For many local food businesses, the latest word in marketing is 140 characters long
At 7:02 on a Friday morning, Earl Handy, the owner of old-school Burlington diner Handy’s Lunch , posts the day’s specials. The soups are meatball-studded Italian Wedding and a hearty broccoli-and-cheese blend. The sandwich du jour, called a Sea Dog, comes with fries and a Coke for $7.90.
Handy, 35, isn’t scrawling on a blackboard. Instead, he’s flipped his laptop, typed a 140-character message and hit “send”: “today’s soups are broc&cheese and italian wedding special is a Sea Dog w/fries &coke $7.90 code word is ‘snooki.’” The specials go to nearly 100 “followers.”
A self-proclaimed technophobe, Handy says that “15 years ago I bought a fax machine, and I used to send the daily specials to 20 places. I remember sitting in front of the fax machine for half an hour. You’d hear that god-awful screeching noise, hit ‘send’ and wait five minutes for the thing to slide through. Now it’s just point, click, done.”
And the gimmick seems to be good for business. “Today was actually one of the busiest days we’ve had in a long time, and it’s January!” says Handy, a Twitter newbie. “I didn’t believe [Twitter] could work so fast.” He says his tiny eatery, where even two-time visitors are treated like regulars, saw about 15 new faces in the course of a single week.
Handy is just one of numerous Vermont restaurant owners using the “microblogging” service to promote good eats. At 8:01 a.m., Rob Smart, one of the business partners at Sugarsnap  on Riverside Avenue, logs on to tout the eatery’s “freshly baked scones & freshly brewed coffee.” Three hours later, Jodi Whalen of August First  chimes in: “Butternut Squash Bisque, Jalapeno Potato Cheddar. Panini: turkey, provolone, tomato, herb mayo.” The message zips out to the bakery’s 506 followers and to any other Twitter users who receive posts about happenings in Burlington, which are tagged with the code #btv.
Twitter was launched publicly in August 2006, but it wasn’t until mid-2009 that local eateries got on board en masse. From casual spots such as Shelburne Road’s surf-themed The Spot  to bastions of fine dining like New Haven’s French eatery Tourterelle , restaurants are turning into mini media outlets. Chefs and restaurateurs find value in Twitter as a way to share their menus, discuss the weather and even seek qualified staffers. Some even break news: After a week of rumors, Tourterelle tweeted that Long Trail  was officially buying Otter Creek  the day before it appeared in local newspapers.
For staffers who take it seriously, this can mean organizing workflow around Twitter. At Sugarsnap, says Smart, tweeting early in the day is crucial, even though that’s rush time in the kitchen. “We have daily specials and a daily soup, and if [customers] find out too late in the morning, we may have missed the opportunity to get someone to Sugarsnap for lunch,” he says. “It’s critical that you meet [patrons’] needs, not just your own schedule.”
Lara Dickson, a former chef who now owns a Colchester PR and web-design business called Deep Dish Creative , has plenty of tips for kitchenistas who want to dabble in social media marketing — she’s even written an e-book on the subject. It’s important to use the services wisely, she posits, because “all this stuff is free, but your time is not.”
How can a busy cook make good use of the limited moments away from her pots and pans? By focusing on building an online community of potential customers, says Dickson. On Twitter, unlike on Facebook, you don’t need to be “friends” with somebody to “follow” their posts. It’s a tool that gives users nearly unlimited opportunities to attract strangers with common tastes. “I tell my restaurant clients to follow chambers [of commerce], food organizations, localvore farmers, wineries,” Dickson says. “If you follow them, they’re going to follow you back.”
Another suggestion? Don’t just talk about what’s going on at your own stove. Dickson holds that, “Ideally, you should be doing one of your own tweets to about 12 retweets.”
A retweet is the Twitter equivalent of the received email you forward to everybody in your own address book — only generally more succinct. When Earl Handy tweeted that he was close to reaching 100 followers after a mere week using Twitter, his fans, including a handful of competing restaurants, retweeted the message to pass it along. Within a couple hours, Handy’s was over the edge.
Restaurateurs aren’t the only foodies benefiting from the ability to send out short and sweet messages to a target audience. Although they’re using the service with various degrees of success — some haven’t tweeted for months — more than a hundred Vermont chefs, brewers, dairy farmers and cheesemakers have signed up. Lindsay Harris of The Family Cow  in Hinesburg uses her feed to share information about the health benefits of raw milk. Mark Bove  usually promotes the lasagna and meatballs he sells to stores, but today he’s pondering shipping bottles of spaghetti sauce to Haiti. Magic Hat Brewing  offers weird bits of wit and wisdom.
While mom-and-pop places often shoot from the hip on Twitter, offering candid observations from their owners, some bigger companies are very strategic about their brands’ social media positioning. Take The Essex , which has seen numerous changes over the past year: The property has a new moniker and a sparkling spa and is being branded as “Vermont’s Culinary Resort.” Last May, in an effort to spread the word, the upscale biz hired Collin Parker , who writes bits on pop culture for Denver’s Examiner.com, to do its PR. Besides sending out press releases, Essex Junction-based Parker uses Facebook  and Twitter to reach young people and other locals who might be interested in swinging by for a business lunch, getting a facial or learning to make one-pot meals at one of the inn’s cooking classes. “It’s an additional tool, and it’s opening up new marketing segments to us,” says Parker.
The EatingWell  media group, located in Charlotte, has one of the most trafficked food websites in the world. “It’s in the top 20 … Bigger than Cooking Light and Bon Appetit,” boasts editorial director Lisa Gosselin. She believes part of the credit belongs to social media. “The Washington Post did something about one of our books because [a staffer] saw something on Twitter,” she notes.
With nearly 3400 Twitter followers — and about 2900 Facebook fans  — EatingWell has plenty of people clued in to every update. Some tweets and Facebook updates signal new blog posts on topics such as whether the benefits of booze outweigh the bad stuff; in others, Gosselin shares a favorite recipe, such as the one for Hunter’s Chicken Stew she made last Friday.
It’s no surprise that a media company is keeping up on the latest tools. But how are farmers and chefs — whose jobs don’t typically require loads of tech savvy — getting their “feeds” out there?
Some hear about Twitter from their PR firms. Nicole Ravlin , a partner in Burlington’s PMG Public Relations, is the one who got Mark “Sauceboy” Bove to create a Twitter feed and a fan page for his family’s famous restaurant. “There’s a very vibrant community on Twitter [in this area],” she explains. “Vermonters really love to talk about food.” Ravlin believes that when customers can have conversations — even virtual ones — with the people who run local businesses, “they feel more in touch with the brand and more committed to the brand.”
Though she’s a committed techie, Ravlin cautions people new to web-based marketing to ease in slowly. “Try out one site first and get your arms around it,” she suggests. Also, business owners should make sure their feed is “authentic” and has personality. “It varies by brand,” Ravlin says. “But I think that the more whimsical you can be, the more entertained people are.”
Earl Handy has no trouble being whimsical. Last Friday, he used a term from the hit reality TV show “Jersey Shore” as a “code word.” Anybody who uttered the term “snooki” in the restaurant got free cookies.
Nobody is as surprised at how quickly Handy has taken to tweeting than Handy himself. “I’m only 35, but the Internet wasn’t really part of our society when I was in college,” he says. “It was barely there. Cellphones were the size of toasters.”
Handy says it was his younger staffers, along with a couple of Twitter-savvy diners, who urged him to move into the 21st century. “They’re like, ‘You’re so old. Get with the times,’” he recalls with a chuckle.
With the economy still in tough shape, Handy — who inherited the diner from his late father — says discovering Twitter has renewed his hope that the family restaurant will last long enough to celebrate its 100th birthday, the year he turns 70. He notes with a sigh: “Our business has always been based on word of mouth — it was the best-kept secret in Burlington — but I don’t want to be a secret anymore.”
What would his dad think of his newfangled marketing tactics? “I know my father would be looking at me going, ‘What are you doing?’” Handy says. “But I think he would also say, ‘Good job.’ I'm getting people to know about our restaurant without spending a thing.’