J.J. Richert already knows how to sear a mean steak, fillet a salmon and fill the dining room at his Kenmore restaurant.
Recently, he took aim at reinventing one of the basics of the restaurant dining experience: the menu.
At Torches on Kenmore Avenue in Kenmore, diners are presented with an iPad instead of the familiar slim, bound volume of pages. When servers greet a table, they scroll through a slideshow, with big color photographs of the evening’s specials along with the usual details of ingredients, preparation and pricing.
The iPad has “the entire menu on it, with pictures and descriptions of the dishes,” said Richert. “The restaurant is a wireless hot spot. You can go online to like us on Facebook, make a reservation on Open-Table or watch Nickel City Chef videos.”
From religiously posting their nightly specials on social media sites and taking part in online conversations, to using off-the-shelf technology to create an interactive digital menu, some local chef-owners are employing new tools to succeed at one of the world’s oldest professions.
When Steve Gedra and his wife, Ellen, took over Bistro Europa on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, one of the new owners’ first tasks was getting the word out that the place had changed significantly.
But they had just opened their first restaurant, on a shoestring budget – where would they find the money for advertising?
Steve Gedra took to his cellphone. Already a practiced user of Facebook, which he used mainly to keep in touch with his friends, the chef started using it to cultivate his customer list.
“We can’t really advertise,” Gedra said. “But we wanted people to know what was going on with the transformation of this place. So I started hitting it really hard, and this was before we had a website. I’d be on my phone typing the specials into the status box. It all started from there.”
Since opening about two years ago, Gedra has taken time every night before dinner service to post the details of the most creative dishes available at his restaurant. He does it at about 4:30 p.m., right around the time that many diners are making plans for their evening meal, and he includes a link to Bistro Europa’s website.
“Putting up the specials helps a lot,” Gedra said. “I can track the referrals from my website, where the traffic’s coming from, and Facebook blows everything else away, big time.”
His restaurant’s Facebook page has almost 3,000 friends. “When I put the specials up, they’ll click and take a look,” he said. “I average 250 [website] hits a day, and I’d say 200 of those are from Facebook.”
A website is more complicated to set up than a Facebook page, he acknowledged. But it’s not hard to set one up using a blog template such as Wordpress, and a website is under the restaurant owner’s full control.
Gedra said he usually invests about a half-hour a day on business-related Facebooking and website updating. Color photographs, typically taken with the chef’s iPhone, go up occasionally. That makes it easy for hungry people to share their enthusiasm when they spot rare dishes such as Shanghainese soup dumplings or braised pig’s trotter on a bed of radish greens and polenta.
“I used to take a lot of pictures, and people would say, ‘I saw that picture, and I had to come down here,’ ” Gedra said. Now, those are outnumbered by plate pictures shared by his customers, whose zeal sometimes makes it seem like they’ve decided to take on the job of marketing the place themselves.
Photographs sell food, and digital technologies have made using them easier than ever. That’s why J.J. Richert takes the time to have veteran busboy Ken Weiglein shoot pictures of the evening specials, using an iPad’s camera.
The photos are uploaded to a repurposed computer set up as a wireless hot spot. The six iPads are hung on the dining room walls on magnetic brackets that also serve as charging stations, Richert said. While on the wall, pictures from the menu slideshow glide by, giving customers glimpses of possible dinners.
“It’s pretty slick,” said Richert. He invested about $6,000 in the system, with technical help from John Gardner of Sight and Sound by Design in Williamsville.
The system also helps highlight the care Richert takes in procuring ingredients, he said.
“In the summer months, I go to the farmers’ market twice a week,” he said. “I can take pictures with my iPhone at the market of this great produce and local stuff I’m buying. We’ve been dealing with these great steaks from Pat LaFreida, and when I’m doing my butchering and cutting 30 steaks for the night, perfectly marbled, I can take a picture of them and include it in the presentation.”
How much does it help? Answers will be clearer in the long run, but “I’ve noticed from a business perspective it’s increased my dessert sales and espresso sales,” Richert said. “I have a nice little picture of the espresso cup with a little cookie and a lemon twist. That’s a point of sale.”