With no dine-in service and most everyone staying at home as much as possible, staying in touch with customers has never been more important for restaurants.
Those who have active social media presences had an advantage on the competition when the shutdown started, and I fully expect the pandemic will change not only how many restaurants use the platforms, but how they use them.
David Skalicky, the front-of-house manager at Welch's Ale House, 1915 S. Calhoun St., has taken advantage of the slowdown – if there is any way for a business to actually do that – to expand on his role as the, as he calls it, “resident filmmaker” and produced more than 50 video “Quarantine Diaries,” one each day since March 17.
The videos are not soliciting any dishes or the restaurant's carryout menu. They are just humorous little snippets.
Skalicky, who is well known in the theater community, makes the videos and co-stars in them with Josef Zimmerman, Welch's bar manager, and co-worker Ian Anderson, who has a background in sketch comedy.
The topics are pretty random, to say the least, but so is life right now during the stay-at-home order.
On “Day 7,” for example, a desperate Skalicky opens his front door to let his two dogs go free because he can't afford them while he is not working and they'd be better off on their own. Of course, the good pups don't leave and he happily gets face licks from them by the end.
My personal favorite was “Day 30,” in which Skalicky – while sitting on the toilet – is grilled on women's rights by a tiny antique statue of a woman wearing pre-1920s swimwear on a shelf nearby.
“We've always been in the business of letting people know that no matter what's going on in their lives, that it's going to be OK – even if it's just an hour out of your day, over a beer and a burger, take a load off and get out of your head, things are going to be OK,” Skalicky said, adding that these are uncharted waters for everyone.
“So, while we can't at this time be a comforting physical presence in your lives, we will happily reach into the void and cradle all of you through this with our silly videos.”
The offbeat approach to the restaurant's social media was there from the start, not long after the former CS3 was rebranded into Welch's in 2018.
“It became really important for us to have a way to kind of signal to all of our regulars that even though we were putting a new sign on the door, so to speak, that we were still going to be there, silly as ever and still happy to see them,” Skalicky said. “So, we immediately started abusing our social media platforms to shamelessly blast ourselves into everyone's feed.”
Many restaurants have stepped up during the quarantine to help in whatever way they can, and one of those that have gone above and beyond is Umi Fort Wayne.
Since the shutdown hit, the restaurant that specializes in fresh sushi shifted gears and started a Meals for Community program that accepts public donations to help the restaurant prepare food for first responders, essential workers and basically anyone in need to pick up at the restaurant daily. There are no forms to fill out or judging, Umi owner Brian Bauer said, and all are welcome. Some of that food also makes its way downtown as part of a partnership with MISFITS Ministry to feed homeless folks there.
More than 12,000 meals – more hearty, “stretchable” home-cooking, Bauer said – have been distributed; as many as 700 one day and usually about 500 daily.
“It has been incredible,” Bauer said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”
If that isn't enough, Umi also set up an employee fund based on a percentage of its takeout orders and is using its social media presence to recognize and promote other restaurants because the restaurant industry and its employees are among those who need help right now.
“A couple of times a week, we buy our staff meals from other places that are doing a great job, and put them on our sites just to promote other people,” Bauer said. “We need to keep people excited, and get them to keep ordering carryout.
“It is cliché to say we are all in this together, but we really are.”
The folks at Welch's Ale House agree that these are serious times for the industry – don't let their funny videos fool you.
“I think we, along with a lot of our other terrific Fort Wayne restaurants, are trying to think outside the box and figure out how we are going to operate going forward,” Skalicky said. “It's a situation that none of us want to be in, but, who knows, maybe we'll reinvent the wheel.”
Local chef Tyler Kessler didn't reinvent the wheel or the taco, but he did reinvent himself thanks to social media.
The Warsaw native got his first restaurant job at Hacienda Mexican restaurant there and jumped to a short-lived fusion restaurant in downtown Warsaw before landing at the Mad Anthony Brewing Co. store. That job is what later brought him to Fort Wayne with a company transfer to the brewery here.
“I stayed there for too long honestly, mainly due to lack of personal confidence,” said Kessler, whose career recently hit its apex when he landed a position at one of Indianapolis' highly reputed restaurants, Black Market.
Among the places he has cooked: JK O'Donnell's, The Phoenix, the Dash-In, Hideout 125, Tolon, Ruth's Chris and Henry's. Along the way, after starting in social media about six years ago, he has gained over 1,100 followers on Instagram as well as some sponsorships for his page from a knife maker and hot sauce company.
He also breathed new life – via his photos, which, honestly are so enticing you want to take a bite out of your phone – to Henry's social media accounts last summer.
“Shooting food and cooking has essentially been self-taught,” the 35-year-old chef said. “I've done things my own way my whole life, usually doing it the wrong way the majority of the time, to be candid.
“I've learned the hard way a lot.”
Social media contacts helped him get his new job, and he feels fortunate he caught onto the growing trend for restaurants early during his days at JK O'Donnell's.
“In this current age, if you don't have an exciting and engaging presence, you're irrelevant,” Kessler said. “It's a decision-making tool for many people on where they are eating that very moment at times.”
He thinks most Fort Wayne restaurants do a decent job with their social pages but wishes some would be more active and present on their accounts. How often, how soon and the time of day all play a role in building an audience and keeping it happy. And one thing he cautions against is dealing with that audience online, especially customers who are not happy.
“Make it a private conversation after making a public move to positively engage and meet their concerns,” Kessler said.
A new world
Soul Pig BBQ owner Mark Graves felt he had to be more active when he got back into the restaurant game in 2018 after a couple years away from the business following the closing of his more upscale Marko's on 2nd in the same Decatur location.
“The last few years of Marko's, I was posting quite a bit,” Graves said. “But a lot has changed since then. Everyone wants people to know what they're eating and where they're eating it.”
He attributes the change to phone technology that made taking beautiful pictures from the palm of your hand easy. That technology has lifted his game online, as evidenced by the smoked andouille cheeseburger photo he posted with its spicy mayo cascading over the charred scallion puree, cheese and the patty.
“My approach now compared to back then is simply more pics and updates,” he said. “People eat with their eyes.
“My goal is to keep Soul Pig fresh on the minds of our customers, give them a reason to come back Friday even though they might have just been there on Wednesday that same week.”
Graves also uses his platform to keep his more than 1,100 followers up to date on the restaurant's live entertainment and his new food trailer. He has altered his approach a little during the pandemic to get his specials online earlier but admits every day is different during this shutdown and there is no way to prepare for anything.
But he is prepared to keep chugging away on social media and feels it is crucial for the industry.
“The best part about social media is that it is free,” he said, adding that the two things about other restaurants' social media that irritates him most are those who don't take just a little time to make sure their photos are nice and those who simply refuse to use it at all.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.