Rural restaurants are luring diners with online gift certificates and twittered tips about daily specials.

[imgcontainer right] [img:resttwitter320.jpg] [source]Fast Food Maven/Daily Yonder[/source] Rural restaurants are luring diners with online gift certificates and twittered tips about daily specials. [/imgcontainer]

Lori Sears-Martinez is amused that her coworkers have labeled her “The Mad Twitterer.” The marketing manager of the Scenic Loop Cafe in Leon Springs, Texas, joined the popular social media web site Twitter only a few months ago, and she already has a respectable following of a few hundred people.

“When I started, I realized that many restaurants weren’t using Twitter yet,” said Sears-Martinez, “but I kept hearing about it, even on the radio. So I told Christy [Knight, the restaurant’s owner] that if I can figure this thing out, then I might be able to make it work for us in a big way.” Sears-Martinez uses her Twitter account to post information about the cafe’s specials and give away gift certificates. Her notes, called “tweets,” consist of short messages no longer than 140 characters. She deems it, “a form of word-of-mouth marketing that you just can’t pay enough for.”

For now, is a free service—and that enhances its appeal, especially for businesses with tight marketing budgets in rural or semi-rural communities. It helps, of course, to be situated in a region where social media is both popular and accessible.

Sears-Martinez says, “As a business right now, in this economy, we’re really watching our money, so we’re looking for places to connect with our customers and get results fast.” She notes, “We’re seeing an increase in our dining numbers, and I think there’s a tie between that and our being on Twitter.”

Situated in the hills northwest of San Antonio, on an historic stage-run-turned-roadway, the Scenic Loop Cafe is a true “destination” restaurant, so reaching the restaurant’s target market—professionals and families—involves extra effort and a dash of creativity. After all, with the exception of ranchers and folks inhabiting the smattering of shiny, upscale new subdivisions that now encroach on the surrounding ranch land, few people are going to stumble past Scenic Loop Café heading out to lunch or home from soccer practice.

[imgcontainer left] [img:scenicloopgizmo320.jpg] [source]Pamela Price[/source] Lori Sears-Martinez taps new customers to the door of the Scenic Loop Cafe in Leon Springs, Texas, using the social media website Twitter. [/imgcontainer]

“People are looking for authentic, locally owned restaurants,” says Sears-Martinzez. “Chains have their place, but we’re special.” The cafe has been open at this spot for eight years. “It was ‘we’ll build and they’ll come.’ They did, but I looked at Twitter as a way to get our buzz back. And it worked,” she says. Sears-Martinez “follows” about 500 Twitter users (meaning, she receives an automated stream of 500 people’s latest messages).

“We use it as a filter,” Sears-Martinez explains. “Before I follow someone with the account, I look at user profiles and only follow locals. I don’t follow people that don’t have bios. I don’t want to hear about someone’s partying. That’s why I said ‘no’ to We’re not after teens.”

Up the road apiece in Boerne, Texas, Shawn Bonner spent much of the summer tweeting on behalf of the original Hungry Horse Restaurant. Though in contrast with Scenic Loop Café, the Hungry Horse is located near the small town’s busy center, Bonner regards Twitter as “ a great complement to our traditional advertising efforts.”

Today a sign near the homey restaurant’s front door encourages customers to find and follow the Twitter account. Bonner personally discovered the site’s marketing potential at a lunch meeting of Boerne’s Chamber of Commerce. “I’d heard about it, and when I learned more about it, knew we could try it.” Bonner launched the Hungry Horse’s account in June.

[imgcontainer left] [img:HungryHorseButtons320.jpg] [source]Pamela Price[/source] Shawn Bonner, left, twitters for the Hungry Horse Restaurant in Boerne, Texas, and has made a believer of owner Steve Artale. [/imgcontainer]

The restaurant’s owner, Steve Artale, supports Bonner’s efforts. “Shawn ate a salmon burger, liked it, and had a little dialogue about it on Twitter,” says Artale. “We saw more people come through that day. Then we had someone say ‘I saw that tweet about the salmon burger and tried it. It’s good.’ I don’t use [Twitter] myself,” Artale admits. “I like my phone. But I’ve been surprised that it really does reach people in their mid-20s to mid-40s. It seems to work.”

Experts think that restaurateurs may be at an advantage over other businesses when it comes to attracting followers via social media.

“With restaurants, people on Twitter know whom they might want to seek out and follow,” says Colleen Pence, owner of San Antonio-based Social Media Mentoring. Over the last several months Pence has collaborated with Texas Creative to assist several restaurants eager to test Twitter. “I encourage my clients to use their tweets not just to broadcast information but to also have conversations with their followers, to connect. It’s about relationship building, listening and engaging.”

[imgcontainer left] [img:HungryHorsewall320.jpg] [source]Pamela Price[/source] Social media experts are advising restaurants to to spread the word about their Twitter sites through direct mail ads. Here the Hungry Horse posts a reminder inside the restaurant itself. [/imgcontainer]

Pence encourages clients to put their Twitter account information on traditional advertising materials, including direct mail. “I have a couple of restaurants that I’m working with who are thinking about putting it on their checks,” she says.

A certain amount of trial and error seems to be part of the social media marketing process. For instance, Pence is puzzling through why followers of an upscale restaurant responded strongest to a special Twitter-based offer made for free soup over one for sparkling Champagne. Meanwhile, Bonner is trying to figure out how to send tweets with her iPhone and inject additional personality; and Sears-Martinez has experimented with capitalizing upon her office’s proximity to the heart of the restaurant.

“This morning, I walked into the kitchen on my way to office. The cook was chopping red onions, and I teared up. So I tweeted about it,” said Sears-Martinez with a laugh. “Without a doubt, things here are made fresh!”

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