Episode 1: Shawn Walchef

Calli BBQ Media owner Shawn Walchef joins the premiere episode of the Food Tech Podcast. Shawn talks about his advocacy of digital hospitality and the need to tell your story in the digital environment. 

Episode transcription 

James: Welcome to episode one of the Food Tech podcast, which explores the changing nature of the food industry and technology, we give operators quick, actionable ways to improve their business in the new omnichannel environment. I’m your host, James Shea, publisher of Food Delivery News. Our guest today is Shawn Walchef, owner of Cali BBQ Media, a barbecue restaurant in San Diego. He has been at the forefront of adapting his restaurant to the omnichannel environment with a main location and two ghost kitchens. Thanks for joining us today, Shawn

Shawn:  Thanks for having me.

James: You were the first person whom I ever heard use the term digital hospitality. How do you define that?

Shawn: So digital hospitality is our deep thesis that gets us. It pulls us out of bed every single morning. It’s the name of our podcast and it’s what we love to do and really what kept us in business. And the basic premise is that every business needs to be digital-first. When we opened up our business, they told me location, location, location. That was in 2008, and I still hear people in the real estate space, commercial space, restaurant space, hospitality space, talk about location, location, location and we believe location, location, location. But we believe it needs to be digital-first. So we believe in the location of the internet. We believe your location on a Google search results or safari search, results in Alexa search results in how you show up on Yelp, how you show up on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn. We believe all of those locations are much more important in today’s world in 2022 and moving forward than the actual physical storefront, the brick and mortar storefroSo all businesses need to be digital-first, so digitally focused first, but then every business needs to be in the hospitality business. Now so much of what we hear in retail is customer service, and anyone that works in hospitality and works in restaurants cringes at customer services in a retail environment because that’s basically treating someone like a human. And for us, hospitality extends beyond that. It’s how do you make someone feel. It’s how do you listen to what they want, anticipate their needs and to make a memorable moment. And as restaurant owners, as hospitality professionals, we’re really good at doing that in real life. We’re just not very good at extending that online.

And when you think of being an omnichannel brand and a digital-first brand, really, you just need to take the principles of what we do in real life and extend them to the internet, extend them to the smartphone. And the more that you do that and have conversations with customers, hear them on the apps on all these different platforms and let them know their voices are heard and that you appreciate their business and you want to learn from them and engage with them, then you can really create something that’s very memorable.

Shawn: Yeah, there was, you know, because of that bad location, we literally had to do so many things different than other standard restaurants. And you know, like I said, we opened in 2008. So it was right when the smartphone, the iPhone came out in 2007. So so much of what we learned was by failing, by failing miserably at doing all the traditional forms of marketing that were available to us and then realizing that if Facebook was coming out with an app that we could claim our business and promote our business on, maybe we should try it. Maybe we should try to claim our Yelp page. Maybe we should respond to Yelp reviews. And for us, learning digital marketing was key learning, digital branding and learning how to share our story online. We made so many mistakes in the beginning and we tested so many things that we got to a point where we were learning. We were learning the craft of digital marketing and by learning the craft of digital marketing and talking about who we were. You know, our brand, Cali Barbecue and our brand has evolved. We started realizing we can turn digital marketing into digital media by starting to share other people’s stories. So not just our own stories. And, you know, we really became a media company when we started a podcast in 2017 where we started to interview other business owners, other digital marketing professionals, other people in legacy media positions, other people and sports entertainment where we started asking them questions about how were they winning, how have they achieved the results that they’ve achieved? Why did we look up to them? And by sharing those stories now, it was no longer about us. It was about them and their story. And more importantly, the people that were listening to the show and listening to the podcast. It was helpful to them to know that all of these principles, all of these lessons and stories are applicable no matter where you are in the world.

James: You have a ghost kitchen and you also have a physical location. So I’m assuming you’re doing a bunch of different types of orders. What do you think about the challenges of communicating with the customer in this digital age?

Shawn: The most important thing is simplification, and I think as tech stacks evolve and as solutions evolve and every technology company wants to have every solution available under the planet, the most important thing is that if you confuse, you lose. So in this day and age, we have such a short time to tell the customer, what is the problem that we’re solving for them? For us, we sell barbecue. The problem is the barbecue takes time and it takes expertize. We solve that problem by delivering slow food fast. So when you come to our mobile first web site, it’s going to say buy barbecue, buy barbecue for takeout, buy barbecue for delivery by barbecue for catering. Sign up for our email to get a free peach cobbler. We want to simplify the process to make it as easy as possible because the most important thing that people have now is time. You know, we can no longer discriminate as restaurant owners how people get our food. You know, we spent 12 years in a difficult part of San Diego figuring out branding and figuring out how to make great barbecue, figuring out sports entertainment, how to market ourselves, to get people from all over the county to want to come to our store on an NFL Sunday and wait an hour in line to get brisket, to get a seat, to watch the big game like that was a lot of work to do and a cost. It was a lot of labor. We spent a lot of money, a lot of investment in hospitality, but it’s not a sustainable business if we actually want to grow. So we’ve really transformed how we’re doing business and we’re trying to find new ways to get more people in San Diego County barbecue on their terms when they want it, how they want it.

James: What advice would you give to restaurant owners? I mean, I think a lot these days are overwhelmed by understanding the technology, and understanding how to communicate in a digital environment. They just want to run a restaurant. What advice would you give to them?

Shawn: One of the most important things that my grandfather taught me was to stay curious. So, you know, if you’re a restaurant owner and you’re listening to this podcast, then you’re already doing the things that are going to set you apart from so many other people that are pretending that technology is an evolving as fast as it is. Be wary of people that call themselves experts. There’s a lot of people out there that tell you that they know everything and those people I’m very wary of. The people I gravitate towards are the ones that are learners, lifelong learners, you know, people like my grandfather. So staying curious every single day, always willing to challenge the assumptions that we’ve made, building our business, getting involved, you know, actually doing the work. So much of what we’ve learned is getting uncomfortable, you know, getting uncomfortable, talking to our smartphone and doing a selfie video. That wasn’t comfortable thing for me to do, but I do it all the time now, and because I do it, we have opportunities with other companies that we work with, other vendors, we work with other charities, other media opportunities. I mean, the things that we’re able to do because I’m willing to go and look stupid, frankly, doing a selfie video in front of our master smokehouse and, you know, making a video, frankly, that I have customers that say, we miss the old restaurant. We wish that you didn’t get rid of your servers and you weren’t using Toast, order and pay. But I’m willing to make that video because I know that there’s restaurant owners all over the globe that follow us, that it’s helpful to them. It’s helpful to them to see somebody doing something differently for the sustainability of their business, for the long term growth of their business. And the third thing is to ask for help. There’s never been an easier time to find people that are doing things that you admire and to reach out to them on Instagram, reach out to them on TikTok, send them an email or go contact them through their website and just ask for help. You’d be surprised at how many incredible people, how many mentors you can listen to people. You can set up a Google alert for people that you admire. And if Danny Meyer is somebody that you admire any time he speaks at any time he does a podcast, Google will tell you they’ll put that content out into your inbox. You can learn directly from him as if you’re doing an apprenticeship with him. I mean, there’s never been a greater time to really diversify your knowledge and to dive deep into what you love to do.

James: Now, when you started this journey into becoming more of a digital first operation, kind of where did that start or what was the kind of first move that you made?

Shawn: I think the, you know, one of the aha moments was back in the beginning when we couldn’t get anybody to come into our restaurant and we were struggling to pay payroll and I was making fun of my business partner, Corey Robinson at the time, who I went to college with and made fun of him for having a Facebook account. Because, you know, what are you trying to just pick up girls or what do you know? Why are you? Why are you using this app? And once I realized that there was something bigger going on with the app, that there were people on the app, there were people actually communicating on the app, sharing stories, sharing things about their life, sharing things about their business, and then they created a business page. I realized, like, what do we have to lose? We don’t have anything. We have everything to lose. If we don’t try something differently, we will lose everything. And, you know, going all in on Facebook was one of the first, you know, aha moments. Because when I did that, I had people, friends, quote unquote friends of mine that said, ‘Why are you posting about your restaurant all the time, Shawn?’ And they challenged me and I said, ‘You know, if you truly are my friend, you would know how important my restaurant is. To me, it’s my baby.’ You know, I didn’t have kids at the time, but you know, any restaurant owner knows your restaurant is your baby. It’s one of your children. I mean, if you want it to succeed, you’ve got to put that time in that investment into that business, that dream. And for me, I had to get tough skin, you know, get tough skin and realize, you know, someone else’s insecurities about why I’m posting about my business shouldn’t prevent me from posting about my business. And sure enough, the more that I leaned into not caring what other people thought about my tweets or about my Instagram posts or my TikTok videos, the better opportunity we had and the more that I connected with people, like minded people, people that were part of the tribe. 

James: Now, maybe just to kind of wrap things up here. Why don’t you talk a little bit about your technology stack? How do you put it all together from online ordering to POS to back of the house? Like, you don’t have to go too far into detail, but just kind of give a sense of of how the whole operation as a digital first company works for you.

Shawn: Yeah, I mean, so people, they talk about in the pandemic pivoting, you know, the big word, the keyword, the hot button word is pivot. We don’t say pivot. We went all in. So we already believed in digital. We wouldn’t have kept our business open. We wouldn’t have thrived. We wouldn’t have scaled if it wasn’t for our belief in digital storytelling. Investing in technology early, bringing in different tools that other restaurant owners weren’t doing. So we went all in on digital and when we went all in on digital and we added UberEats and Grubhub and DoorDash and started doing more third-party delivery during the pandemic and closed our restaurant, we realized that the volume of barbecue that we were selling could no longer meet the demands of our tech stack and more specifically, Aloha, our point of sale at the time. And our point of sale and our online ordering was just not sufficient, which is why we started investigating should we switch to Toast? Toast was the key player at the time we did our due diligence. We told them we are a barbecue media company. If we switch to you, we’re going to start making content about the hardware, the software, the services, all the things that you’re doing to help us become a digital first restaurant. And now it’s been an incredible partnership. You know Toast is our primary technology partner. They help us with online ordering. They help us with gift cards. They help us with our order and pay. We use so many different products. We beta test products for them. I’m on the Toast Customer Advisory Board. My general manager, Eric and myself were invited to their IPO just last year, which was absolutely incredible to be one of 20 restaurants on Wall Street for a technology IPO and we’re one barbeque restaurant at the time. Once we signed with Toast, we were literally a one unit barbecue restaurant. Now we have two friendly ghost kitchens. We have two stadium locations. We’re in contact with multiple breweries here in San Diego, a couple other institutions. So we’re growing and we’re living out our brand promise on our tech stack. But more importantly, we love Toast because they integrate with so many great companies. You know, they integrate with 7 Shifts. It’s a phenomenal front of the house solution for scheduling. You know, Jordan Boesch and his entire team at 7 Shifts. What they’re doing to make scheduling easier, make the heart of the house easier. Make communications easier between, you know, how how our management team communicates, how our team communicates with our front of the house staff, our ghost kitchen staff. Things like that are really exciting for us because we feel like we’re able to develop deep relationships with these technology companies, no matter where they are. They’re small technology company like Ovation, Zack Oates and his team over there. They do reputation management, but we have a great relationship with them to Jordan Boesch, to Chris Comparato at Toast. So you know it doesn’t matter the size of the tech company. What matters is the humans and the humans are the heart of technology.

James: You found all these people, these companies that you work with to be easy like they, they want to help you, right? They’re not just trying to sell you a product.

Shawn: It’s kind of how we’ve always done businesses. You know, it sounds cliche, but it has to be a partnership, you know, of a vendor relationship if it’s not a partnership. We understand that they’re trying to make money, but we’re also trying to make money. And there’s never been a time where products that I use in my restaurant, the reasons why I pick U.S. Foods as our primary food vendor or I pick Toast as our primary technology partner, or I use RSAI for our accounting services. There’s never been a time where I can make those decisions, but then create content about those decisions that not only helps my partner, but it helps their sales team. It helps their marketing team. And even more importantly, it helps another restaurant owner, whoever wherever they are to go. I’m having those same problems. No one said it in the way that SHawn said it or his team said it. I’m happy that I heard about Toast. I’m going to contact my local toast rep. So, you know, we’re really living in this incredible day and age where you can use that smartphone in your pocket and do what we talk about, which is smartphone storytelling. You know, so much of what we do is, is this content on social media, content on Instagram, content on Twitter that’s so focused on the customer. And we don’t think about our industry and we don’t think about our partners when everyone needs social media. Everyone needs to grow. Everyone needs to improve. And the more that you realize the things that you’re doing on a day to day basis, like you’re not the only ones doing that. So, you know, the more that I share how we’re growing from one podcast to podcasts, how we’re getting a title sponsor for our second podcast, how we’re leveraging that to speaking opportunities and content creation in different cities. And, you know, getting paid for these opportunities. The more that I share that, the more that my friends in the podcasting space, in the media space learn. And for us, that’s really exciting.

James: Well, in the end, though, you have to sell good barbecue, right?

Shawn: If you don’t have great barbecue and you don’t have hospitality, you’ll lose. I mean, that’s the problem that I see with ghost kitchens and virtual kitchens is that it’s a big race to fill out open real estate. And really, the key for us is the key for what we’ve learned is that simplification is everything. The easier that we make barbecue, the easier we make our menu, the easier we make our operations. The more that we can do, the more that we can scale, the more people we can feed, the more people we can empower. And that’s all that matters to us.

James: Well, Shawn, I’d like to thank you so much for joining us today. Hope you have a good week and thank you so much for helping other operators try and learn from your success.

Shawn: Huge fan of what you do, James. Thank you. And if you ever need anything. Reach out at Sean P. Walchef. That’s Instagram, Tik Tok, LinkedIn. Anywhere on the internet, Clubhouse too.