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Restaurants hustle to get the word out on specials

Every morning around 10:30 a.m., before the first customer arrives, Mike Concialdi sends his most important e-mail of the day.

Using his BlackBerry, the co-owner of Panaro's types out the daily lunch specials dictated by his brother Tony, chef at the Italian lunch place on Delaware Avenue. A touch of a button, and more than a thousand fans of the Concialdis' restaurant are dreaming of minestrone soup and spaghetti Alfredo.

The Concialdis knew next to nothing about the marketing power of Facebook, Twitter and e-mail lists three years ago. But like many Western New York proprietors they've gotten an education since then, and have made social media part of their workaday habits.

"In the beginning, I didn't think it was much," said Mike Concialdi. "Luckily, one of my close friends, who built our website, kind of guided us through that, and got us going on Twitter, posting our daily specials."

Selling meals and drinks requires getting people to come to you, something social media was designed to facilitate -- for free. So even if they have an advertising budget, many restaurateurs have decided the Internet has a place in their marketing plans.

"I'm by no means an old man at 36, but I learned this craft with a yellow pad and pencil," said Chef Adam Goetz of Sample on Allen Street. "I'm that guy who doesn't check his e-mail."

Younger staff members encouraged him to set up a Facebook page and keep it current with upcoming specials and one-of-a-kind menus, Goetz said. "I'm not as schooled in it as some of the people working for me are," he said. "They do it for me. I just tell them the content."

Gerhardt Yaskow, who owns Gene McCarthy's Irish Pub on Hamburg Street in the Old First Ward, said starting and maintaining a monthly e-mail list has helped keep his business alive.

He started about a year and a half ago, with 20 or 30 e-mail addresses collected from regular customers. Today, Yaskow's monthly "Better Drinking Society" e-mails go to more than 900 people, containing details on featured beers on tap, special guests and speakers, plus deals on drinks and food.

He spends about two hours each month curating the list, removing addresses that bounce e-mails back and adding new addresses, Yaskow said. Now, for Yaskow, it's as much part of being a tavern owner as tapping kegs.

"Taverns that survive, we have to be a destination place. We have to sell more than food and beverage -- we sell history," Yaskow said. "It's publish or perish, just like in academia. If you don't get your message out there, my little tavern is not going to survive."

On slow nights, Yaskow will get out his cell phone and start texting some of the 50 or 60 regulars whose numbers he has stored in his phone. Just a note like "What are you doing? Come on down, I'll buy you a beer." Even if they can't jump in the car and visit, oftentimes a text will result in a visit in the next few weeks, he said.

Gene McCarthy's Irish Pub also has a fan page on Facebook, something that Yaskow had little to do with. "I don't even run it, I let my customers do it," he said. "It's kind of a joke, but at my generation and age I'm lucky to work the Internet."

Once you've learned its intricacies -- something most teenagers can master in minutes -- using social media is simple and cost-free, except for basic Internet access, fans say. That doesn't mean it will run itself, though.

Broadcast and publication advertising relies on sending information to the ready-built audiences for television and radio stations, and publications like newspapers and magazines. Social media requires users to build their own audiences, who sign up as Twitter followers or make a restaurant's Facebook page one of their "friends."

Consistency is important if you want to build your audience, said Concialdi. "When I started out, I won't say I was lazy about it, but no matter how busy you are, you have to make it part of your daily routine," he said. "It's automatic now. Prep, do your food for lunch, put the specials on Twitter."

Even as his place went dark for some days during the holidays, Concialdi kept sending out messages. "I sent a holiday tweet -- just 'Enjoy your holiday' " he said. "You want to keep (reading your messages) in their routine as well."

Once customers sign on as Facebook friends, offer their e-mail addresses or sign up to follow your restaurant's Twitter account, they've let you know they're interested, operators say. Consistency in posting content may seem like a burden, said Sample's Goetz, but filling your customers' hunger for information that could get them to walk in the door is a good problem to have.