Editor's Note: The following is The Big Spoon, an opinion column on San Antonio's food and drink scene.
Over the past five years, I’ve watched several hundred restaurants open, and probably as many restaurants close.
It’s not a pretty picture, but here’s the usual story arc: A person with little-to-no restaurant knowledge decides to take their family recipes and invest in a cook who makes great food. Having gone way over budget outfitting the restaurant and leasing a cool location, the doors open and … crickets. (I’m not trying to pick on people who may not have experience – even the pros fail.)
As Food and Nightlife editor, I keep my ear to the ground for new restaurants, as do my pair of freelancers. I scour sales tax records. I drive around and look for “coming soon” signs, and I keep an eye on social media.
Given that it’s the Wild West in terms of restaurant openings in San Antonio, the hardest part is watching restaurants open their doors without telling anyone about it.
That’s why restaurants and shops should have a plan. Email me so I can tell readers about your newness (firstname.lastname@example.org
), email other publications, email TV stations and tell them your story. Set up a social-media presence and let someone who knows how to use it manage the story-telling for you. Tease out what your best dishes will look like and how they’ll set you apart from the rest.
The easiest ways for business owners to understand the power of a great plan is to see this in action. I have to point to two of San Antonio’s newest restaurants as guides to how to nail an opening.
Brew’s Lee Tea Station owners Billy and Frances Lee rolled out their social-media presence two months before opening the doors to their cute, all-too-Instagrammable space with fresh-brewed teas. They invited local foodies to taste iridescent teas on weekends leading up to the November opening. Their opening was a packed affair with hundreds lining up to try their take on bubble tea.
Since then, their social-media prowess has continued. New menu items are added and shared on each platform. Frances re-shares fans’ images with permission, and thanks them for coming each time.
On the city’s West Side, Cornelius and Lattoia Massey introduced their concept of Chef Nicola Blaque’s The Jerk Shack this May. But their work began years ago after Lattoia graduated from the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio and launched a small meal-prep delivery business that relied on their vast network. The military vets teamed up with Christian Reed-Ogba and husband Uchennaya of BethanyEast PR along the way as vendors for the couple’s event and public relations.
When they found their location on the West Side, the pair set out to renovate the space, and get on their neighbors’ radar. Reed-Ogba said the Masseys made sure the staff and students at Our Lady of the Lake University knew about them, and handed out fliers during pick-up at the neighboring KIPP Academy.
“We had fliers, were cooking up food that smelled really good, had music blasting,” Reed-Ogba said.
The public tour de force included establishing relationships with vendors, reaching out to local groups individually, inviting media (traditional and social) to meet the Masseys and introducing them to their story and food. They also recorded a video for a local news station that has now garnered 2 million views.
When opening day finally came, the small kitchen was met with massive lines that began at 9:30 a.m., which led to some rough Yelp and Facebook reviews. But the staff used the experience to tweak their processes so that customers don’t have to wait several hours for their food. Corneilus responds to each negative review by listening to people’s plight, apologizing and adding personality.
The lines are still there, but the couple has added call-in orders and will soon participate in UberEats.
“You have to create your word-of-mouth whether it’s in a full email, in a full conversation, and stick with your word,” Reed-Obga said.
That new word-of-mouth might mean the difference between a long-lasting business and closing your doors within six months.
So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.