by Lacey Griebeler, Chef Magazine

This article is the expanded version of "All atwitter" (page 7) in the March/April 2010 issue of Chef Magazine.

Does Twitter have you in a tizzy? Are you frustrated by Facebook? Don't fret! You can easily build a presence online in about 15 minutes a day, according to social media expert Amanda Vega of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Amanda Vega Consulting, and author of the do-it-yourself public relations book PR in a Jar (2008, Pink Porsche Productions).

Vega has experience with businesses of all sizes, as her company has consulted for everything from large corporations and ad agencies to mom-and-pop retailers and independent restaurants. Here, Vega explains to Chef Magazine why social media is important for a restaurant, and she shares some quick tips for success online.

Chef Magazine: What is the top reason why restaurant operators and chefs should invest time and energy in social media?
Vega: Social media is about one thing: connecting with people. So instead of thinking of social participation as a way to gain "advertising" or to sell something, think of it as a way to connect with your customers and potential customers while both building [and] extending your brand and getting some search engine and potential press love at the same time. Chefs are sort of the "prize" in a restaurant--especially to a high-end consumer or a zealot. That's why the "chef's table" is so desired. People gain a whole knew passion for a restaurant if they see the human behind the art. Restaurants need to connect, as people, with other people. It's great marketing, great market research--if your lamb sucks, you'll find out on the Web--and great form. It's all about connecting.

Chef Magazine: What are some of the ways a restaurant can build business by utilizing social media?
Vega: Twitter is pretty useful to exchange pleasantries and build a brand. Remember: Chatter about all things, not just your restaurant. A fan page on Facebook doesn't usually bring too much new business, but it is an excellent way to keep in touch with your fans, who then tell their friends and create new fans. Give specials only online. That drives communication. We have a restaurant client, The Market Bistro in Phoenix, Ariz., who uses social media in great ways. He will chat with followers on Twitter, and for example, he has seen a tweet from a follower saying how hungry he was and how he was too busy to stop and eat. The owner, Jim, noticing where the follower was, surprised him by dropping off sandwiches for him and all of his staff. Way to build customer loyalty and shine with new potential customers.

Chef Magazine: How can a chef create and maintain a public image using digital tools like blogging, Facebook and Twitter?
Vega: Again, I use Market Bistro as an example. The owner has connected with people about all things he is interested in, which drives his brand. People want to connect with people, not brands. So the owner chats on Twitter and Facebook about all interesting things that people connect on: cars, family, kids, sports and finally food. The followers resonate with him because he's never selling them anything--and that's the key. You would never enter a party and walk up to someone and say, "Buy this, buy this," so don't do it online. You can build a solid public image by chatting about the things that represent the brand--which are usually the passions of the people inside the brand.

Chef Magazine: Many of our readers are independent operators without a corporate arm to do the promoting for them. With that in mind, how can an independent restaurant operator create a social media plan that they can stick to?
Vega: You have to be mindful of your time. I say the first and easiest things are to set up Twitter and chat three to five times a day for about 15 minutes. That's all it takes. The Facebook page should be created alongside, collecting info from your patrons in some way so they can join. Independents have waitstaff--incentivize waitstaff to tweet, etc., while there's downtime, and/or encourage them ... to be active and positive in social media.

Chef Magazine: What are some tactics a chef can use to stand out in all the social media hum?
Vega: He needs to have some interest other than himself. Showing your personality is what makes you stand out.

Chef Magazine: Anything else you'd like to add?
Vega: The most important thing is that you think of social media as that: social. Don't get bogged down in tools and time. Just start talking as you would at a party. People will naturally find out what you're selling [or] doing.
The second annual Gourmet & Grapes fine food and wine event at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in Kiawah Island, S.C., will raise money for the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. The event, which takes place April 30 to May 2, will be headlined by chef Patrick O'Connell of The Inn at Little Washington (pictured in his restaurant, below), Washington, Va., and also features chef Todd Gray of Washington, D.C.'s Equinox restaurant, Italian winemaker Renato Spanu and some of the world's best winemakers and Charleston, S.C.'s top chefs.

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