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Using Social Media To Make Some Real Cheddar
Toronto's restaurants are using social media in inventive ways to further their brands.

If Toronto is experiencing a culinary boom–and it most certainly is–social media is a big part of the reason why. From Nancy’s Cheese’sTwitter account, that lets customers know how many baguettes are left, to the excited retweeting by Lou Dawg’s, the chatter of social media has become central to the restaurant business’s changing approach to marketing and customer service.

But if maintaining a Facebook account is now the norm, a few restaurants are also pushing the envelope by using social media to develop new business models. Pop up shop La Carnita, for instance, relies on the web’s capacity for instantaneous broadcast to tell customers when and where they can get their hands on their “limited” tacos. Perhaps more interesting, some establishments, like new spot Cheesewerks, are using their online communities to generate some real cheddar (money!).

Located in an architecturally significant condo building on Bathurst south of King Street, Cheesewerks, started by Kevin Durkee and Tom Douangmixay, specializes in grilled-cheese sandwiches. Durkee, whose mother was in the food service biz for over twenty years, saw the restaurant as a way to continue that legacy and build what he calls a ‘destiny’ for him, Douangmixay and their daughter. Central to his vision was and is the use of Facebook and Twitter.

“I knew that so much of a brand’s media budget was going to traditional media like radio and TV,” Durkee says. “So we made a conscious decision to flip it, and spent 80 to 90 per cent of our marketing budget on social media and then just pulse with mainstream media.”

The result is a constantly updating Facebook and Twitter feed filled with product shots, customer feedback, announcements and contests. But that same enthusiasm began long before the restaurant actually started serving any food. “We had 750 likes on Facebook before we opened,” says Durkee, (that is, by the way, a number significantly higher than many established independent restaurants).

Durkee used social media to educate customers about the restaurant’s progress and, which was helped by a couple of preliminary activities like Cheesewerk’s participation in the Distillery’s Christmas market. They also did test kitchens, where a small number of Facebook fans were invited to sample the upcoming menu. But the aim in cultivating a community was also to push an innovative idea called the Board Member program, whichtook Kickstarter‘s concept and applied it to restaurants.

“It was a crowdfunding system that we set up,” says Durkee. “Friends and family asked how can we get involved, what can we do? So the Board Member program began as a gourmet gift card.”

The idea is this: customers who like and believe in Cheesewerks can contribute to the restaurant in amounts ranging from $250 to $1000. They then spend that money over the course of three years and get perks like having their meals served on their own engraved cheese board or getting discounts on the various cheeses the restaurant also sells. It’s a way for customers to both be part of the restaurant and feel special, too.

On first glance, it simply sounds like a charming, if possibly flippant idea, until you consider this remarkable fact: Cheesewerks raised over half of its initial operating capital from its supporters and customers before it even opened its doors. By any measure that is an impressive commitment from a community. But it’s also intriguing to think about how social media may shift from not just being a marketing tool, but a revenue-generating one as well.

After all, the Board Member program would have been a lot more difficult to pull off and maintain without the virtual community that social media allows. While many restaurants develop regulars, especially in their own neighbourhoods, the idea of crowdfunding is both novel and interesting, especially given the steep costs and the difficult-to-predict market that make the restaurant business so volatile.

“It’s been a blessing,” Durkee says of social media, “because the cash came in, advocates came in and they made a decision to go out and talk to their friends and their networks. It allowed us to continue to market and build that market.”

That approach will continue, especially given Cheesewerk’s commitment to a series of events, such as one for the Golden Globes this past weekend, and an ongoing “Meet the Maker” series that will bring cheese, beer and wine makers into the restaurant. It’s reflective of an approach that uses the web and social media to innovate, and also sees a seemingly cheesy idea turn into a legitimate new business model.

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