A recent cultural shift is the emergence of Middle Eastern food into the mainstream American diet. When once hummus and flatbread were all but unknown across most of the country, they are now a staple for many. The inescapable consequence of becoming mainstream, however, is having to ask the question, “Where does one find authentic Middle Eastern fare?” A less adventurous, but important follow-up question is, “And at what cost?” In the following interview with Ray Zereh, owner of Aryana Afghan Cuisine in Danville, CA, the amount of time and effort required to establish a footprint on several social media sites is sobering. From finding time to write creative messages, to justifying the expense to advertise, to responding to every comment, one wonders when he finds time to operate his small business. On the other hand, building relationships with individuals and families, providing an inviting atmosphere, and sharing cultural experiences must provide lasting satisfaction.
Q: Which social media sites do you use for your business? How do you use each one and how do they connect viewers to your website?
RZ: Our marketing strategy is focused on engaging customers through social media and word of mouth. We use Google Adwords Express, Facebook, Yelp, Twitter and Foursquare.
We run impression ads on Google, Facebook, and Yelp with certain keywords to reach people who are interested in our food. We always engage with our customers who comment or review our restaurant. We also collect customer information through our website and hub-site, so we can send them our monthly newsletter. Our newsletter is purposely designed to educate about Afghan food and culture.
I always monitor Twitter to find local foodies with a lot of followers who might be hungry or comment on food. I engage with them to start a conversation or to become a follower of our Twitter page. It’s important to talk with them about their interest, so their followers can see our postings.
Q: How do social media sites help or hamper your business?
RZ: Running ads on social media sites is very expensive and sometimes takes as much as 20% of our sales, but they are a very productive way to bring local awareness to Aryana Afghan Cuisine.
Q: How do you handle Yelp and Google reviews?
RZ: I don’t like Yelp as much because we have 99% satisfied customers and it’s always the one upset customer who leaves a negative review. Although it’s hard, our goal is to satisfy everyone. Also, it is very hard to prevent competition from leaving negative reviews. That’s why we’ve partnered with Restaurant.com to make sure we have verified customers leaving honest reviews. I personally read and respond back to every positive and negative review. I do my best to be empathetic with customers’ needs and, rather than justify a bad experience, I try to make up for it.
Q: What do you wish social media sites could do that they don’t do at the present time?
RZ: I wish social media sites could give more freedom and access to followers. As a business owner I wish I could run analysis reports on local demographics and interests.
Q: What challenges and opportunities do you foresee for small businesses as society goes deeper and deeper into cyberspace?
RZ: It is very hard for small businesses to shine and prosper because the big chains and e-commerce giants have greater buying power, more advertising dollars, and bigger influence/reach within every community. For a small business to be competitive we have to provide better service and give the feeling of family to attract customers.
At Aryana Afghan Cuisine we have two rules:
1- Our food must be healthy and good enough for us and my children. Only then can we can serve it to our customers.
2- We are not in the business of selling food, we are in business of serving our customers and building relationships. Our customers must come back to Aryana Afghan Cuisine for the experience, not just for the food.
Q: Any other thoughts about how social media affects your business?
RZ: I wish advertising on social media were easier and more cost effective. As a small business we can’t afford to spend 20% of our gross sales month after month. As a small business owner I already have 10 hats to wear everyday and the time I have to sit and produce creative marketing within each medium is ridiculous.