant recommendations in person, and only 34 per cent of Millennials and Gen-Zers are encouraged to visit a restaurant they found recommended on Instagram. A social media presence shouldn’t be eschewed altogether, but orienting decision making around it could steer a foodservice operation in a direction that has more headlines than genuine adherents. For some, that might be fine; a handful businesses successfully ran with charcoal, and will likely take up the next trend just as well. But for others it could be a mistake. Do you want to expend resources capitalizing on the next big thing? Or a place that stays comparatively low-key, offering menu items and promotions that, while not attention-grabbing, are in quietly high demand?
Over the Hill
Charcoal’s popularity may have been a hangover from the peak social media marketing. It’s been noted in the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Guardian that social media has become a mature market. Facebook reported its first-ever decline in users in 2018, with three million European users leaving the platform in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, first reported by the Observer, which saw 87 million users’ data compromised. In the United States, market research firm eMarketer estimated that Facebook lost 2.8 million users under 25 years old last year, and predicted the trend would accelerate. Facebook is still growing globally, but in developed markets, it may have peaked.
Smaller social media platforms have suffered net losses. Between the second quarter of 2017 and 2018, Twitter lost 1 million monthly users, while Snapchat lost 3 million, according to company filings for both companies. Joseph Evans, a senior research analyst at Enders Analysis, a media research firm, told the Guardian in August that kids’ behaviour is “fickle,” and that Snapchat, despite its youth, is losing favour amongst them. Twitter, Evans noted, may have already peaked, saying that it’s “definitely stalling at best.” Facebook-owned Instagram, which has seen its user total climb month after month, seems to be the lone exception. Nevertheless, another headline, courtesy of tech news website Recode, summed up the new social media landscape: “Social media growth is over in the U.S. — which is its most valuable market.”
Moreover, Stovold continues, it’s gotten harder to be good at social media. A decade ago, people were still figuring out how to best leverage the young platforms, and while it’s constantly evolving, it’s nevertheless become a polished, professional medium. Taking a poorly lit shot of a new dish on the pass won’t cut it. The dish’s appearance and photo both need to meet a high bar for public consumption. Major restaurant and foodservice brands employ social media managers and food stylists, an investment that oft profit-challenged independent operators could probably put to better use. “Unless you’re going to do it well,” says Stovold, “don’t do it at all.” You can’t just make a charcoal-whatever and expect to start counting money; you need to build and orient a media push around it, too. It takes a bigger effort to make a statement in a mature market. It takes a coherent strategy.
This isn’t an alarm, just a call for restraint. Major platforms have hundreds of millions of monthly users, each, and operators should undoubtedly have a presence on social media. It’s a helpful tool for building and maintaining brand identity, engaging customers and promoting new menu items and events. But there’s a difference between having a presence on social media and underwriting a business with it. The former advertises what you’re already doing; the latter demands a strategic shift toward chasing likes and engagement. Unless you’re already set up for it, developing and then shoehorning a product onto your menu for the sake of capitalizing on a social media trend is unlikely to generate the return on investment that simpler, brand-appropriate promotion would, like a fresh, seasonal dish that capitalizes on your brand’s strengths. “There’s a bit of a counterintuitiveness,” says Stovold. “But it’s not really a new behaviour. People have always had their recommendations face-to-face. The world’s not changing as much as Facebook wants you to think.”
As always, it’s a game of finite resources and maximizing the return-on-investment. IMI found the five biggest detractors to repeat visits wasn’t a charcoal-less menu or insufficient engagement with the trend du jour. The biggest detractors were exactly what you’d expect: bad service, bad food, high prices, uncleanliness and noise. Nailing the fundamentals of hospitality goes much, much further toward promoting your business than attempting to leverage novelty.
The effectiveness of in-person recommendations dwarfs those pulled from social media, with 68 per cent of Millennials and Gen-Zers reporting that they prefer their recommendations via word of mouth. Amongst Canadians generally, 34 per cent are encouraged to go to a restaurant from seeing a picture on Instagram, compared to 48 per cent who are encouraged to go to by a friend recommending it. To that end, Stovold has five recommendations: eliminate noise; optimize your first and last points of contact; find out what works, and eliminate what doesn’t;and forego “always on” in favour of “always relevant.” It’s essentially marketing-by-performance.
The first point, eliminating noise, seems obvious but is more difficult than one would think. In the Atlantic, architecture and design critic Kate Wagner notes that restaurant design has shifted toward a literally hard-edged minimalism, supplanting the plush overstuffed seating and carpeted floors that used to be the mark of high-end design. Aesthetic preferences notwithstanding, those old, soft surfaces did more work than just cushion diners; they absorbed the noise made by clattering plates, clinking cutlery and conversations of diners. Wagner goes onto measure how loud various environments are, as well. A coffee shop was 73 decibels; a wine bar at dinner was 80 decibels; a high end food court was 86 decibels; and lastly, a brewpub during happy hour was an earsplitting 90 decibels. By comparison, highway traffic noises typically clocks in at 80 to 90 decibels. Walk around your own operation and ask yourself, could I have a conversation in this place?
Stovold’s second recommendation, to optimize the first and last points of contact with a guest, is more straightforward but no less important. First impressions count, and leaving a positive lasting impression does, too. An unappealing storefront is unlikely to encourage guests to walk in. The same goes for out-of-date or otherwise unattractive websites. And when it’s time for the cheque, ensure the process is efficient, and when it’s time for guests to leave, someone ought to say goodbye. Stovold’s third point regarding touch points is an extension of this approach. Touch points essentially boil down to customer experience. What part of your restaurant is the guest engaging with and reacting to? Optimizing those points is part and parcel of hospitality.
Eliminating what works and what doesn’t — Stovold’s fourth point — is the approach underpinning all of this. In the context of charcoal, it means looking at the data instead of guessing what will work. Gather information, assess it and act — don’t just assume the trend that others have taken up should be imported into your own business. Getting that information doesn’t require an international consulting firm, either (although it probably helps). Even if they don’t know it, Stovold insists that operators have resources. “Every restaurateur can talk to their customers,” she says. “That’s free.”
Free and instantaneous. Feedback from regulars is immediate and valuable, and it can be applied to a new initiative or endeavour at the restaurant. It can be as simple as we’re thinking about doing X. What do you think? The other route, studio-made creative — the kind that requires consultants and directors and money — is often ineffective, says Stovold, with 57 per cent of it destined to fail before the art director puts the finishing touches on it. As a term, “marketing” may seem daunting, but independent operators shouldn’t refrain from starting with a DIY approach. “You’re in more control than you think,” says Stovold.
More Social, Less Media
Think back: in all your interactions with your guests last summer, how many wanted something made with charcoal? And how many wanted good food and good service? Some operations are tailor-made to capitalize on social media trends. Toronto-based iHalo Krunch serves on-trend soft serve in purple yam, matcha and, naturally, charcoal hues, and they’re successful because of it. Operators looking to expand can look at businesses like iHalo as a model, but they should know it might be more niche than the headlines would have them believe. After all, iHalo sports just four main flavours of ice cream, and that’s about it.
A more effective marketing strategy dovetails with making a better restaurant. Guests aren’t just sources of revenue; they’re brand ambassadors. Given the option of an aggressive marketing campaign or getting the fundamentals of hospitality right, operators should choose the latter. Those ambassadors will pass along the good word and, in a way, the restaurant will market itself. While it’s changing like everything else, hospitality is still a word-of-mouth business. The majority people rely on their friends and family more than anything else for their restaurant recommendations. Your marketing effort should start with making them happy, and go from there.