A Local Social Media Experiment

Chris Brogan recently wrote a post on whether social media could save a small business.

It was a post that rattled around in my head until earlier this week when I went to a small restaurant near my house called Vinny’s Panini. Vinny is a nice guy who probably makes the best – and biggest – veal sandwiches in Toronto. He’s a classic entrepreneur who works hard, knows his customer by their first names, and serves up great food.

That said, Vinny told me recently that business is soft. It could be the economy, it could be that the two nearby grocery stores are selling more prepared foods, or it could be that not enough people know about Vinny’s.

It got me thinking if there was some way I could help Vinny using social media. Given I just launched a consulting firm with social media as a pillar, giving Vinny a hand would be a good thing to do and be a social media experiment.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.

The first challenge is Vinny doesn’t have a Web site. If you do a Google search, there are lots of places that talk about Vinny’s but in an ideal world, Vinny’s own Web site would appear at the top of the list. It wouldn’t have to feature a lot of bells and whistles – just the menu, address and hours that it’s open.

So, job one is create a Web site for Vinny, probably using WordPress or Googles Sites. (Note: If you’re a Web site developer and a veal sandwich fan, feel free to chip in!)

After that, I’m going to go into my social media toolbox to see what else I can do to give Vinny’s an online jump-start.

If anything, this is going to be an interesting social media exercise. If it works, maybe Vinny will comp me a sandwich!

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  • Steve

    I also live in the neighbourhood, and while I have noticed Vinny’s before, I’ve never been in. I’ll have to check it out.

  • stanleyyork

    -you might considering creating a feed of “daily specials” (he might have to update something once a day) and feed it acros the web (twitter, friendfeed, Facebook Fan page).

    -FB fan page

    -email newsletter

    -flickr photos (maybe completed largely by user-generated photos?)

  • Jevon

    Rock on Mark. Forums like Chowhound and Yelp drive a lot of new customers to these smaller places, but guys like Vinny work so hard, it is impossible for them to work on building their profile online.

    There is a product/service gem in there.

  • Malcolm Bastien

    Maybe getting Vinny’s some coverage on BlogTO might send him foot traffic & web traffic again.

  • Kurt Gooden

    Looking forward to the results, seems like a great idea, there are a lot of hidden places like Vinny’s in town that could use similar exposure. When I am in the area I will make sure to check it out as well.

  • mose

    Although highly commendable, I would caution you on a number of things.

    1 – You are wasting valuable (sales) time working with Vinnie. No matter how nice a guy, how great a sandwich and how much affection you have for him and his business – it is business. You are in business. If I was yoru boss I would fire you for wasting time. Sorry but that is the truth. I have run consulting firms. I run one now. We make money through utilization and billable hours.

    2 – I currently work and have worked with many clubs, chains and restaurants. They are about location, location, location. I know you would love to see if social media works for Vinnie. He doesn’t need social media he needs either a better location or a reason for folks to go there. Or maybe clean his toilets? Offer a great atmosphere?

    Veal – the category killer in TO is California sandwiches. As a marketer he better have something unique (USP) to offer or he is toast. Full stop. That is where solid marketing and business management come in. Also being a savvy restauranteur is key.

    3 – The sad part of what you are doing is missing “what you do” for a living. If you are embarking on starting a professional consulting practice – rule one .. “Don’t give stuff away.” My nephew with a Mac does that he does web sites – cool who cares. My neighbor with a saw does that – cool he builds the occasional deck – who cares? that’s called a hobby. Professionals sell their services.

    If you are trying to get some referencable work as proof of what ya can do – as in “See I can help folks!” – why don’t you offer your services to a group that could use your help. A hospice, a shelter, a not-for-profit etc etc These folks REALLY need help. Not Vinnie. Don’t get me wrong Vinnie is probably a freakin genius and the best guy in the world. This ain’t about Vinnie.

    Vinnie will – like a lot of other folks experience natural selection or not in these tough times (See Nortel) and sadly there is little you can do. Especially if you come at his issue from solely a “social media” standpoint. I am just guessing but Vinnie could really use some major ad, marcom and business thinking. He probably is GREAT at veal. Direct marketing, promotions and advertising efficiencies and effectiveness – not so much.

    And sadly knowing the restaurant biz – he can’t afford any of it.

    Social media ain’t free advertising.

    Finally – You have to keep your eye on the ball.

    I am working with a dozen or so clients and yep they are all looking and/or using some sort of social media. but it wouldn’t add up to a days billing from any of them. Not because I don’t believe in it – been doing it for over 20 years* but because the other stuff – the 4 Ps and the solid business practices are far more crucial and important to a Vinnie.

    My clients are large and small – each and everyone of them is back to basics in a recession.

    *I own the rights to the Cluetrain and started in the BBS space in the 80′s – where it was nothing BUT social media and us Cluetrain guys been preaching this type of use of online – fer ever!

  • Chris Schmitt

    I’m really interested to see what you come up with. There are a lot of ways that the Web can help small businesses but, as Jevon points out, small business oweners often don’t have the time or skills to work on it.

  • Mark Evans


    Thanks for the advice and insight. You’re right, there are probably better ways to use my time but it’s a short-term experiment to nurture something in my local community. And, who knows, it could become a real-world, hands-on case study that I can use as part of ME Consulting.

  • AGORACOm – George

    Mose, I’m the first guy to bang the table about getting paid and dumping the “free” Web 2.0 model.

    However, even AGORACOM started out by working cheap and almost free just to prove some concepts and get references.

    Web 2.0 is new to most business owners. They can’t grasp the concept, so they have to see some examples.

    Mark is on the right path.


  • Jevon

    Mose: You “own the rights” to the cluetrain? What the hell are you talking about?

  • Mathew Ingram

    Great idea, Mark — good luck to you and Vinnie.

  • mose

    “Mose: You “own the rights” to the cluetrain? What the hell are you talking about?”

    I acquired the rights from David and Doc to the Cluetrain and use it in my courses and lectures. I had been referencing this fine body of work that was very aligned with my own documented course material dating back to 93. Frankly even before that when Peter Zarry (dean at Schulich) and I were partners. And did tons of work in the area of “being human” and eliminating biz speak and breaking down what the C guys call Fort Business – it was Our USP for years.

    I wanted to formalize our relationship and that I was referencing this fine body of work and in discussions with the authors we crafted an agreement.

    Have been doing “Advanced Internet” courses featuring material from “The Cluetrain” officially for 6+ years (CMA, DMAT, FDSA, Schulich, RGD, WIFT, AMEX, bell Canada, AECL, TD Bank ManuLife etc etc etc)

    OK with you?


  • mose

    “Mark is on the right path.”

    Couldn’t agree more; But with the wrong recipient of his charity.

    Call the Red Feather Shelter – they need all the help they can get!!!!

  • mose

    Ooops dangling pronoun – I started referencing the book – and the manifesto obviously after it came out in 99 – I meant that the Cluetrainesque thinking in my own courses started in ’93.

  • Bruce Winter


    Add Value, charge a fair price, is the business proposition for Vinnie.

    Perhaps you can negotiate a revenue share, from the new business you help create. That for the stay focused on business crowd.

    Fee or rolalty, which would you prefer? Which facilititates business, creates or stiffles growth in this case, at this time?

    Maybe there’s an out of store ‘lunch time’, catering opportunity to explore. Location isn’t an issue for that.

    So what’s the value propostion for Vinnie’s? You’re a customer, tell me, eh him, us.

    Maybe that’s a key to the ‘tool box’?

  • Bruce Winter


    Add Value, charge a fair price, is the business proposition for Vinnie.

    Perhaps you can negotiate a revenue share, from the new business you help create. That for the stay focused on business crowd.

    Fee or royalty, which would you prefer? Which facilitates business, creates or stifles growth in this case, at this time?

    Maybe there’s an out of store ‘lunch time’, catering opportunity to explore. Location isn’t an issue for that.

    So what’s the value proposition for Vinnie’s? You’re a customer, tell me, eh him, us.

    Maybe that’s a key to the ‘tool box’?

  • Matt John

    The rewards of noble work are much greater than a fat wallet. Mr. Mose, I’m sure is a fine business man as he has shown us his resume and great management skills. This experiment will reward Mark and Vinny more than Mr. Mose may suggest. Although this might not fatten Mark’s wallet it will ‘fatten’ his spirit.

    Good Luck!

  • Mike Shanks

    I would have to side with Mose on this one. If you are going to do charity work contact a charity and help them out. The world’s service clubs are on the decline and in desperate need of your time and energy. Call your local Kiwanis club, visit a Rotary club. Do some good for people that can’t help themselves.

    Vinnie is an entrepreneur, he has made his bed. Not saying you would have to charge him huge fees but if he gets something for nothing, what value does he place on it?

  • E Guy

    Well, this post has caused quite a stir…along with some strong notes from Mose – can you say Type A personality!

    Mark, I agree you are on the right track. This is nothing more than professional development in consulting speak. Engage, learn, and use in future fee paying consulting assignments.

    Mose, we get it…you think you are good and like to talk about it / yourself. Hope the final product is as good as the demo.

  • Matt John

    Just because one person might think supporting a rotary club or Kiwanis might be more important than helping out a local entrepreneur doesn’t make the act less charitable.

    Who we choose as a designate of our good deeds is up to the individual, not who is most the needy.

  • Jeremiah

    Mark, good luck. I would definitely like to see some results of this experiment during, and afterward!

    By the way, take a good look around his restaurant before inviting people inside for a meal. You’d be surprised WHY someone will avoid a restaurant based on appearances or atmosphere.

    Ask yourself a few questions like:

    Is the facility clean?
    Are the employees clean?
    Questions of that nature.

    Good luck!

  • Mark Evans


    If you’ve been to Vinny’s, you know it’s a small place, very casual, family-run business. Most of the business is take-out, I think.

  • Laurie Smith

    Hi Mark,

    I know Vinny’s well. The folks are really nice. The sandwiches are indeed delicious and well worth the price. I don’t care about atmosphere and I live in the area so the location is brilliant as far as I’m concerned… But as close as it is to my house, I don’t go often. Why?

    - The kitchen gets backed up during the lunch rush and it can take forever (20-30 mins) to get a sandwich.

    -The place is tiny and its hard to stay out of the way of other people while you’re all waiting.

    I think he needs to reorganize the room to allow for the take-out crowd – maybe lose the tables and chairs and install counters?

    - There is often some confusion at the counter – lost orders, malfunctioning debit machine, uncertainty as to who has paid and who hasn’t etc.

    He needs to create smoother processes between the counter and the kitchen and a better way to deal with rushes.

    Area businesses who are wise to the situation will call in their orders in advance and send a runner to pick it up at lunchtime.

    I think this is a smart solution and it points out that people are willing to do something extra to ensure they get one of Vinny’s sandwiches.

    If you’re going to build him a website, what about making it possible to submit your order in advance online with a credit card? It would give him a better idea of how to prep for the day.

    This is making me really hungry. What time does he close?


  • Brian

    First rule of any business – or marketing campaign: know your customer. Are Vinnie’s target customers retirees? Construction folks on their lunch hour? In other words… are they online? Can they be reached digitally? That being said (er, “asked”) the a simple web site is basic marketing nowadays. I AM online and the first thing I look for is a page or two that at least lets me know what the business offers. and THAT being said… I probably go to 50 restaurants based on word of mouth recommendations for every one I head to based on their website. Maybe a simple sign over the exit that asks “if you liked Vinnie’s, tell your friends”.

  • Greg Nisbet

    Mark, I think this is a great initiative. A consultancy is a business like any other, and a tried-and-true strategy for any young business is acquiring great customers and learning from them, whether they are paying you or not. This project will teach you as much as it teaches Vinny I’m sure, and you’ll both be the better off for it. I look forward to hearing about your progress.

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  • Tim A

    Laurie’s comments are probably the most valuable here. It sounds as though Vinnie’s is busy enough but probably frustrating experience so people don’t return. I have a number of places like that near me. Like Laurie its a pain to go back so I don’t go to some places nearly as much as I would if it wasn’t a headache every time.

    Mark can send a 1000 new customers there but that is likely all they will be. 1000 one-time customers never to return.

  • JohnA

    I was the one mentioned in Mr. Brogans post and this is what I have found works so far(small returns but returns none the less) Yelp is big, as is a facebook fan page. I had customers coming in before the post off of facebook. I also started a wordpress site(luckily I had the design donated) and have started a bi-weekly email newsletter. The online community has been fanntastic, but from a distance they can not do much. My suggestion to Vinny is cater to the locals and make customer service PRIORITY NUMBER ONE!!! Reach out to other businesses, chambers, schools and when people come in they want to feel important. I have started a customer of the day on my site and have gotten amazing responses from it, people feel important even slightly famous. Good food, decent prices and playing a large role in the community and treating everyone with respect is what is working so far for me and although we are still struggling I have seen a 50% increase in sales in the past three weeks.

  • Mark Evans


    Thanks for the comment and the insight. I’ll pass along your thoughts to Vinny.