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Digital Restaurant Marketing in a Post-Pandemic World: Building Relationships and Maintaining Trust

David “Rev” Ciancio, Hospitality Marketing Consultant, shares the qualities of a successful restaurant, how to ask for help, how to effectively market your restaurant, and where to focus your acquisition efforts to bring in new customers and create loyal regulars who’ll want to keep coming back.

Key Takeaways

  1. The reckoning of restaurants was coming for restaurants even prior to COVID. The restaurants that are surviving are going to take hospitality, service, and online marketing to another level and will continue to be successful.

  2. One of the most profitable ways to run a restaurant today is to get your customers to be on your own ordering system without being fully reliant on 3rd party delivery apps.

  3. If you need help with marketing, ask for help. Post on social media and put up signs in your restaurant. People want to help small business owners more than ever.

  4. New customers get started with a Google search, an advertisement, or Yelp - not on social media. Invest your resources properly!


David "Rev" Ciancio: Small, progressive steps in the direction of our vision is better than no steps at all.

Matt Levin: Inspirational stories, actionable business tips, and real-world strategies. Join us as today's guest shares how you can build a resilient restaurant fit for an unpredictable world.

Hi everyone. I'm Matt Levin and you're listening to the Resilient Restaurant Podcast.

We're taking the energy levels up a notch. We'll be speaking to David "Rev", short for revenue, Ciancio, Hospitality Marketing Consultant, technology evangelist, and burger enthusiast with more than 20 years of experience in hospitality, marketing, and business development. We'll be discussing what matters today in hospitality marketing, and the secrets of profitable growth.

About David “Rev” Ciancio

Matt Levin: Thank you for joining us today. I'm really excited to talk all things revenue and restaurant-related. I think you've got a wealth of knowledge and advice for the world and we'd love to dive right in.

David "Rev" Ciancio: Wow. No pressure. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here and have a conversation. So I appreciate that.

Matt Levin: So what's your 30 second life story background overview? How did you get into the hospitality industry, and what's kept you in the industry?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Give you my whole life of 47 years in 30 seconds? Let me see what I can do. I failed at a whole bunch of things and ended here. How's that?

I was in the music business for awhile, helping artists to get radio play across the country and then actually managing the careers of a few Grammy nominated bands. And one day I woke up and I was like, I hate music. And I recently purchased a bar with some friends and I was like, I want to go in the hospitality business cause you can't download a hamburger. And I literally walked into my office, turned off the lights, told everybody to go home and shut down my agency that day.

And since then I've been in the hospitality business. What I learned while owning and operating, you know, a location-based, you know, bar business was it's really hard. Although ultimately we lost that bar because of a bad partnership and some bad investments, I learned a ton about how to market hospitality brands that I dedicated my career to helping restaurants with that since. There's a reason they call them restaurant operators and not restaurant marketers because they're good at the former and not the latter, and I realized that I had a lot of skills in the latter that I could help restaurant operators with. I've spent a lot of time in the hospitality tech side of things because I believe in tech. If it helps you go faster, smarter, cheaper, and better than you should use it. I'm a big tech evangelist.

But that's sort of the story in I guess maybe more than 30 seconds.

How The Pandemic Is Changing The Online Presence of Restaurants

Matt Levin: So today as we're recording this, we're actually exactly at the one year anniversary mark of when Coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. With your restaurant and hospitality hat on, can you share a little bit about what your thinking and mindset was back then?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Sure. I wear hats every day, so let me make sure I put that one on. There's some research out there and some data that shows this, that you could go search Google search it if you want, there is data that shows even before the pandemic, there were more restaurants in America than mouths to eat at them in a financial successful manner.

The reckoning was coming. The reckoning was coming regardless of a disease. Now I don't say that because I'm trying to downplay COVID; it was horrible. It still is horrible at the effects of what it's done even outside of our business is absolutely horrible, but this was coming and what COVID did was exacerbate the speed at which it was coming. And I don't want to make it sound like I don't feel bad for people that lost their businesses and job, I feel horrible for them. But you can go look at the data. The data shows that there were more restaurants than mouths to eat at in a financially successful manner.

There is data that shows quote from David "Rev" Ciancio

So what does that mean? Where does that get us to today? The restaurants that are surviving and that are going to continue to survive and even more than survive to be successful are the ones that are going to take what they normally focus on, which is hospitality and service, and they're going to extend that to customer communication and online marketing. If I was in your restaurant and I sat down at your table, what would you do before the end of the meal? And you handed me the check? They do a table touch, right? If I said I had a great time, the server or the manager would say, awesome, thank you.

If I said something went wrong, I had a chipped glass, my food was cold, somebody was a jerk, the bathroom was broken or whatever, what would you do? You would say, I'm sorry. And you would make it up right there. Right? That is what you would do. Where restaurant operators fail and where they're going to succeed is when they take that exact same moment and they apply it to their entire online profile.

You have to communicate with your guests at every step of the journey and you have to own all of those branded moments. You have to own the experience on Google, that experience on Yelp, that experience on Instagram, that experience in email because you have to be capturing their email. You have to be capturing their phone number so you can text them. You have to be following up after the meal with communication to say, how was it? You have to do a digital table touch. And when somebody leaves you a review on Yelp or Google, you have to reply to them as though they were on-premise. You need to take the same service and hospitality that you extend on-premise and bring it online.

You have to communicate with your guests at every step of the journey and you have to own all of those branded moments

Asking for Help

Matt Levin: What's your advice for someone who says, "Sure Rev, I hear you, and I generally know I should be doing these things. But, doing it well seems like it's like a really high bar and I just don't really know how to do it systematically or even find time to do it?"

David "Rev" Ciancio: If your toilet broke in your house, what would you do? You would call a plumber unless, you know, unless you're a plumber and you know how to fix it, great. You should get help. Like, don't be afraid to ask questions. And oftentimes there are incremental steps and small steps that you could take that don't require you to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars on day one for a tech stack, and I think that's where a lot of operators get into a failing mindset.

They're like, "Oh my God, this is going to be so much money!" Like you could do it. Step-by-step you could spend a hundred bucks here. You could spend 200 bucks there. You can make little steps, but ask for help. There's people like me. There's people like Doug Radkey, there's people like Donald Burns, there's people like Bruce Irving.

There's lots of people out there: Charlie Jeffers, who know all the ins and outs of all of these things that are happy to answer questions and happy to help restaurants. So, whatever it is that you're struggling with, whether it's trying to figure out how do I use tech to manage my staff? Or how do I get more reviews on Yelp? Like there's somebody that knows how to do that. And we'll be happy to give you advice. Or ask another operator. Most restaurant owners or operators, know other restaurant owners and operators.

If you don't know who to ask, go onto your Instagram and be like, "Hey, I'm John. I own John's pizza and I don't know how to do email. Does any of my followers know how to do email? I want to be able to email you guys." Ask your own customers. No guest of a restaurant is going to be angry at an operator for doing that. No guest of a restaurant has to say, well, I'm never ordering there again. In fact, they're probably gonna feel tighter. They're probably like, Oh, I want to help John. I love John. You know what I mean?

The Impact of Customer Communication

Matt Levin: What's the one thing that you think most restaurant operators can improve upon?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Customer communication. And I know that's like big words and it sounds ominous, but I'm going to give you an example.

I have a client, right? They have four locations. In 45 days, they generated $21,000 from an automated email. Meaning, we wrote it one time. We hit the button one time and basically in their sleep, that one email generated $21,000 in 45 days.

Now I'm not saying everybody's results are going to be similar, but doesn't that sound good? That email was four sentences. Anybody that's listening to this: can you write four sentences about your business? If you can, you can easily write an email that converts guests into orders. And the system that they use to automate that costs $150 a month.

Customer communication; it is the one thing that operators really need to focus on. And I don't want to make it sound like I'm just talking to Mom-and-Pops here. If somebody is on your email list, if somebody is on your SMS list, if they've ordered from you first party, if they follow you on social media, you have permission to market to them and you should.

Customer communication; it is the one thing that operators really need to focus on.

Bridging The Gap between Customer Relationships and Delivery

Matt Levin: How do you transition people from thinking that they've done enough by getting listed on the third-party marketplaces? You know, getting their listings all pretty and having that whole system working, to actually having a real and honest customer restaurant, you know, one-to-one digital relationship? What would be your advice for operators to be able to do that and bridge that gap?

David "Rev" Ciancio: There's a system that, that I kind of built and pioneered called the Third to First-Party Conversion System. I had a lot of help there, I don't want to make it sound like I developed the whole thing. I asked a lot of people, I got a lot of advice and partners of yours or partners of mine, but I put it into a system.

And essentially what it does, and this is what operators need to think about. It's easy to hate third-party delivery apps because they own the customer, which you can't remarket to, and then they take a high commission. The fact that they continue to ingest money and lose is terrible. I think that third-party delivery apps are an incredible source of new customers. Seamless and DoorDash and Uber Eats will literally hand you the customer.

The key is to build a system that mimics what the third-party delivery apps do to get them on the subsequent orders to order from you directly instead. It really comes down to two words: customer communication.

Somebody orders from DoorDash, put a sticker on the bag that says "order from us directly", right? That's one way to do it. The key is to make the effort to get them to come to your own system. But what's really important. And this is the part that most people screw up. Cause it's easy to put a note on a bag that says order directly, right? It's that sounds easy, right? The importance is getting guests to not go back to the third-party and that's where customer communication comes in.

You have to be getting their email address. You have to be getting their phone number. You have to be texting them. You have to be in constant communication. You have to be replying to reviews. You have to be updating social. When you do all of the things that the third party apps do, you will get your guests to order from you and you only, and also at a higher frequency.

And so while that may sound like a lot of work, you won't care because your dishwasher will be paid and your bills to your distributor will be paid and you'll have more money in your pocket, and you'll be able to take that family vacation. So you'll be happy to do the marketing work. The key here in getting guests to order from you directly is to put in the effort to grab them and then keep them.

Matt Levin: So how much work would this be? Are we talking about a six month process that involves a bunch of tech and people and consultants and money, or is this something that can be done with relatively less effort, maybe combining with other types of investments or processes?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Most operators are going to go try to figure this out and it might take six months, it might take nine months, it might take 12 months, and you'll get there and you'll be happy. I have a course that I teach that's six weeks long that walks you through. It's 73 lessons. In six weeks you can literally build the system and you'll spend about five to $700 in tech.

And ultimately I've seen the amount of money that people recover. Because they're getting their guests order directly. And the amount of money they make the incremental revenue because their guests are ordering more frequently.

Something like 50% of all restaurant guests only order one time. If you could get even 10% of those people to order a second time, doesn't that sound like a great business model? You can also get your most frequent guests who probably order, four times a year, five times a year, unless you're coffee, right, then they're ordering four times a week, five times a week. You can double that. You can even add, you can increase that by 20%, and it's really not that hard to do.

Restaurant Innovation and Changing Mindsets

Matt Levin: That's really insightful! Are there other types of interesting changes that you've seen other operators do in their business that would be worth exploring?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Think there's lots of really cool things, especially that have come out of necessity in the pandemic, whether it's, you know, operators opening up ghost kitchens and virtual brands, or offering family meals, 'make them at home' kits, or a zoom class where you get to cook the dish with the chef.

There's lots of really cool stuff. I've seen restaurants that are basically like, look, we're cutting our menu in half, or we're moving all the dogs. What I'm hoping is that all of these great ideas and great decisions and new forms of revenue generation and customer frequency, all these things that they continue to happen and that restaurateurs take the lessons learned in COVID and continue to build on them.

Let's take the innovation and the need to survive and the need to change that we learned from this forced experience, and make that a regular part of our mindset, so that we're always focused on business growth, because it's just necessary.

Let's make that a daily part of our mindset so that we're constantly looking at our systems, and our management, and the way we communicate, and the things that we serve, and our profitability, and like, let's just be those people every day.

And ultimately, everybody's going to be more profitable. Every restaurant's going to be more fun to eat at. Guests are going to be happier. Like, it's going to be what I'm calling the new better. I'm not interested in the new normal as my friend, Donald Burns says "normal" as the setting of your dishwasher, I'm interested in the new better. And I would encourage restaurants to keep this mindset. Keep this mindset of how do I innovate for profitability?

Matt Levin: How do operators keep that mindset? What do you suggest for making these habits and behaviors permanent and making this mindset shift really happen? Is there something that operators can do with, you know, one or two simple techniques?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Changing your business sounds like an easy thing to say, but it feels like an insurmountable task. I totally agree with you. If I'm an operator, I would take 30 minutes out of one day and be like, okay, what's wrong with my business? I'm going to jot down everything. And then prioritize it. And this is a Steve Larson thing. I don't know if you guys know Steve Larson, but he does red dot, green dot. Anything that makes revenue gets a green dot and anything that does not generate revenue gets a red dot and then you only do the green dots.

So like there's a really quick way to get started. And then when you look at those green dots and you're like, okay, these are the two or three things that I think will change my business significantly, if you don't know how to do them, go back to what we talked about before and just ask for help. Small, progressive steps in the direction of our vision is better than no steps at all. So pick one thing, make one small change, see what it does. Pick the next thing, make one small change, and get there over time.

Small progressive steps in the direction of our vision is better than no steps at all.

Changes That Are Here to Stay

Matt Levin: If we snap our fingers and go forward a year from now, what do you think the most successful operators are going to continue to do from a business adaptation perspective? And of these changes that we've seen today, what do you think is really here to stay in the future?

David "Rev" Ciancio: Customer communication, right? Cause all those ideas are great ideas, but how do your customers or your guests know that you have them? It all comes down to customer communication. Are meal kits going to last forever?

Well, I could see why I would use a meal kit. You know, I could see why I would order a family meal on Friday nights. Like it makes sense to me, but like you have to look at, is that what your customer wants from you and is it ultimately profitable? So, you know, again, I think the one change that we have to stick with here is customer communication, right?

And if meal kits are the thing that continue to work for you, then man have at it, go to it. If that's what takes your most frequent guests and makes them even more frequent guests, or if that's the thing that gets the one-time-only guests to be two time only guests, like do that thing, do it.

Building Stronger Customer Relationships with Digital Table Touches

Matt Levin: What is a really good example of what great customer communication looks like that either large or small operators can learn from?

David "Rev" Ciancio: There's lots of examples, but the one I like to talk about is called a digital table touch. Restaurant operators spend a ton of time, you know, what's my name? What's my dining room look like? What's my service model? What's on my menu? How do I plate this? Like operational things that make sense, right.

When all that work is put into a GrubHub bag, and a single serving container, and gets eaten on my couch. Like, you couldn't come up to me at the end of the meal and say, how was your experience? So what I recommend restaurants do, and there's a technology called Ovation that is phenomenal at this, is to do a digital table touch. So 30 minutes after somebody gets the delivery, this system automatically sends out a text message and it says, how was your experience?

That's it. It's one question. And then consumers, after they've ordered can rate one through five. If they rate a five, cool. They get another automated text message that says, "cool, do you want to share this on Google or Yelp?" And all of a sudden you're getting more five-star reviews and you had to do nothing. It's all automated. If they rate a one through four, they go into a private text message chat with some representative of the business. It then says, "Hey, can you tell us a little bit more?" It doesn't assume that something went wrong.

It just says. "Tell us a little bit more." Every person that is listening to this audio recording, okay, every person has ordered from delivery and had something go wrong. Even minor things go wrong with more delivery orders than any restaurant operator even realizes. Now wouldn't it be great to handle those problems in real-time? Now you've got an automated way to do a table touch to somebody who ordered from delivery. You're taking care of problems in real-time, you're rewarding customers who said, thank you, you're communicating, and it feels like the hospital service industry.

Social Media And Redirecting Marketing Efforts

Matt Levin: I want to flip that on its head a little bit. What's the one thing that operators are doing that they should stop doing?

David "Rev" Ciancio: They should stop thinking that posting to Instagram and Facebook is going to generate them new guests. Nobody really follows a restaurant on social media, unless they've either eaten there or plan to eat there in the immediate future. So what does that mean? Those aren't followers. Those are guests. Most people do not start their journey on discovering restaurants on Instagram. They started with a Google search, they started on Yelp. They started at an advertisement, they started at a friend telling them. That means that social media is a lagging indicator of interest in a customer journey. So, if you are treating your social media channels like a communication to your guests as a new guest, if I end up on your Instagram, I see the type of hospitality that I can expect if I was a guest.

Matt Levin: So that naturally leads to the question of where should restaurateurs redirect and spend their marketing efforts to acquire new customers?

David "Rev" Ciancio: I think people, in general, discover restaurants in one of three ways. A. word of mouth, for sure. If I tell you that you'd need to go eat this new cheesesteak restaurant and you trust me like you're going to go.

But how do you do that? Well, if the customer loves you, they're going to talk about you, so that's where customer communication comes into place. So how do you stoke word of mouth? Customer communication. The second way that people find out about restaurants is through search. Google has reported that in the last six years, the number one, quote, unquote near me search is restaurants. The other thing that's super important to hear is that two out of three searches for a local restaurant, start by somebody searching for what they crave, not the name of the brand. Google and Yelp primarily, TripAdvisor are super important to getting new guests because that's where people go when they don't know where to eat but are craving an item.

The third biggest way that I think people discover new restaurants and that where restaurant operators need to focus their acquisition efforts is social media advertising. Put yourself in this scenario, it's 11:55, you just got done with a meeting or recording a podcast, right, and it's five minutes to your next meeting or whatever. What do you do? You pull out your phone and you take five minutes to go look at Instagram or Facebook and see what's happening with your friends and family in the universe. You're pre crave. Well, what if a restaurant could pop up in your feed right at that moment before you have the crave and you're like, dang, that does look good. I do want this. You know what I mean? And that's social advertising, right? It is easy to attract a local audience in a one to two, three-mile range, depending on where you are, you know, if you're urban, it's different than if you're suburban, with Facebook and Instagram ads. So they have all the targeting available. It's super easy. Consumers are used to clicking on ads for restaurants. They like looking at food. And here's the thing: it's super cheap. I know restaurant operators who are having wild success with social advertising, spending only 10 or $12 a day.

That is less than you pay your dishwasher in an hour. You know what I mean? And the other great thing is restaurants who use social advertising, Facebook and Instagram actually get more followers than those that don't, and their content has a higher reach because of that. More followers means less money you have to spend because you can communicate more direct.

What Should Every Operator Do Tomorrow?

Matt Levin: I want to leave us with one final question here. I think I may already know the answer, based on the conversation so far, but I'm gonna, I'm gonna tee it up regardless. If there's one thing that every operator should do tomorrow that can help improve their business, what would that one thing be that they should do?

David "Rev" Ciancio: The one thing every operator should start doing immediately to improve their business is email their customers. It's that simple.


Matt Levin: Awesome. Rev, thank you so much to take time out of your busy day to join us today. Your honesty and passion for your work is super refreshing. I learned a ton today and I think a lot of restaurant operators will as well. So again, thank you.

David "Rev" Ciancio: Thank you.

Thanks for listening to The Resilient Restaurant. Sign up for our podcast newsletter at to receive bonus content and exclusive podcast announcements. You can also find articles on for more content related to the restaurant industry and restaurant management.

This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.

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