Nick Kokonas checks his restaurant’s Facebook page at least 10 times a day, every day.
Is he obsessed?
No, just a savvy restaurant operator.
Kokonas is the co-owner (with executive chef Grant Achatz) of Next in Chicago, a restaurant that opened last April and operates via a totally new concept. Here, customers pre-pay for their dinners before they even arrive.
On top of that, the restaurant’s entire menu changes completely several times a year to a different theme.
And Kokonas, who’s something of a legend in the culinary world, since his other restaurant, Alinea, also in Chicago, is recognized as one of the world’s top restaurants, hasn’t done any traditional marketing or promotion for the restaurant.
He’s relied instead solely on word of mouth, Facebook and Twitter.
“[Social media] is good for every business,” Kokonas says.
“I just think that most companies go out and hire a social media manager and that is a mistake. The internet generation prefers authenticity to canned responses from PR people, so I handle it all myself. It grows organically—we do not advertise at all [and] have never spent a dime promoting Next.”
Facebook, he says, “is a direct line of communications with our patrons.”
Each time he logs onto Facebook, Kokonas makes updates or comments as needed.
And as the numbers play out, he’s doing something right. Next has 32,755 ‘likes’ on Facebook and 16,060 followers @nextrestaurant on Twitter. Kokonas himself (@nickkokonas) has 2,479 Twitter followers and Achatz has 49,029 (@gachatz).
Kokonas doesn’t just use Facebook to market Next, but also to sell tickets. Originally, all ticket sales—which are harder to come by, it seems, than tickets to almost anything, were through Next’s website.
But the ticket system was overwhelmed at one point last year from the volume of server traffic that hit it, and, Kokonas says, “from a user perspective it was not a great experience and I regret that.”
So he started selling a few tables each night—just two or three of the restaurant’s 20 tables—on Facebook. All other tables have been sold in advance through Next’s website.
Demand for the restaurant is such that each night 400 to 500 requests are denied, meaning hundreds of people are disappointed to not be selected to eat there.
And while Kokonas says the tables are sold “somewhat randomly,” he concedes that they are sold “with an eye towards those people who have been consistent in their requests day after day.”
Next already had a host of avid fans, but doing business this way brings the restaurant directly into the era of social media and rewards those with both the know-how and the persistence to get a ticket.
“Nick could not ask for a better platform than Facebook to support his new restaurant,” says Dave Gonynor, CEO of That’s Biz, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
“I think it is great that Nick wants to manage the page,” he adds. “I am sure that no one would be able to describe the new menu the way Nick can. Customers also love to see the owner responding to their comments or addressing their concerns.”
Switching to selling tickets through Facebook isn’t the only change at Next restaurant. This year it has started offering season tickets to its dinners, just like theater tickets or tickets for sporting events.
The first three events are elBulli (recreating the menu of the former elBulli restaurant in Spain), Sicily and Kyoto.
“Lots of customers were requesting that option as they wanted to guarantee themselves entry to all three menus and of course from our perspective it is great to have such a dedicated group of loyal customers,” Kokonas says.
Demand is so high, in fact, that the first 1,050 slots in the virtual line for season tickets filled in about 10 seconds. After that, Next let in 50 people at a time to complete their purchases.
Next gets so many requests for tickets (more than 50,000 to date for the upcoming seasons) that Kokonas admits “we just can't even read them all any more.”
And the restaurant’s auction last month for charity closed out in four days raising $339,000 for the University of Chicago Center for Cancer Research.
Things are going great for Next, and Restaurant Management asked Kokonas if he’s still happy about the way he’s doing business.
“Are you kidding?” he responded. “Of course. [It’s] totally disruptive to the industry, [but] great for both our business and our customers.”
By Amanda Baltazar
Click here to read more about Next and Nick Kokonas.