Anam Hakeem on the impact of social media on the dining industry.
Pakistan has always been termed as an entertainment starved nation. The activity that occupies most of our spare time is ‘eating’. Dining out provides an opportunity to share gossip, meet the relatives, hang out with friends, crack jokes, discuss the day and share the good and the bad. Recently, however, dining out and chatting over a meal is not the only activity people are engaging in. The dining out experience along with its pros and cons has found a place on the internet via Facebook, blogs and other social networks. Be it the food from the dhaba round the corner, or one of the many fine dining establishments, you can be sure to find reviews and discussions about the experience online.
From raging rants to must-visit tags, menus to maps and snapshots to services,Pakistan’s dining out options are explored in minute detail. At first it was the food enthusiasts posting blogs, then came the Facebook groups and finally restaurant owners, chefs and marketers saw the opportunity in the social foodie blogosphere. Chasing the consumer, as good marketers always do, they started reaching out to the ‘social’ population ofPakistanwith their promotions. Thus, 2011 brought the restaurant industry inPakistaninto the ‘social’ limelight.
“It all began four years ago with the launch of KarachiSnob; people were very happy to be able to go and check out restaurant listings,” says Nilofer Saeed, owner of Hob Nob Café (previously Copper Kettle) and N’eco’s.
KarachiSnob started out as a ‘fine business directory of Karachi’ and although they have restricted themselves to business listings and features, the website was the pioneer that sowed the seed of the restaurant industry’s formal online presence.
Today Pakistani diners are not only more aware, they are also smarter.
“The change I see in the consumer is that he has become more value-oriented,” says Kamil Aziz, CEO, Espresso.
Before choosing a place to dine, people want to know what they will be getting in return beyond good food and service and given the growth in both cafes and restaurants, diners have more and more options to compare before spending their bucks. This in turn started a trend whereby food enthusiasts would blog or join Facebook discussion groups to post reviews of the establishments where they had dined. Following on from this trend, the need for an organised online food guide became evident. In July 2011, the social media scene inPakistansaw the launch of Food Connection Pakistan (FCPK), which aims to be ‘Pakistan’s premier food guide’, bringing restaurant listings, food photography, a blog and an active Facebook page.
Optimistic about the food industry ofPakistanand the social media trends of its inhabitants, FCPK intends to build a platform where food enthusiasts can find all they want to know about a restaurant.
According to Umair Rai, Business Partner, Food Connection Pakistan, “Although Pakistan is relatively behind in interactive media, it is catching up fast. People have started to make the internet part of their daily lives.”
According to socialbakers.com (one of the largest social media statistics portals in the world),Pakistanis the 25th most social country on Facebook, with a population of 5.48 million. The number of Facebook users in Pakistan grew by 25% in the last six months alone. This phenomenal growth should make it the preferred medium for spreading the word for restaurateurs. After all, isn’t the food business all about word of mouth? With this in mind, FCPK aims to provide restaurants with a share of voice on the web.
Nauman Sikandar Mirza, CEO, FCPK, says, “We don’t plan to be an information outlet only; we want restaurant owners to use FCPK as a platform to communicate with their customers. We are here to give a positive outlook on restaurants.”
With the spotlight now on what used to be a low profile service industry, entrepreneurial minds are lighting up and an increasing number of people are using Facebook as an incubator to kick start their own food ventures and, as everyone knows, one can now order cupcakes, bagels, pizzas and lunch boxes via Facebook. Whether these online businesses will grow into storefront retail or opt to keep their business web and home-based, they are successfully replicating the methodologies of professional restaurants on their social pages.
Adding to the buzz is the growth of influencer circles on Facebook. SWOT’s Guide and Good Food Guide Pakistan (GFGP), the two most notable discussion groups on Facebook have managed to pull a following large enough for restaurant owners and chefs to actively participate in the discussion. For food enthusiasts, both platforms are proving to be an excellent medium to vent opinions and experiences, while non-active members benefit from knowing about new eateries on the scene and the ones to try or avoid. And if this were not enough Nauman Sikandar Mirza foodies often set out to review new and established eateries. GFGP for its part has been holding online competitions and awarding winners with prize money for food at upscale restaurants in town.
Although these influencer circles are clearly acting as food guides, they are generating mixed reviews among restaurant owners.
Saeed thinks that these groups are not professionally run and restricts his comments to “they are neither doing any good nor any harm.”
Aziz’s view is that “in a country with ground realities such as power outages, internet disruption, a poor security situation that hinders logistics and food inflation, it is very challenging to run a restaurant. These facts are ignored by the brutally harsh comments on these discussion groups.”
However, both restaurant owners recognise the importance of customer feedback and believe that it keeps the competition alive and the challenge going. It is also possible that many of the commenting food enthusiasts could eventually mature into professional food critics and that would be a very welcome development.
The signs are there. For new and established food businesses inPakistan, embracing social media has to be a smart decision.
Anam Hakeem works for an advertising agency in Pakistan.
First published in the November-December 2011 issue of Aurora.