Social Media and the Indian Food Industry

image1The more I eat outside in order to write about it, the more I realize that while the food industry in India is re-inventing itself in the best way possible, it is sadly lagging a decade behind when it comes to social media.

I’m an ardent participant in everything that is social media. It’s a hobby that I enjoy like someone would listen to music or watch a film (both of which I also do). Social media is an excellent source of information, but what most people fail to realize is that it is also the easiest medium to give out information. How important that information is most of the time, is debatable. What information? It can be anything from a food blogger tweeting their newest post to an entrepreneur telling their friends on Facebook about the new home based baking business they’ve started to marketing the latest menu additions of your restaurant.

While most people are available on social media and would have a Twitter handle or a Facebook page or an Instagram profile, they lack the commitment to carry through with them. The very tools that can bring the seller closer to their customer aren’t being used to their full potential. Now, I’ve tried talking to restaurant owners and the likes about why is this so and have received answers like “I don’t have the time” or “I’m looking into how to go about it” or “I’m waiting for professional photos of our product to come before we start” and excuses that to me make no sense whatsoever.

Social Media is child’s play. It really is. Handling it in the right manner might need some brains and patience, but it’s nothing that can’t be done on the go and if there’s one thing I’ll promise it’s that social media is not at all time consuming.

Imagine you’ve started a new business, your first restaurant, and you obviously want to create a buzz. Let’s also assume, keeping in mind that more and more first timers are getting into the food industry with the whole “startup” craze, no one knows about you, yet. What do you do? First you ask your near and dear ones to like your Facebook page and then maybe get on other mediums and explore them a little. You ask your friends to spread the word and if you’ve got something unique, hope and pray that one of the online or print magazines places you as the newest hot thing in town. You can see that happen with food-trucks right now. It’s a trend that has caught on rapidly and starting a food-truck gets you a feature in blogs, magazines, and newspaper supplements automatically. Once you are operating, the food industry is such that a judgment will be passed on you within the first few months and you become successful or maybe not but with everything happening around you, social media takes a back seat. Time moves on and eventually the novelty value of your restaurant starts to wear off. You’ve got a few regulars, you might even have an impressive following, but by now everyone else is already looking for the next new thing. If you don’t have a strong online presence, one that you are working on it regularly, people start to forget you. It’s a simple case of “out of sight, out of mind” and that’s the first step towards perpetual downfall.

The food industry is a lot like the fashion industry; there’s something IN every season which means something else is on its way OUT. If you don’t make the most of what you have when you’re in vogue, no one is going to cry when you slip off the ramp and fade away into oblivion.

This is not to say the restaurant industry in India is completely out of the social media scene. There are some restaurant owners and chefs especially who have the right idea about social media and use it brilliantly, but most are only ready to wet their feet in a sea full of potential.

Take the new trend of calling food bloggers over for tastings in the hope that these people will get the word out and give rave reviews in exchange of free food. Mind you, this is a great technique and has been quite successful especially since there aren’t any rules to such practices, so in the end a restaurant is almost guaranteed higher ratings on food Apps and multiple blog reviews at the same time. But, while the word is getting out, unless you’re not on social media on your own, all the promotion will eventually go to waste. I’ve been to a few tastings or even tried to review restaurants on my own accord and then have found it hard to “mention” or “find” them easily online. As a result, I can’t link back to them my reviews and that means others will also find it hard to discover them. Eventually, these bloggers will move on, they will go on and feature someone else and if you haven’t capitalized on their promotions and built a strong follower base then you’ve lost the game before it even started.

Social Media when done right is free marketing and advertising. You don’t need anything except some time for it, so don’t ignore it. What I feel makes people scared of it is the equal amount of negativity that it can lead to. Restaurants have closed (or changed names) based on poor PR after someone complained online about the place. Readers are more critical about what the restaurants say rather than the reviewers. But, these instances are few and far between. With a little tact every situation can be handled properly and without creating a negative vibe and scene.

cropped-18300850751_d53ce15c59_o.jpgSo, here are some recommendations from me on how you, in the food industry, can make a difference for yourself and for your customer by being more active  and creative on social media;

Be regular. You DON’T need to take out any special time to “do social media”. Take photos whenever you can and upload them when you’re free. You can tweet when you’re in the car or post on Facebook when you’re at the airport waiting for your flight. If nothing else, Instagram a photo whilst you sit and contemplate about life on the pot in the morning. It’s that easy.

Follow back, always follow back your “fans”. No one expects you to follow everyone, but don’t just become a “celebrity” because you and/or your restaurant is doing good. A customer or an individual is more likely to relate to you if there is some interaction. It might seem shallow but that’s the truth. People like when “famous” people are grounded and approachable.

Photos of the work place are a huge pull. We don’t want you disclosing any trade secrets but sharing photos of food you make or experiment with, your ingredients, the people who work with and for you is a great way to tell the story behind the final product. Advertising you restaurant is perfectly fine but this is a much subtle way of doing that. Take your customers on a journey with you. Be a teacher a story-teller; use your passion to educate.

I’ve seen many a food trucks get inspired by the movie Chef, but the one thing they didn’t take from it was the importance of social media. You need to build up a following and it’s not just on Facebook. Twitter, Vine, Pinterest, YouTube, Flipgram, and Instagram give you a more international appeal. I hardly see some of the local food trucks mention their location on a daily basis (even if they park at the same place) across all platforms. If nothing else stick to the top three or four social media sites, but be consistent. Sharing random photos of what’s happening around you is another interactive way to entice the public. Ask your loyal customers to pose or just feature your food that’s made fresh. Recently, I saw a new food truck to be launched start creating a buzz from the moment the truck was being fitted. They had photos of the truck in the workshop, which I thought was the right way to go. They did lose track a little afterwards but still managed to create a buzz before their launch. All this while there is another truck that has now been running for close to three weeks and there is yet to be a single tweet from them. I won’t lie; the fact that I’ve featured this very truck on my blog and they themselves have very little information about themselves on the net means more blog hits for me.

You need to interact with people. Don’t be a snob. Take their feedback, build a rapport with them. Get talking to them so that the next time you add new items to the menu you don’t have a problem sending them a message and inviting them for their “valuable feedback”. You may or may not use butter in your preparations, but don’t be scared to use some on the people that pay to eat why you present.

Location, opening times, specials all should be promoted regularly. That’s your business and you need to keep you customer informed at all times. Change in menus and anything different can and should be updated regularly if not on your website then through social media.

Be aware of what’s being written about you no matter positive or negative and take action based on that. If you’re active on social media, you’ll know what the latest trends are, what people are talking about, and most importantly what they think about you.

Take part in food chats which are such a huge way to gain more followers. You don’t always have to talk business, participate as a food lover, someone who being in the industry can teach the others from their expertise and experience, and if not that, just participate for fun.

An important point to mention is that don’t confuse your social media activities with customer service. You might be active thanking, apologizing, taking orders and giving updates on particular orders via social media, but that is not exactly interacting with the entire customer base. It’s when you post information that benefits the entire group, that is when you are taking charge. Customer service via social media is fine and it even shows that you are confident about your product, but don’t just leave your interactions to that.

When on social media, and especially Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the ease of ReTweeting and RePosting numerous food based articles is tempting. It’s okay to do that as it comes under the whole “educating the customer” scenario, but don’t just be a link sharer. I recently visited the page of a well known chef whose Twitter page was simply links to their Instagram photos. Another young and enthusiastic newbie in the food outlet business was posting miscellaneous food links from around the world with next to no interaction based on them. If you post something, make it worth and ask your followers to comment with their thoughts based on the article.

Before, I go any further, one small reminder that when you are on multiple social media applications, make it a point to link up everything. Your “Bio”on all should inform, if not have a link, about all the other social media outlets you are featured on. This helps with inter-connectivity as for example there is always a good chance that if you have a Twitter fan, he/she will also follow you in Instagram if they are active on that.

Social media is just not about restaurant and food trucks but chefs as well. It can be a great place for Chefs to showcase themselves and their art because many a times they are the unsung heroes of what we eat and like. We already have a huge influx of Generation Y chefs (in their 20s and 30s) doing great and while some have taken to social media with gusto others are hardly to be found and if they have profiles they rarely update those. It’s coming back to what I said before; who wouldn’t love to see behind the scenes action that goes on in the kitchen which only chefs are privy to or maybe know what inspires them to create their masterpieces. Just recently I started following the three judges of Masterchef Australia and it is amazing how they are documenting their culinary journeys (not just related to the show) on Instagram.

Another important aspect of social media is that while it can be used as a professional tool, what people enjoy more is to see you in your natural element. Don’t just take professional photos all the time. Use your camera phone, don’t follow a fixed order, be spontaneous and don’t just stick to food all the time.

I sure do hope to see the food industry in India become a lot more tech savvy than it is at present. We have to be since the world knows us as the land of techies. Don’t go out of your way for social media, but do put in some effort to help connect with the people. And, if you do outsource your social media needs, don’t forget completely about it. You can and should be an integral part of what goes out and make it seem genuine and personal because the one thing anyone and everyone dislikes, and can see through, is when others do the job they expect you to do.

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