Dining on Stories: How to Engage the Local Community Through Food Culture Storytelling
I know him only as “The Mayor.” He is a bit of an enigma in the Savannah restaurant scene. Most waiters and bartenders in the best of the city’s establishments are familiar with him to some degree. The most anyone could ever tell me is that The Mayor has been eating in the city for years, and he knows everything that there is to know about the restaurant scene here. And he eats and tips well.
I have lived in Savannah for almost 10 years now. I built my business around the city’s food scene, and I know dozens of the city’s restaurant owners and chefs and twice as many bartenders and waitstaff. I even cowrote a book on the culinary history of the city. But it was only recently that I finally met The Mayor.
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One Friday evening, a group of us visited one of our favorite haunts, Circa 1875. It was a cold and wet off-season night, so the restaurant wasn’t as busy as it would normally be, but that didn’t mean it would be easy to sit six in the remarkably charming French bistro without a reservation. Nevertheless, our gamble paid off with the large communal hi-top closest to the door vacant save for one seat occupied by a well-dressed gentleman eating comfortably alone. Before he could give us his name, the waiter came by with the wine list and assured us that we were sitting with Savannah royalty: The Mayor, himself.
Immediately, we engaged him in conversation and he had the waiter bring over some empty glasses so that we could taste a bottle of wine he brought from home. We raised our glasses to each other several times during that meal, and with all good bread-breaking, there were ample opportunities for stories.
The Mayor shared with us the story of visiting the vineyard’s chateau when he last went to France. He shared stories of restaurants that had come and gone in the area. More than that, he shared with us his excitement for where the city’s culinary future lay and the gastronomic renaissance we were enjoying in the city. We discussed our favorite dishes, hot-headed chefs, as well as rare brandies, rums and whiskies. The Mayor had been everything he was advertised to be and then some.
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I am a sucker for stories. Who isn’t, really? A great storyteller is everything. Because of The Mayor’s storytelling, I bought seven snifters of a rare rum at $55 a drink later that evening (at a different venue), and I don’t regret it. He reminded me of the deep well of stories found in every bar and restaurant around the world. He is a true ambassador of Savannah and stands as the embodiment of everything I love about the F&B industry.
Over the past (horrific) year, many of us have forgotten about the power that the F&B industry has over storytelling. Stories sell hamburgers and foie gras. The only reason I can see for someone to spend $1,000 on a bottle of whisky is because of the story (trust me, the $250 bottle is likely just as good). People come to your restaurant because your food and your place have something to say. Your community celebrates birthdays at your diners and restaurants, their engagements on your barstools. Genuine, lifelong memories have been and will be made at your restaurant’s tables. Our food culture can be shared and even created over your food. Tell your stories with your food. We are all just as hungry for your food as we are your story.
Here are a few quick tips for finding those stories that will engage your customers:
1. A single black-and-white photo: Rather than an entire wall of photos, a single photo draws eyes to it and begs guests to ask about it. What is one photo over the past year that helps tell your story of resilience? This photo can connect your story to the guest and the community’s struggle. Remember, your guests see your walls and decor before they see your food — what stories do your walls tell?
2. New suppliers, new sources: This past year has disrupted many businesses in the supply chain, and as a result, there is a decent chance you had to change a supplier or two. There is a clear story of struggle and perseverance. Don’t be afraid to provide an outlet to share your supplier’s story if it is compelling.
3. Food talks: While a picture says a thousand words, a thousand more can be told by the dish you choose to serve. In the universe of food out there, why did you choose to make this particular dish? Why those ingredients? Where did you learn to cook this dish? Has it evolved over time, or was it perfection from the start? These are the most crucial elements of your brand’s story and the most obvious place for brand loyalty to grow from.
4. Talk to your own ‘Mayor:’ Your town likely has someone akin to The Mayor. Whoever they are, invite them in for a meal on the house and engage with them. Let them tell you what’s special about your food and your space. This will not only be helpful but inspiring too — a great staff motivator.
When you have your stories ready, the next step is to share them with the most important audiences you have: your storytellers. Your storytellers are your bartenders, kitchen staff, waitstaff and Mayors. Good stories told by good storytellers spread fast. Get your story out there. We’re ready to dine on it.
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