Whether you think it’s foolish or genius, there’s no denying the power of Twitter. Twitter is a free tool that is available to anyone, and it is surprisingly versatile. Yes you can use it to tell the world you’ve just bought a cup of coffee. But, with a little imagination Twitter users are going well beyond that to communicate with a large audience, get creative, and promote their businesses—all within 140 characters, of course.
It starts with a straightforward question: What are you doing? From there the possibilities are endless. Food writer Francis Lam says that Twitter is “confusingly simple…It’s a service where you can write a short message and it goes out to all the people who follow you.”
For the Kogi BBQ Truck in Los Angles, Twitter serves both a very practical communication purpose (to let followers know where the trucks will be at any given time) and a more esoteric purpose (to build both an online and a physical community). Choi explained, “We’ve tapped into something that is bigger than us. For us, it’s changed our lives.”
With almost 49,000 followers, Choi says that Twitter has become an integral part of Kogi’s business. Because of the constant feedback they receive, the “menu evolves through the people.” So dishes improve, are removed, or are brought back by popular demand—all via Twitter. This, says Choi, gives Kogi customers and followers a feeling of ownership.
Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea also uses Twitter as a source of feedback and creativity. When he is working on a new menu at Alinea, he says “instead of only having 50 people to bounce ideas off of, now I have 10,000. As someone who is open to taking those ideas in, it’s invaluable.” Although people have accused him of shameless self-promotion, Achatz says that’s not what it’s about. Rather, it’s about “reaching your client base…and asking them what they want.”
For Antoinette Bruno, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of StarChefs.com, Twitter is primarily a way to communicate. She is able to tell both her 1,300 personal and 6,000-plus StarChefs.com followers about awesome dishes she tried on her travels, hint that she’s over headcheese, and hopefully inspire other chefs (it’s also one of the best ways to get in touch with her).
As far as keeping it to 140 characters, Bruno says “I think it’s a great limitation. I wish everybody was limited to 140 characters in everything they had to say. You can say a lot in 140 characters…It makes me think about each word.”
As such a new medium, Twitter is still developing rules and etiquette. Kogi has addressed the personal/private divide by hiring someone whose job is specifically to update Twitter and who has created a character that is totally removed from any real person. “By creating a character,” says Choi, “she can push the envelope and really have fun…The thing with Twitter is it’s a very personal thing. You can mold it and shape it and form it in whatever way you want.”
Choi argues that while Twitter has developed “personal rules that we’ve put into play,” he ultimately believes that “Twitter shouldn’t have any rules. It should be a free forum to do whatever you want to do and say whatever you want to say.”
One decision that Kogi has made is not to follow everyone who follows them. For Bruno’s StarChefs.com Twitter account, however, the main goal is to build up the base of followers so she is sure to follow everyone who follows her and re-Tweet often.
Achatz doesn’t specifically think about how to get more followers; “I just throw it out there” and see what happens. Sometimes he’ll get one response and sometimes he’ll get a thousand responses.
“It’s not a pissing contest,” says Choi. “We’re not tallying how many people we have. But there is a direct relationship to the honesty of Twitter. People have the choice of who they want to follow.”
More than anything Twitter facilitates conversations. Yes, some people choose to Tweet their every waking moment, but folks in the restaurant and food industry have found creative uses for this modern tool that go well beyond a laundry list of daily activities. It can be a way to let people know what you are doing and get feedback, which can be invaluable to a chef, restaurant, or any number of businesses.
And in the end, if you don’t buy into it you don’t have to. “If there [are] bad messages being sent or messages that are useless, push a button and they’re gone,” said Achatz. “That’s the beauty of Twitter.”
Photos from the Twitter Chefs Panel