Without reservations: Social remakes restaurant and recipe experience

Author: Mike Edelhart

image via MisoSoupDesign

Guest post written by Mike Edelhart, President, The Tomorrow Project & Pivot Conference.

It is hard to imagine an area of human experience more innately Social than food. We choose food collectively, eat it collectively, and then talk about it obsessively. In Pivot’s focus on Food in February (don’t you love alliteration?), some key brands are going to share their views on how Social has impacted their customer outreach, product development, even how they operate their businesses.

Here, I’d like to spend a few minutes on the other side of food: restaurants, recipes and reviews (alliteration is the leitmotif for the day!).

One of my first exposures to the emergence of Social was seeing young couples in restaurants, clearly on first dates, deeply focused, not on one another, but on taking precise pictures of what was on their plates. The validation of their date in the stream—through the reality of sharing their dishes with friends—was equally important, perhaps more important—than the date itself.

This phenomenon has only deepened as the Social stream has burrowed more deeply into how we live. Those at-table photographs have risen to a new art form. A friend just completed a business trip to China and posted 19 scrumptious images of her meals there, as soon as she got out of the country and back into Facebook-friendly territory. It is a rare day now that doesn’t bring a vicarious restaurant experience into my stream.

image via FoodSpotting

But not only pics have altered our shared public food experience. We have seen the crowd-sourced opinion of Yelp trump the more formal review procedures of Zagats or travel guides. And then, we have seen the democratization of Zagats and Fodders (a leading guide) by their acquisition by Google and inclusion in search results and G+ conversations. Now, we are seeing the natural next step in this process with Open Table’s acquisition of Food Spotting. Open Table makes getting that table easier and has moved into diner reviews, a bit like Yelp. Now, with Food Spotting, Open Table can get down to the level of recommendations of particular dishes, tables, and other aspects that accompany that reservation. It is a step toward a seamless Social restaurant experience.

image via Flickr, Robert Scoble

Most recently, I’ve seen another aspect of Social and food emerge. It isn’t surprising, given the overall trends, but its emotional power has startled me. Friends are using food and Social to find, and deepen their relationships with friends. Some years back, the author of Julie and Julia isolated herself in a quest to recreate all the recipes in Julia Child’s initial iconic cookbook. Now, we are going the opposite direction.

My first exposure to this was Food52. This site started with goal of crowd-sourcing a cookbook in 52 weeks. The community that resulted from that effort now generates an ongoing stream of recipes and gemütlichkeit. More recently, two industry friends have popped up in the food-for-friend space. One is reaching out to IRL friends and asking them to share a recipe that has meaning for them. Then, she is going to make meals of these recipes and invite the friends over to share them with her. Brilliant! She gets great recipes, insight into her friends, they get to meet each other and everyone has a natural topic to kick off conversation.

Even deeper are the plans of another Socially-savvy friend. He is inviting 8-9 prominent, celebrated people from his Social circle once each month to his apartment. They don’t know each other beforehand, and aren’t allowed to ask each other any work related questions when they get to his place. Instead, they all pitch in with him and co-create their own dinner. Then, they share it, while getting to know one another as people. For cocktails following dinner, each dinner attendee can ask 1-2 of their friends to join in for expanded conversation. You can see how this spreads access and influence from stream to real life and back to the stream again in a widening, deepening cycle.

As one of the limbic human activities (we all gotta eat!), food is a natural expression of and testing crucible for Social. In that sense, it is important that we all watch what we eat.

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