One of the greatest things about being a consultant is that you get to travel to many different places and occasionally get to see the trends you’re hired to write and talk about. This happened to me recently in Miami – a city I had last visited when Carter was president (really) – where I stumbled upon a local dining sensation that’s a living representation of something I’ve been calling the “postdigital restaurant.”
The scene: I was in town in early December for an industry conference where I met Natascha Otero, a Miami marketing maven who happens to hail from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is my original home, too (I come from the northernmost part – the Bronx), so we had lots to talk about. Deep in the conversation, Natascha discovered that I love mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish that’s easy to love but so hard to make (try this recipe, if you dare), and she said, “I gotta bring you to Jimmy’z!” She took me there that very night, and it was one of the most interesting professional experiences for me in all of 2011. What I found that evening was a playbook for ambitious restaurateurs, in three easy lessons.
This story begins with the restaurant’s owner, Jimmy Carrey. A native of Puerto Rico and a graduate of the famed cooking school Johnson & Wales, he had a dream of bringing fine cuisine to a broad audience. In 2007, he opened a 16-seat shop in South Beach, Miami that introduced an innovation to the local restaurant scene: gourmet fare with counter service, where you place the order before sitting down, and it is then brought to your table. The counter service idea was getting lots of play in the casual-food restaurant market, but for the type of food Jimmy was concocting in his small kitchen, it was a novelty. It was also fortuitous. The business model allowed him to serve premium dishes for under $20 throughout the recession. And it allowed him to serve a number of Puerto Rican favorites not just to the growing community of Puerto Ricans who had migrated from the island, but to anyone looking for an amazing meal at a great price. Four years later, he was ready to open his second location, a 150-seat bistro in Wynwood, a former industrial neighborhood that’s been reborn along with Miami’s art scene.
It was then that Jimmy began speaking with Natascha about marketing. He hadn’t spent any money on advertising, nor had he done any real kind of marketing except for the most fundamental work of creating a good product. No need for advertising, Natascha assured him, but there was an opportunity for Jimmy to scale his reach through the use of social media. Jimmy’z already was a social brand – the food, the value, and the experience had generated great word of mouth. But social technology, done the right way, could enable the restaurant to manage the great word of mouth in a bigger way.
Natascha quickly swung into action, helping to create a presence for both Jimmy and his restaurants on Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. But it didn’t end there, as it does for so many restaurants. She implemented a policy of answering each and every query, thanking each and every visitor, addressing each and every issue – even the occasional negative comment that came in on Yelp (Jimmy’z enjoys a stellar reputation there). An avid user of Twitter, Natascha was also unusually creative, helping Jimmy to design ad hoc tongue-in-cheek campaigns like the mofongo cure: the antidote to hangovers, depression, aimlessness, etc. She and Jimmy would create offers and events for the local Twitterati (Miami has a vibrant social media scene). But most of all, Natascha was and is the ultimate social ambassador for Jimmy’z. When I visited the restaurant in December, it was hard to keep up with her. In her unique, inimitable, yet genuine style, she was connecting with everyone around us, making sure they were being cared for, answering questions, making them feel at home. Talk about public relations.
Were that all that Jimmy and Natascha did, the restaurant would still be a success. But they’ve taken one step further in extending the reach and appeal of Jimmy’z by leveraging one of its greatest assets: its life in the physical world. It’s something that many restaurant owners forget, but a longing to connect is one of the primary draws for all retail consumers. With a deep appreciation for this human need, Jimmy and Natascha decided to do something special for one of its most loyal communities – the Puerto Ricans and other Islanders who helped Jimmy’z become a local legend. In July 2011, the Wynwood restaurant hosted its first Noche de Bomba y Plena, a music-and-dining event that spills into the neighboring plaza. With minimal setup and rented tables, the event can draw 300-plus guests, more than twice what the restaurant can hold. It’s not only an innovative way to build a clientele, but an intelligent way to escape the physical confines of a restaurant. And it’s also an expression of Jimmy’s Puerto Rican roots. Locals have taken to calling the area around Jimmy’z Kitchen “La Plazita de Jimmy’z,” an homage to La Plaza Del Mercado, a popular gathering place in Santurce, San Juan that many islanders look back on nostalgically.
Beyond cool. In the postdigital world (where the power of technology mixes with the power of place), I can think of no greater honor than to have a legendary homeland venue named after you.
Giovanni is off today. This column was originally published on Jan. 10, 2012.