What Writers Can Learn From a Restaurateur About Establishing a Closer Connection to Your Audience

When working with a writer or creative professional to build momentum in engaging an audience, this is the stuff I obsess over:

  1. Focus on the basics. The blocking and tackling that most others skip past looking for the shortcuts. Not the sexy stuff of “what new marketing tool was just launched?!” but increasing the quality of one’s writing and the depth of engagement with their audience. Of doing the research that few others do, developing relationships that matter, and constantly optimizing the processes around these.
  2. Then looking to new ideas that move beyond “best practices” to truly engage your audience in a MEANINGFUL way. In other words not “I will just go on Twitter and share helpful links,” because Twitter is a firehose of helpful links that zoom past us. But instead: taking bold actions that gets people to TRULY stop and TRULY care. That is what I’m interest in.

Here on this blog, I have been tracking the progress a book launch with my client (and friend) with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. (note: she is now celebrating her THIRD week on the New York Times Best Seller list! Yay!) On Facebook, another writer asked what the most effective things that we did were. My response:

“It’s all the unsexy boring stuff: Miranda doing a gap analysis (she didn’t call it this) a year before launch to identify her needs. Refining all of her messaging, setting up channels and getting her READY to engage with people when the time came. Note: this is more about being nimble enough to RESPOND to serendipity, not pretending we are creating virality. Going ALL IN to that crazy giveaway that featured 23 other authors. That was an enormous project, and before/during/after, I love that we did the difficult thing. We didn’t rely on Goodreads ads alone, we tried to create something special by investing ourselves in it. On the publishing side, we met as early as we could with her team at Crown to identify what they wanted to handle, and what they didn’t. In other words: we wanted to find the blue ocean (the sandbox) in which we could play and not get in their way. That team did SO MANY AMAZING things and key was ensuring that there wasn’t overlap in resources. Clearly, I could go on and on in here, and the overall messages are that there wasn’t one simple thing.”

Today I want to talk about a blog post I read that seemed to embody these things in a deep way, and is from a COMPLETELY other industry. This post blew me away on so many levels, which is why I am devoting an entire post to it.

The background: the co-owner of three popular restaurants (named: Next, Alinea, and The Aviary) in Chicago , Nick Kokonas, developed a “ticketing” system whereby you don’t make reservations, but instead purchase a ticket for a specific day and time. You pay up front, usually $200+ per person. Nick shared a long post on the results of their system, and lots of lessons learned in the process. (Hat-tip to Jason Kottke on finding this)

So much of what Nick shares is about establishing a deeper, more meaningful connection with customers, and leveraging that to create a better experience at the restaurants. That means he is taking ownership of the connection between the restaurants and the customer, not relying on marketing tricks, shortcuts, or competing based on price. An example:

“What is critical is having a direct and AUTHENTIC connection with customers. This is better accomplished through social media as people can opt-in to following or ‘liking’ your restaurant – and then you exist passively in their social media stream. This is why for the past 3 years our content for Next has been posted to Facebook and Twitter rather than to our own website. It is a strategy that has resulted in nearly 100,000 aggregate unique followers who are engaged and passionate about what we do.”

The core problems that Nick was trying to solve were to increase efficiency (and thereby, profit), increase high touch customer engagement (that should drive any boutique business), and avoid the pitfalls of a high demand resource (e.g.: scalping.)

Some highlights of what he reported:

On the End Results:

  • “$57,293 in sales in the first hour of the system. $ 358,483 in the first 24-hours. Two days later $563,874 of revenue was in our bank.”
  • “Profits are up 38% from previous average years. No shows of full tables are almost non-existent and while partial no-shows still occur they are only a handful of people per week at most. That allows us to run at a far greater capacity with less food waste and more revenue.”
  • “We have almost zero no-shows every night. Basically, if people buy a ticket to a show they go see the show, even if the deposit is only $20 per person. This allows us to hold a table for them and eliminate any potential wait they may have had with a traditional reservation. Thus we can serve them better. We can also more confidently template the night of service delivering better experiences to every customer while maximizing the potential number of covers and revenue to the restaurant.”
  • “A week before they dine with us we call every customer to thank them for buying a ticket… ask if they have any dietary restrictions or special needs, and generally get a feel for their expectations and whether it is a special occasion. We can, in fact, spend more time (not less) with every single one of our customers because we are only speaking with the customers we know are coming to dine with us. Previously, we answered thousands of calls from people we had to say ‘no’ to. Now we can take far more time to say ‘yes’.”
  • In developing the ticketing system in-house, Nick has been sidestepping other popular third-party services. His reasoning: “As a customer I’d rather just deal directly with the restaurant – I’m then known to the restaurant personally, get better service, and the restaurant and not a third party app receives the benefit of my spending. As a restaurant I can better engage with customers, do not have to pay yet another third-party service, receive 100% of the proceeds, and can better control both my image and sales pricing. The restaurant also should not need to enter information on customers into multiple systems, resulting in increased labor costs for only marginal dollar gains. I mean, selling a table for $ 20 on an app doesn’t get me much but could incur bad will, extra labor, and an unknown customer.”

On the Problems They Were Solving:

  • Since there is such high demand for reservations, most of their incoming calls had to end with saying “no.” As Nick puts it: “Saying ‘no’ to a potential customer is never a good thing.”
  • “Customers felt like they were being lied to. How could you be booked 2 months out on a Thursday? There was no transparency to the system.”
  • “I don’t see the advantage of joining such a network [such as OpenTable and other reservation systems] or the disadvantage of not being included for one simple reason: Google owns search.”
  • “We spent roundly $140,000 per year on payroll simply to answer phones, enter customer information into a reservation system, and attempt to manage a wait list. We also lost over $260,000 per year, on average, on no shows alone… with most of those being partial no-shows – so called “Short-Sat Tables.”

    What is particularly intriguing to me is the human/emotional element of how Nick describes this problem: “A party of 4 that books not knowing who they’ll be bringing along… then brings no other couple is just as bad for a restaurant as a party of 2 that does not show up at all. That customer doesn’t feel ‘guilty’ because they showed up. But they don’t realize that we held a table of four instead of a table of 2… and that we can’t simply call one of the 100 people on the waitlist with 10 minutes notice and expect them to show up.”

  • On addressing that “the customer is not always right,” when you are talking about small business economics, Nick from the comments section: “The very core of doing non-refundable, full entry (meaning you pay for everything in advance) tickets is to prevent no shows and people who make reservations well in advance only to cancel them a few days or even weeks ahead. While a person cannot plan for every contingency nor can a restaurant or any business. If we were a sporting event, concert, or opera this would be a non-issue because the normative behavior of both parties is the knowledge that the show goes on regardless. Certainly I’ve had it happen that I owned tickets that went unused. It stinks, but it was my own issue (note: not fault) that caused the absence… It should be a two way street for any business, not just restaurants.”
  • On worrying about abuse of the system, Nick in the comments section: “I agree that I’d like to see a way, automatically, to swap tickets to a similarly priced date/time more than a month out. That’s something that makes sense and costs nothing to the restaurant or the patron. The only issue is if people continually do that (holding, as it were, a table). Concierges at hotels, scalpers, and such could abuse it — and we’re trying to figure out the best way to implement a simple system while limiting its abuse.”
  • On too many people wanting perks as “regulars,” Nick in the comments section: “We track the guest visits and details of their visit for every person eating at Alinea, Next and the Aviary. We get nightly manager reports as well. It becomes very easy to identify regulars for us… but very difficult to tell someone they are *not* a regular. We have patrons that have been to Alinea 50-60 times… Next 35-45… Aviary weekly. Then we have someone that’s been in to our places 3 times in 4 years and feel like they should be able to call ownership to get a table on 2 days notice. It’s a very tricky situation!”

On the Challenges of Developing a Ticketing System:

  • “When I said, “We should just sell tickets,” it was mostly laughed off completely. The attitude was – that’s not fine dining, that’s not hospitality, that’s not soigné.”
  • “The current batch of ‘tickets for restaurants’ apps attempt to solve only the customer-access-to-busy-venues issue. That’s important to keep in mind as it does little to nothing for the restaurants themselves and it feels ‘off’ to the customers. And the way to get tickets right for restaurants and patrons has as much to do with human psychology as it does with economic practice.”
  • “Paying for access alone is not because the discretionary dollar does nothing to improve the overall guest experience, and people know that intuitively.”
  • From the comments section on the post, addressing the issue lack of options for “solo diners” with the ticketing system: “We still take solo diners who email a request in and are flexible. But having a solo diner in at 7 PM costs the restaurant simply too much opportunity cost over the course of a year. We lose money serving a solo diner during peek times… an actual loss. But at 9 PM weeknights it’s usually not an issue. I realize that sounds harsh but it’s the truth that small restaurants do not want to admit.”

Why This Matters To You, A Writer or Other Creative Professional

If you are a writer or creative professional, one way to look at your professional life is as a boutique business. No, this does not describe all authors, and does not even require that you have any desire to manage a business. I know, you want to WRITE, not be burdened with running a multi-faceted business operation.

But what I love about the ethos that Nick puts forth, and the problems that he is trying to solve for is to best serve his core audience. In other words: INCREASE THE QUALITY of the experience to those who he reaches.

For a writer or creative professional, the most direct connection that you have to readers and the people who connect you to them is likely the best route for you. This does not mean that ONE publishing path is better than another, it means that as you make thousands of decisions on the road to publication, that you want to always be judging what gives you that closer connection, and what simply puts clever stuff in the way.

I see so many writers obsessed with “spreading the word” about their books, and pursuing strategies that potentially reach more people, but in ways that aren’t particularly meaningful. And yet, we hear again and again that “the only marketing that works is word of mouth marketing.” While that is not a steadfast rule, it does encourage what I feel is more compelling: the value of serving your core audience better. Not only does it create a better experience for them, but it ENCOURAGES them to tell others.

Is the restaurant-to-author example perfect? Nope! But it did jump out to me as an intriguing and bold way to humanize a difficult problem, and create wonderful experiences and relationships int he process.