Many of you in the wine biz have been anxiously waiting for a discussion on how to grow your business using twitter so let’s cut to the chase and get down to business.

Back in the 90’s one of my first restaurant Sommelier gigs was working for the Kimpton Group in San Francisco. I was a feisty little manager filled with hopes and dreams and a dash of arrogance. My team led this restaurant to exceed yearly annual sales goals by 15%, maintaining a 24% liquor cost, and we did a good job kicking butt with the GOP budgets. Numbers aside, this story isn’t about the figures, per se, but rather a journey of lessons learned on what it takes to grow and build a successful business. Numbers are great, but what makes a successful business is,.. well, read on.


It’s About the Potato Chips, Madame

It was one of those typical busy nights at the restaurant. We were only an hour into dinner service, already quoting a 1 ½ hour wait for a table. Many of our guests would pass time at our small bar, which accommodated maybe a dozen or so guests. As bar seats filled, the overflow stand-up crowd would congest the dining room floor, making it difficult for wait staff to get to the POS systems positioned adjacent to the bar.

As I was manning the floor, I noticed a restless couple taking up two seats at the bar. Desperately trying to get my attention, I made my way through the congestion to answer what I assumed was a question relating to where they were on the wait list.

Would you have any bar snacks to tie me over before dinner?” says the guest.

Absolutely“, I said, “…why don’t I set you up with an antipasto?”

Puzzled and confused, she responds, “Well, that’s not exactly what I had in mind” (slight pause) “…how about some potato chips?”

Potato chips? I chuckled under my breath and inconspicuously rolled my eyes, as I thought to myself, honey, you’re at a high end fish house in San Francisco, not TGI Friday’s.

I glared over to Robert, the General Manager, who obviously overheard the conversation. Robert, with his usual enthusiasm exclaims, “Pamela, go across the street and pick up a bag of chips!”

Having worked with Robert for a little over a year, I should have expected his response because he’s known to go the extra mile for every guest that walks through the door.  But did he really want me to do this in the middle of a rush? Personally, I thought he was taking his motto getting and keeping customers a little too seriously.

The answer was YES. Lucky for me, we had a Safeway grocery store across the street, so in the middle of a rush, I ran over to buy a bag of chips. Oh, the glory of it all!

I’m certain most folks that met me along the way thought I was some crazy person as I murmured and grumbled through the Safeway parking lot. POTATO CHIPS? OMG. Why doesn’t she pick up her own bag of potato chips? Why am I doing this? She’ll eat the whole damn bag and not order an appetizer. There goes my check average.

HEY! While I’m at it, why don’t I pick up a bottle of two-buck chuck and serve it to her at the bar from a paper bag? …and to think I work at an upscale San Francisco restaurant. Great decision, Robert, I’ll let Meg know who to blame at our next P&L meeting.

Meg happened to be our corporate accountant and we never saw her unless we had a problem at the restaurant. She was the greatest person, but everyone in the company dreaded the “Meg” visit, whether it be a cost issue, inventory problem, or slacking sales.

Returning with potato chips in hand, I dumped them in a bowl, placed them on the bar and walked away feeling as if I had just served a plate of pancakes at Denny’s. I wonder if Masa’s or Postrio does this sort of thing.

The dinner rush went on as usual, churning like a well-oiled machine. We finally found a table for the potato chip lady. She ordered one of our inexpensive pastas and an iced tea, as did her guest. The normal check average was $25 per person. We fell short big time on this one, but that was OK because I planned to use this as ammunition; an example that going the extra mile doesn’t always equate to more revenue.

The next day I walked into Robert’s office with a bit of an attitude. I couldn’t wait to gloat about what the potato chip lady ordered. That, and I wanted to hammer on Robert on what he expected to gain by feeding our guests potato chips.

Hey, so Pammm-ee-ll-aa, how’s it going?” exclaimed Robert.

Ready to burst at the seams and with a big smirk on my face, I exclaimed, “Hey ROBERRTT! What’s up?” Before I could go into the details, Robert responds…

So, Pamela, you know that potato chip lady you dealt with last night?”

Of course, how could I forget?” My mind rambles, I made a special trip to Safeway, did you forget Robert?

Well, she came in for lunch today with five other guests. She loved the food and the experience last night. She set up an appointment with the catering department to host their next conference at our property. Way to go!”

Dumbfounded and flabbergasted, I responded, “Wow, um…NO WAY!”

It turns out that potato chip lady was some executive at a well-known firm that had some dough to spend. Boy, did I feel like an idiot. I slipped out of the room with my tail between my legs, slowly crumbling a copy of the potato chip lady’s dinner check I had strategically placed in my suit pocket to use as ammo.

To no surprise, this customer became a longtime regular and to this day sends the restaurant business leads — and I’m not talking about dinner for two, I’m talking about cream of the crop parties. True story, I kid you not.

And the truth be told? Never in my wildest dreams would I believe a bag of potato chips would teach me a lesson in business.  It was at this moment I realized I had a lot to learn about the industry, or any business for that matter.


Growing Your Business on Twitter

So what do potato chips have to do with twitter and your business? Read on…

When I first heard rumblings about using twitter to sell wine, I cringed. A few years back I’d heard things like, “…yeah, twitter this and twitter that, but how can I sell wine with it”, or “what’s the return on investment“, or “can I pay for a full time social media expert with the sales I make from twitter“.  If you’re thinking in these terms, rethink your strategy. If you’re building some sort of mechanism to justify twitter existence through sales, end the madness now.

Twitter wasn’t built to sell stuff like Ebay. It’s original intent was to connect people – an information network to tell people what they care about as its happening in the world.

Now I’m not saying it’s impossible to sell some wine on twitter, but if you think it’s the platform to move a pallet, think again.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. Some of you have probably heard of Twitter’s own wine label, Fledgling Wine, which has collaborated with the San Francisco-based winery Crushpad. Keep in mind this is a different business model and completely different animal.  It’s a non-profit organization, which donates proceeds to help promote literacy in India.

Let’s get back to selling a product. You know the basics — as with any industry, you only have a chance of survival by offering a good product and good customer service; offer shoddy service with a bad product to boot, you can kiss your business goodbye.

Good customer service is fine, but if you really want to shine, go the extra mile.  Entertain and engage your customers, whether it’s in the tasting room, your blog, on twitter, or at an event. Don’t worry so much about making a sale with every person that walks through the door.

…and if you think you’ve lost a customer simply because they didn’t buy, think about the potato chip lady. Forget about making millions on twitter and focus on the tool’s real value — growing your business. No where else can you build worldwide relationships with 140 characters at a time. Is it a lot of work? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Still not convinced? Maybe my list will persuade you to think differently:

1. It’s about sharing experiences

When I first started using twitter, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. After much trial and error, I realized people interacted best when you were willing to share an opinion or an experience. Go ahead and tweet a wine deal or a special event, but mix it up with something your followers can’t get elsewhere. Make it special. Go the extra mile. Take chances. Need examples? Upload a picture or streaming video of your winemaker doing a punch down.  Heck, get your winemaker to make occasional guest appearances on twitter. Have an employee tell us what happened at the winery that day. If a follower recommends your wine, retweet their comment. Ask the community if they favor one of your wines. Get creative and think outside of the box. It will pay off in the long run.

2. It’s about branding

Don’t settle for twitter’s default profile values. Tailor your color scheme and add your personal touch. Experiment with customization or hire a pro if you’re not sure how to do it.  Once you have that in place, follow the leaders in your industry and build relationships through conversations and consider retweeting (RT) their messages. If you don’t know how to retweet, don’t worry, I’ll cover this in a follow-up post. Engage with your followers. Your network will grow organically and your personal brand will grow.

3. It’s about connections and networks

Start following people and observe the chain reaction. One person that decides to follow you ultimately leads to another follower. Build your network consciously and strategically, balancing between customers, distributors, brokers and suppliers. Follow those who twitter your brand name and build relationships with those who sell your wine. When was the last time you chatted with someone who collects your brand information and can tell you what your customers want?

4. It’s about finding new leads

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve made contacts with a magazine editor, numerous wineries and a few vendors via twitter. We had an opportunity to talk via direct message (DM – if you don’t know what a DM is, don’t worry, we’ll get to this twitter lingo in a later post). These conversations lead to receiving an invite to pitch a story. A Russian stationary company contacted us to reprint our vintage chart. A Chinese publication asked permission to reprint our stories on their daily news website. If it wasn’t for twitter, we never would have made these connections. Think of it this way. How many times have you tried to introduce yourself through email? If your message didn’t automatically fall into the junk mail folder, how often did the recipient respond? The beauty of twitter is the real time interaction, and the ability to connect to people who have an interest to make a connection with you.

5. It’s about finding new customers, clients & suppliers

Last year I made a connection with someone looking to publish a story about wine and food pairings. I wrote the story and they published it a few weeks later. Another DM led to receiving samples for review and selling our ad space. The opportunities are endless. …and where else can you mingle with magazine editors, wine writers, winemakers and owners? How about using twitter to find a new glass manufacturer or cork supplier? …and according to, “creating a community of followers through Twitter and a regularly updated stream of content on a blog builds engagement, boosts the company’s presence on Google and ultimately bring in more potential customers.”

6. It’s about complimenting traditional marketing efforts

Let me be clear that twitter should compliment your current marketing efforts. As with any business plan, you should have a mix of traditional and social media options. Think of it in terms of a 401K – you wouldn’t put all of your eggs in one basket. It’s about diversifying.

7. Your sales will grow as you build relationships

The Message, Loud and Clear – remember the potato chip lady

Is the concept that simple? Yes. Is twittering hard work? Yes. Is it worth it? You tell me.

~Pamela Heiligenthal