In the process of starting the book a year ago I sent out about sixty emails to people I’d had contact with and considered at least acquaintances at that time. The email wasn’t extra long, I tried to pay attention to the recipients’ schedules, and six responded. Some with tomes of data, others with a line of encouragement. Both were extremely welcome and without them there would be no book, period. The responses came from friends. Not the Facebook kind. And, curiously absent, were those whom I’d call friends but who had built a Twitter/Facebook empire for themselves.
That experience underlined something I always suspected and experienced a lot — “social media,” especially its golden boys and girls, aren’t “social.”Once above a certain threshold, it’s no longer about people, about individuals and voices; it’s about numbers — retweets, followers, friends, click-throughs, upvotes, downvotes. The person behind the number becomes useless, individual engagement is abandoned for crowd engagement, and incoming voices turn into mumble; a constant stream of grey noise that must be drowned out, filtered, mechanically analyzed, and harnessed to increase the true raison d’etre of one’s presence — to speak to the masses, to be read and heard.
The same happens to good restaurants which, in the process, suffer. Too many owners, chefs, and investors focus on the numbers — Michelin stars, weekly mentions online and offline, readers of whatever magazine an interview was given to. Sure, bookings and reservations, covers, spoilage, voided chits, all those datapoints are important, but there’s more to a great restaurant than that.
Good chefs maintain an eye into the dining room. Good servers and hosts, bussers and cooks, are trained to feel and communicate not just the overall mood of the floor, but also to see individuals — trees instead of forests. Good restaurants serve Mr. and Mrs. Diner, not “the guests.” Sure, there’s money to be made the other way. There’s also success, and massively so, to be had by becoming a number collecting “social media” presence. But those successes are like freebased heroin; without constantly rising dosages — a constant fix — the crash looms around the corner. Individual relationships; the willingness to engage in conversation rather than broadcast, and the ability and readiness to become one of the circle — not one who hovers above it — sustain for decades.
If you need a number, some value to hang on to, a good one would be “How many diners have I engaged with today?” Or, more broadly, “How many personal, one on one, relationships have I built, expanded, or maintained today?” I try this every day. It’s overwhelming at times, to have to become a human instead of a machine. But it has its rewards. No one remembers last month’s dinner or yesterday’s tweet. Everyone remembers a friendly conversation for years.
The picture above is of a small restaurant/hotel in the Kitzbüheler Alps. A year ago I was flying back from the Silicon Valley and sat next to a man who told me about it. He’d been there, six years ago, and remembered every dish he’d eaten. “And then the chef came out and asked us how we liked the area and if we wanted to try something local that was not on the menu,” he told me. This small interaction led to that man’s company booking the hotel for three retreats. Oh, did I mention he’s the CEO of a Fortune 100?
Our weapon, the weapon against the faceless chain eateries, the thoughtless elitist dining experience, and the soulless pursuit of numbers is the ability to leave memories. The number-seekers can’t (and won’t) beat us in that game. And when they’re long forgotten, that memory of that one meal will still be around with those whose lives we were allowed to briefly become a part of.
We can ignore the email or pass on the smile and “howdy” when someone walks into our place. Or we can become memorable.