While most restaurateurs or managers I speak to have come to the somewhat obvious conclusion that if social media provides them with another method to connect with customers and increase sales then it would be irresponsible not to at least find out what it’s all about. In fact, with competition for discretionary spending remaining at a critical level it would seem to be ridiculous not to avail yourself of these networking tools, if only at a rudimentary (read free) level. It would be in sports fan parlance a no-brainer. But then there are those among us that feel that perhaps these tools lack dignity, that they are only for children and those desperate to speak to any one – the IT equivalent of wearing a sandwich sign. This attitude is especially prevalent among the most elite establishments, those with a month wait for reservations and mantle full of James Beard awards. As in “Why soil our hands with this common chatter, we rarely answer the phone”.

Well, I’m glad you asked that question.

First of all – the idea that you are successful enough is deadly in itself. I don’t mean that you must beat the bushes for every last dollar or make monetary concerns trump all else – but, that attitude can lead to elitism and complacency. I can offer anecdotal evidence for this, but I don’t want to hold any past employers up to ridicule. The fact is that all great restaurants close eventually – and it is not always from natural causes. It can sometimes be a viral infection for instance.

Word of mouth communication used to mean somebody told somebody that told you a place was good, or bad or indifferent. Now, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and review sites like Yelp that string has turned into a matrtix that connects everyone in the restaurant going population. Between Re-Tweets and  GPS specific rating services bad reviews of your establishment can go out to literally tens of thousands of people before you even know about it. A few key people start saying you’re not what you used to be and perception has a sneaky way of turning into reality. Better to be at least a part of the conversation, at least you know what people are saying about you.

And there was the very talented, but somewhat smug GM that told me recently, somewhat patronizingly, that his restaurant operated at 95% capacity. I then explained to him (trying to avoid the same tone) that using social media tools would enable him to immediately communicate to thousands of his patrons that might love to take a cancellation on a moment’s notice. I also remembered the old saying – if you don’t constantly try for 100% your not going to stay at 95% (and that was from my first boss at Howard Johnson’s.)

Social Networking tools are not just another form of advertising – in fact they have a lot more to do with the weather report or a radio talk show. They are about communicating, about actually exchanging something of value. You wouldn’t listen to a radio show if it was only advertising – it’s the entertainment, or socially engaging content that maintains your attention. It is a relatively simple trade. It’s the same with Facebook – and on some level if you’re not there your clientèle is, rightfully, going to infer, that you’re not interested in them.

I also hear the “I just paid thousands of dollars for my Flash website that includes the entire Tony Bennett songbook, that’s engagement enough”. Wrong. Wrong on almost too many levels to count. First of all – people listen to their radio or IPod to hear Tone Bennettt – when they go to your website they want to see the menu, or find out how to get there – they don’t want to hear music. Oh – and they also don’t want to wait for it to load. Your million dollar website was created as a reflection of what you think your restaurant should look like online – which makes as much sense as having your menu sung to each table by a barbershop quartet. It’s all about communicating. Efficiently, quickly – which does not mean that you can’t be stylish or witty – but, the point is, you’re going to entertain them at the restaurant – not in their family room or office. On the other hand Facebook, or even Twitter, can provide concise, targeted communications that people receive in real time, directing visitors to the exact information they need.

Feeding people is, on any level, a personal act. It involves relating to a customer on an entirely different level than virtually any other retail business. Being too successful for social networking is like being too successful to speak with your customers – and is guaranteed to have the same results.