David Rev Ciancio

Episode 16: David ‘Rev’ Ciancio

David ‘Rev’ Ciancio, senior marketing executive and evangelist at Branded Strategic Hospitality, talks about his restaurant Handcrafted Burgers and Brews in New York City. The operation was built with a modern tech stack in mind. We break down the individual pieces of technology and discuss where restaurant owners should view technology within an organization. We talked about using technology to improve the customer experience.¬†

Episode transcription 

James: Welcome to the show.

Rev: I’m super excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

James: Yeah, no problem at all. So you worked in the food industry your entire career from both marketing and operations. Talk a little bit about your background and as well as your new venture, Handcraft Burgers and Brews.

Rev: Sure. So technically, I’ve worked about half my career in the food and restaurant business, although I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes. I used to be in the music business and I woke up one day and was like, man, I really don’t like working with musicians anymore. I’m going to go work with chefs and restaurants. What I quickly found out is they really aren’t that different.

James: They’re both demanding.

Rev: You know when you deal with creative people of any kind. I’m making half jokes here. But yeah, when you deal with creative people, they just come from a different mindset than people who are like super heavily business focused. And I’m not saying either, but I’ve just I’ve had an entire career of sort of being the translator. You know what I mean.

James: Now, what was it like in the music business? Like, what did you do?

Rev: So I came right out of college and started working for a company that did radio promotions. So we would take music from bands who were signed to record labels or publishing deals, and we would get them played on radio stations across the country. And I did that for about a year and a half before the company that I worked for kind of decided to stop being a company. And me and a couple of people who work there decided to start the exact same company. So I’ve been an agency owner of some degree or another, basically, since I got out, almost since I got out of college. That company that we owned. My primary function there was to be an artist management or an artist manager. So I help bands to do recording deals and get publishing deals and get tours and make merchandise and all that kind of stuff. So there’s definitely a former life, definitely very, very different.

James: Any bands we would have known or would recognize?

Rev: Well, I guess it depends on what kind of music you’re into and what is your approximate age. But I think the three biggest bands that I worked with from an artist management perspective was an IMA punk band from New Jersey called Thursday, a thrash metal band from Massachusetts called Shadows Fall and then a skater band called C K Wise. So if you’ve ever watched any of the Jackass movies or the Jackass shows, they were kind of like the house band when they were just a TV show.

James: Yeah, those genres are a little out of my wheelhouse, though, so a little bit about Handcraft Burgers and Brews and how did that project come together?

Rev: So Handcraft Burgers and Brews is a quick serve hamburger restaurant located right off of Bryant Park in New York City. We are 99% digital restaurant, meaning that we do take cash and credit cards. Just only 1% of our customers choose to use that. We chose that path for a very specific reason. We wanted to be able to collect as much of our guest data as possible so that we could stay in contact with them and communicate with them. So we had their email, we had their phone number, we reply on social, we replied reviews. And basically what we’re trying to do is if we have a communication channel that we would use to promote or market the brand, we also want to be able to respond to you in that channel. So part of the reason becoming digital is a, you know, again, we want to be in touch with our customers, number one. And number two, we just think that that’s the future of the universe. You know, what I mean is people want to order from their phones. People want to order ahead. People want to order pickups. People want to control their own experience. And so we just heavily leaned into that that we serve primarily smash burgers. It’s a very small menu. We use Certified Angus Beef. That’s some of the top 10% of beef in the country. We do have a chicken sandwich, we have one salad, and we have some deep fried hot dogs that are known as rippers. And then we have a selection of, you know, local craft beers all in cans. We think cans are better for the beer. No air can get in, no light can get in. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, easier to transport, it’s better on the environment. We just think it provides a better experience. So how it came about? My operational partners, Chad and Chris, who are wonderful people of owned Gastropubs in New York City, in South Carolina for for years and years and years and years. And, you know, an opportunity came up to open a smaller location right next to their flagship store. And it wasn’t big enough to do another gastropub, but it was big enough to do a quick serve. And they said, Hey, why don’t we take one of our concepts and see if we do a quick serve version of it? They called me and said, Hey, we’re gonna put up a quick service restaurant. Do you want to be involved? And I’ve worked with these guys in the past and I’ve eaten their food and are familiar with their chef. And so I sort of knew what to expect and I knew to expect really, really good things. And I said, You know what? It’s a great opportunity for me to sort of practice what I preach. You know, it’s an opportunity for me to dig in and all the things that, you know, I tell my clients to do that I help the restaurants that I consult with for for me to try it myself and to become like the ultimate case study. That’s sort of the genesis of it. It’s super fun. I really enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun.

James: Yeah, I actually just did a story on a Popmenu. They opened a restaurant down in South Carolina, and I definitely think that that’s a good trend right now, is for restaurant tech people to have their hands more in the restaurant business, because I think sometimes operators think that restaurant tech doesn’t understand restaurant operations.

Rev: I totally agree. I think maybe from a slightly. A different perspective. It’s a lot easier to be a solutions provider if you actually understand the struggle. You know what I mean? You actually know what it’s like to run an own and operate a food service business. When you’re really, really in it and you’re really what you’re trying to do is come up with solutions that help the operator. You’re in a much better position to understand it. And then to your point, if you then have to sell that solution, at least you’re coming from a place where like, oh, well, I know the problem. I have the problem.

James: Yeah. No. Is handcraft off prem or is it like sit down or like how does that work?

Rev: The thought that people would not really want to eat there. There’s only 12 seats, so only five tables and a couple of stools. So you certainly can eat there and most people choose to. We thought it would be primarily like delivery and pickup, but people want to come in and sit. I have no idea why. I guess they really enjoy it, but it wasn’t designed that way. But it’s funny, you know, we’re right in a very, very busy part of town, lots of offices there. We have delivery. People do get it delivered, but people want to come in and sit down. They really enjoy the experience.

James: That’s great. So now from what it sounds like, technology played an important role early in your conversations about putting it together, how did you guys begin to talking about technology and how did you begin kind of selecting different platforms to put the whole thing together?

Rev: Well, that was part of why my partners brought me on. You know, I don’t want to make them sound antiquated. They’re very forward thinking guys, but they specialize in the back of the house, you know, operational type stuff. And they said, look, we understand that the restaurant business in 2021 and beyond is a digital focused business. And we understand that serving the customer in whatever way they want to be served or how they want to be communicated to is important. And they came to me and said, Look, part of what we want you to do is not just come and help with the marketing, but like what technology should we use? And with that, I’ll always remind people, like, I am not a back to house person. So if you come to me and go, Hey, what inventory management or what employee scheduling software, I’d have to ask somebody else. It’s not my specialty, but anything that touches the customer and anything that aids the customer journey, whether it’s point of sale, online ordering, social media, marketing, any of that, you know, CRM, CDP, all that stuff. I’m kind of well versed, but the decision with handcraft was again is like, we don’t want to be an antiquated restaurant, we don’t want to be behind the times. We want to make it easy for our customers to transact or communicate with us in the way that they think is easiest. And so we lean into technology, we lean into efficiencies, and we believe in technology by decision, not by default.

James: So maybe talk about how you put the step together, like what kind of platforms did you select and how does it work?

Rev: Sure. So the very, very, very first thing we did after getting, you know, buying a URL and reserving all of our screen names, you know, making sure we had a great big screen name on Instagram and Facebook and tick tock one that the very, very, very first thing I did after that was go and take care of all of our location information on our listing. So we secured Google my business, we secured a Yelp, we secured a TripAdvisor. And then because your information for a restaurant lives everywhere online lives on Google, Yelp, Yahoo, Foursquare, Facebook, TripAdvisor, Apple Maps, Waze, Bing, Siri, city search. Because your information about your restaurant is everywhere online and because Google and Yelp and the other large search engines that drive people to new businesses rely on correct information. You want to make sure all of that information is organized and that your menu is there, your hours of operation, your correct name, your address, your phone, all those things that a consumer needs to become a guest, all that information. And so the very first thing we did after claiming those things is we would go to markets make maker. Q I what market does it takes all that information, your menu, your hours of operation, are you LGBTQ friendly? Do you have handicapped accessible? Do you have a parking lot? Do you have pick up what your online all the information that somebody needs when they search Google for what to eat for lunch. They take all that information you put it into their dashboard and it perfectly updates that information on 70 different websites. And that way, not only is your information correct on the sites, but you get the benefit of like additional search benefits. So, you know, Google trust your information, you come up higher in search and then it also helps you to manage your reviews. So that was step number one, making sure that we are easily discoverable online. I believe that two thirds of traffic that goes to a restaurant comes from search engines anyway. So we wanted to optimize. Thinking about search was a really important acquisition piece, making sure the journey to our restaurant was smooth with that. Okay, now we’re getting customers in the door. They’re coming to order from us. How do we enable the customer journey? So the next thing we looked at was an online ordering solution. My partner had already chosen toast as a point of sale system, which is great just to assist lots of integrations and it works very well as a point sale system. So the next thing we looked at was online ordering. We want to be able to capture order. We want to make it easy to order from mobile and from online. We want to make sure that was easy to order online and order ahead in order from mobile. So it would. We’ve got technology from a company called Bebop that actually recently got acquired by DoorDash. So we had online ordering that worked on mobile, that worked on desktop. We had acquisition piece. And I thought, okay, now that we’re capturing our guests emails, what do we need to do with them? Well, we got a website so that you could sign up for our email blast and would search searchable for our menu and other things. So we had Marquee for Search. We had Biba for online ordering. We used Bento Box for our website. And then I said, okay, we need a way to organize all of our guest data so people are ordering from us. We want to know what day they ordered when a when they ordered, we wanted it. What they ordered we wanted, how frequently they ordered. We want their email address with their phone number. We want their birthday. We want their name. And so the next decision was, okay, we need a CDP or a CRM. We need to be able to manage our guest data. We chose a platform called Bikky, which is Big K Y. And what Bikky does is it takes all of your guest information from different channels so it could take it from online ordering from your POS, you could take it from your email provider, it could take it from your reservation solution. It could look at third party. It takes all your data and it co-mingle it so that you get a 365 view of your guests. So you kind of always know what your guest is doing from there. Then what Biggie does is it allows you to set up segmentations of different guest behaviors in an email provider like MailChimp that allows you to trigger automations. So I said, okay, we got acquisition, we got online ordering, we got a website, we have a way to manage our guest data. We have a way to send them email. We have a way to automate that email. What else? So, well, if people are ordering from their phones and they’re using their phones all day to discover the restaurant, we need to be able to communicate with them on their phones. So we need the SMS platform. But more importantly than that, what I said was, okay, we need a way to get feedback from our guests. So when they come and dine with us, we want to know how was it and if something went wrong? We want to be able to handle it in real time or as close to real time as possible. So we use a tool called Ovation. And what ovation does is it helps us do what I call a digital table touch. So 30 minutes after the guest has a meal with us, we send them a text message and it just says, how was the experience? And they can rate it one through five if they give us a five. They get another text message that says, great, thank you. Would you like to share that on Google or Yelp? And we get a bunch more reviews. If they give us a one through four, they go into a private text message feedback loop directly with somebody. The business is primarily me that just says, okay, tell us more. If something went wrong, we can handle that privately or something. Really, right? They just wanted to tell us we can handle that privately. So there’s a number of other decisions that are made after that. But essentially the thinking behind it was how do we make a frictionless, smooth customer journey that meets the guests? Where they are when they are, allows them to order or communicate in the way that they want at the time they want, and then allows us to organize that data, communicate back with them. And that is the thinking behind that text act.

James: Now that kind of we’re talking about Bikky or whatever that goes into, my next question is you’ve talked a lot about thinking that customer relationship management platforms rather than the point of sale, should be the center of restaurant technology. Why do you believe that?

Rev: So that’s a great question. You know, look, if you look at the restaurant business historically, like it was not a very tech enabled restaurant. You would walk by a place, you would drive by a place, you might see a billboard, and then you go into eat, right. And then suddenly online ordering pops up. And then people want to pay with credit cards and then gift cards and all that stuff. And so it makes sense that the first piece of technology that got universally adopted with restaurants was point of sale. We needed a way to take the credit card to manage the transaction and to look at our numbers. That makes it 100% sense. Well, fast forward to now and you can order online. You can email with a restaurant. You can text with the restaurant. You can leave them review. You could connect with them on social media. You can make a reservation. There are all these ways at which a guest can transact with a business. They can bring up their address when they call an Uber. There are just so many ways you can leave a yelp or you can leave a Google review. And here’s the thing. If you really, really want to understand your guest and you really want to meet them where they are in their communication, you really want to provide frictionless journey and you really want to talk to them in ways that make sense to them in a personalized way. You have to be able to take all the data from all these places and look at it in one place. And to me, that is not a point of sale system. That’s a CFP or a CRM, right? That’s a customer relationship management tool or a customer data platform that takes all my information and organizes it so that I can create segmented automated marketing that speaks to the guest in the way they want to be spoken to. And if you really are guest oriented and customer journey oriented and really care about the ways that your guest communicates, I don’t think a POS has the capability to get you there. It has a lot of the information you need, but most of the POS that’s available today does not do that for you. And so to me, I believe in 2022 and beyond, the center of the tech stack for restaurant should be focused around the guests, not just one transaction with the guest. Me again. That’s a CDP or CRM.

James: Yeah. I mean, you think about it historically, right? The cash register was kind of the center of the world. Right. And now, you know, customer data, customer information is really where you want the center to be. And then the technology right now is kind of built around that. So now one of the key problems I see with restaurant technology is the flow from online ordering through to the back of the house in the kitchen. How did handcraft address those problems?

Rev: So we are 100% technology enabled and the basically the work through is so if you order from online, you’re using rebar, it feeds into toast. If you’re in the restaurant or going to be a kiosk, you’re ordering directly the toast that feeds to a kitchen display system acadia’s in the system that manages the team in the kitchen. So they just work from the cards. When they clear a menu item off the Arcadius, it pushes to Acadia’s at the front of the house. It also texts the guest. And so basically it’s all communication. Everything’s being pushed through from system, the system, the system. And really what that kind of begs for is making sure that you have a fully integrated tech stack that all of your things are talking to each other.

James: Yeah. Now, how do you think restaurants in this day and age can balance technology and still being in the hospitality business?

Rev: Man two That is a great question. You know, traditionally I think a lot of restaurant operators, they’re not tech people, they’re not marketing people, they’re chefs in their operations. They are good at running a restaurant and cooking food and serving people. And so this whole marketing and tech thing is like new to the business. And so I think the best way to manage it moving forward and the best way to make sure that these things are incorporating a restaurant is either hire somebody who’s good at one of the things or go get a consultant, find somebody that can help you get up to speed with at least like the minimum viable product that you need to be able to meet your guests, unlike if you’re an independent operator. There’s a ton of technology and a ton of tools and a ton of consultants that can help you get up and running and have enough technology communication that you can still work in your business and on your business, right? You don’t need a big fancy text. You don’t need a multimillion dollar app. You don’t need all these things. There’s enough great tools out there for independent operators as well as large chains that you can make all of these things kind of work.

James: Yeah, I think unfortunately, I think some people in the restaurant industry have gotten burned in the past by technology, you know, providers selling them something that it doesn’t deliver. And so I think that the industry itself really has to do a good job of trying to educate restaurant operators that they don’t have to, like you said, put $1 million in that they can do as a gradual, slow step into being more technology focused.

Rev: Yes, I agree. You know, the other thing, too, is is getting started is like it can feel really overwhelming. Again, if you’re an independent operator and you actually work in your business as much as you work on your business, it can feel intimidating. I just threw like 72 pieces of tech at you and made it sound like you need to be operating like Target or Amazon. Like I said, there is tech that can help get you there. Where to get started? Don’t get overwhelmed. Pick one or two areas of focus and just sort of figure it out one step at a time. And like I said, hire a consultant. If you don’t know what you’re doing, save time. Don’t guess. Call somebody and ask somebody. And if you don’t know who to call, you don’t have a good solid. Ask me. I’m happy to refer you around. Or you know, you do call your distributors. Call the distributors and the manufacturers that you have the most amount of trust with and ask them, Hey, who do you know? What do you recommend? Where should I get started? What should I do next?

James: So now with this technology focused on handcraft, how does that kind of fit into marketing and customer acquisition? Like how are you able to use the technology to grow the business?

Rev: That’s a good question. So really, you know, we do have a podcast and we do have a CRM. Like I said, we’re using toast and Beche. And so those are kind of our sources of truth. So when we think about like money, data, numbers, sales, we look at toast when we’re looking at customers and journey and acquisition and LTV and AOB and all those other fun acronyms we look into. Becky. And so we have to use the two systems together to get an accurate view of what we’re trying to do. And so for us, the highest, highest calling is how frequently are you coming to visit and what are you spending? And so if we want to measure that, we need Biggie and toast to work together. And then if we want to action that, we have to think about what kind of data is available and what kind of insights can we get from our data that helps us think about that. And at that point, I’m really talking about retention. You can ask me about acquisition, but you know, to me, if I’m not capturing guest data and I’m not measuring guest data and I’m not looking at guest data, then it doesn’t really matter how require that because I have a leaky bucket, I don’t want to spend a ton of money on like advertising or billboards or influencer marketing or paid ads or digital or whatever. Earn media if I don’t have the ability to capture guest. I mean, I think the stat is like something like 70% of guests only ever dine at a restaurant. 70% of guests only ever dine in a restaurant once. Well, if you don’t have. A way to communicate with that guest. If you don’t have a way to find out how it went or what they really liked or how to get them back, then, yeah, of course that’s the case, you know what I mean? And so for us, the acquisition piece is really tied to the retention piece. You know, I wanted to make sure that if we’re acquiring guests, we have a way to acquire their information and that we have an ability to glean insights from the data and be able to communicate with them. So super, super important for us is the capture piece. You don’t want to put a bunch of energy at the top of your funnel to just not know what happens at the bottom yet.

James: Sometimes restaurants focus too much on new customer acquisition instead of retaining already acquired customers.

Rev: Yeah. You know, the stat is out there for all levels and types of business that is ten times harder to get a new guest than it is to get somebody who loves you to come back. And you know, that’s true. And, you know, and similarly with restaurants, you could do all this fancy marketing work that we’ve been talking about here for the last half hour or so. Or you could just send a weekly newsletter. You know what I mean? Sometimes if you really, really love a restaurant and you really, really love their food, all you need is a reminder. You know what I mean? Like, overthinking marketing is really easy. And for sure, I think this conversation could get you there. But if all you do is collect every single guest’s email address and you send them one weekly email, whatever you put in that email, it’s just a reminder. And that is the easiest way to affect retention is, you know, simple types of consistent communication.

James: Yeah, though, just to kind of wrap up the conversation, I mean, you’ve touched on this a little bit already, but if you’re an operator and you’re trying to think about being more a tech centered operation, where would you start the conversation?

Rev: I mean, where to start? Well, you know, listen, if you have legacy point of sale system, meaning if it’s all offline and it doesn’t operate in the cloud and it’s hard to connect to other platforms, you’re probably going to need to start there. You’re probably you need your point of sale system. And I hate to say that if you’re working with antiquated technology, it’s hard to get up to date. If, however, you do have a modern file system, it’s cloud based tosee if square you break, there’s a number of them out there. But if you have a modern system again, the next thing I would look at is how can I collect my guest data? There’s lots of ways to collect guest data. If you’re a sit down restaurant, it could be a reservation system. You know, something like Rosie or Open Table collects guest data. If you’re a quick server, fast casual, you know, how can you shift to online order? Because it places order. I might get guests email, you know, can you have QR codes on the table that encourage people to sign up for a newsletter? Can you have newsletter sign up on your website? So think about ways to enable collecting guests that there’s lots of options, and that’s kind of step one. Step three then would be, what do I do with that data when I have it? So if you want to be real simple, if you’re an independent operator, you don’t have a lot of money. Your budget’s kind of tight. You’re working in your business and on your business. Find a way to collect guest data. Again, I said you could use email, sign up on your website, use the online ordering system. You could use a reservation system. Kind of. Everybody has those. The next thing again, making this easy, go get MailChimp. You can second step works as well, but MailChimp is the email solution provider of choice for the business. And if you have those three things, if you have cloud based POS, you have a way to capture the emails and you can email your guest once a week. You’re kind of really tech enabled at that point. There’s lots of other hoops you could jump through and there’s lots of other things you can bring on board, and there’s lots of other ways to go in there. But collect your guest data. Email your guest. Start there.

James: Well, hey, thank you so much. I enjoyed the conversation. You definitely are very passionate about the subject but are knowledgeable. So thank you for that.

Rev: Oh, you’re very welcome. Listen, you know, my goal here is to, you know, elevate the business as much as I can so that all guests can have a better dining experience. That’s my only motivation.