New York

How This Restaurant Group Spies on Your Social Media in Real Time

Nathan Rawlinson
Nathan Rawlinson
Nathan Rawlinson

When Rachel Davis Mersey was having lunch in The Bar Room at The Modern, a double-Michelin-starred Danny Meyer restaurant, the 40 year-old university professor’s casual afternoon became an unforgettable affair after she nonchalantly posted to social.

“I looked up at one point and had a beautiful view of the kitchen. I snapped it and posted it to Instagram,” she says. “Before my next course could come, a manager came by and asked me if I’d mind coming with him.” Davis Mersey was swiftly seated at the exclusive kitchen table. “I wasn’t sure what was happening,” she says. “The team was warm, chatty — willing to tell me what they were doing, share their talent … My next Instagram post is a picture after that meal. That joy you see in my face was truly-felt.”

Social media is the new town square — with benefits

Davis Mersey’s seemingly spontaneous joy was actually sparked by the social media team at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group; a band of five who keep an eye out for hashtags and mentions and, like Santa’s helpers, might just make you a little treat, if you’re good for goodness sake.  “I helped make the decision that social media should be an important part of how we communicate with our guests three or four years ago,” says Meyer, 60. “Being a restaurateur is about having a dialogue with guests and taking an interest in who they are, what they do.”Not long after Meyer’s decision, USHG created the team, whose duties now extend beyond hashtagging food porn, punnily promoting specials, pulling back the production curtain, and nodding at mentions. They also peruse up-to-the-minute posts in an effort to provide a bespoke drinking and dining experience — or at least an occasional table upgrade.”Social-media has become somewhere in-between the town-square of 100 years ago — where you’d get your news and gossip — and a postcard,” Meyer says. “Nobody ever wrote a postcard hoping nobody would see it. All the information that’s out there in the public that can help inform us, it’s the best way I know to build and sustain strong relationships.”The practice of researching the patron behind a reservation, typically with regard to potential VIPs, is routine at many restaurants. “When someone calls and makes a reservation, we’ll google their name,” says USHG Digital Marketing Manager Ben Turndorf. “Maybe they’re an ambassador or something — we want to make sure we use their right title. Your eminence or whatever it is.”What’s new is the immediacy and the ability to interact with guests not named in the reservation; or those who haven’t made one at all. It goes beyond trying to figure out your honorific. Now, restaurants strive to keep up with your minute-to-minute cyber experience, and respond on the spot.  

Emily Andrews
Emily Andrews
Emily Andrews

How restaurants keep up with all that hashtag-content

Across its restaurant, event, and catering empire, a massive amount of social-media traffic funnels through USHG’s social ecosystem. “That’s 60-plus accounts that have to be live at the same time on different platforms,” Turndorf says. Deciding who to respond to and how can be tough. “We try to acknowledge every person, make everyone feel heard. “It’s a lot of judgment calls, a lot of hot-potato and juggling,” he says. But with so many posts bobbing in USHG’s torrential social-media stream, how is an à la minute response to a post like Davis Mersey’s even possible?The lightning-fast treatment was facilitated by a tech platform called Local Measure. When businesses subscribe to its service, and customers tag or mention those businesses, Local Measure identifies and pushes said content to connected devices, like an iPad at a host or concierge station.”What we’re trying to do [with Local Measure] is respond to people in real-time when they’re talking to us,” Turndorf says. But, just because your information is being highlighted faster, that doesn’t mean they’re surfacing anything you didn’t put out there, he says. “We aren’t pulling any stuff you wouldn’t be able to find in a Google search. We don’t store anything. If you’re not posting on social, we’re not digging into your activity. Honestly, we don’t have time. And if your account is private, we can’t see anything.” The tech, currently in use only at The Modern and Manhatta, doesn’t guarantee upgrades, but it does add avenues by which USHG can accommodate a guest. “We’re sort of a digital maître d’ — You could post on Instagram saying, ‘it’s my birthday,’ or you could always just tell someone on our team,” Turndorf says.”We don’t want to call it spying,” says Evelyn Burgess, USHG’s PR coordinator. “It’s monitoring. We’re trying to engage with people. We want them to know: we hear you.””Not only do I want to keep that going, I want to do more of it,” Meyer says. “Human beings want to belong, and social-media is a way of doing that. I’m always looking for ways to surprise and delight people, to be in a position to make someone feel special.”For USHG, glancing into a social-media profile just makes good business sense. “Social sort of acts like an extension of the guest-relations team,” Turndorf says. “If someone sits at the bar and tags Manhatta and says, ‘we’re celebrating our anniversary and we don’t have a reservation…’ seeing that post, we have a chance to make a connection.”

Liz Clayman
Liz Clayman
Liz Clayman

When camera eats first, does social bite back?

Mining social media to curate a night on the town is a little hard to swallow for some. “You’d have to feel like, ‘is somebody watching me?'” says Chris Strelnick, a 36 year-old veteran sous chef of some of New York’s premier fine-dining establishments. “It’s weird. It feels like a line is being crossed,” he says. Where’s the boundary? It’s almost like Big Brother is watching us to see what we’re eating for dinner.”Strelnick believes social media even hinders great dining. “Food should be talked about, enjoyed, shared,” he says. “But taking a photo of your food for social media — what’s that for, your ego? As a chef, there’s a reason why I’m serving you this thing now: you’re supposed to eat it. While you’re taking your picture and posting it, the sauce is getting tacky, the vegetables are wilting, the fish’s skin is losing crispness,” he says. “Dining should be about the experience, not about the ‘likes’ or whatever.”For the folks who don’t mind that they’re watching, those likes are nice, but the “or whatever” is what truly bolsters the experience. A solo diner who dashed off an Instagram post from the bar at The Modern received a free order of fries as a “how do you do.” A Union Square Cafe regular who took to Twitter to lament an apparently eighty-sixed menu item was quickly assured he could still order the dish. And a visiting couple who’d posted about getting bounced back into Manhattan after their flight home was cancelled was gifted sweet treats and a pair of MoMA tickets by staff at The Modern — a gesture to make their unintended time here a little sweeter.”For the first 10 years of my career, there was no social media,” Meyer says. “I developed relationships by getting to know people in a very retail way; looking people in the eye, making connections. Now, I can’t know everyone the way I used to be able to. But here people are, telling the world about themselves willingly, publicly. If the info is there, those are the tools — the dots we can connect to customize someone’s hospitality experience, make them feel like they truly belong.”

Emily Andrews
Emily Andrews
Emily Andrews

Hashtags won’t always win you free food and drink, but you might still score

Before a recent visit to Manhatta, a friend and I constructed Instagram posts designed to elicit special treatment; we tried to game the system. “Taking in some Manhattan views with Manhattan in hand at Manhatta,” one read, tagging both the venue and restaurant group.After an initial round of cocktails, we got to chatting with our bartender, Nick Casida. As we waited for a response to our ruse, a second round of drinks came and went. Casida delivered a plate that we hadn’t ordered, pastries supposedly intended for a patron who’d already left. We ate, talked, and Casida whipped up a pair of Ramos Gin Fizzes that turned out to be for us, too.When the check came, all but our first round had been comped. Assuming our scheme had succeeded, we were ready to come clean — did it have anything to do with social-media? Casida looked surprised. “Not at all,” he said.

“I just liked you guys. Maybe now you’ll come back.”Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.

Julien Levy is a writer and New York City native. Follow him on Twitter: @JulienLevy_

New York

Scavenge for Peeps Cookies and More Fun Treats in NYC This Easter

The best Easter desserts in NYC this spring include Easter Bunny Churros and Carrot Cake Macarons.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

As spring makes its way through New York City, not only do we get to enjoy beautiful weather, stunning cherry blossoms, and cool activities priced at $Free.99, but it’s also the perfect time for some limited-edition desserts.

With Easter fast approaching, bakeries are filling their shops with tons of chocolate eggs, carrot cake-flavoured everything and all types of flavours that offer both nostalgia and innovation within the city’s dessert landscape. After you’ve picked up a cake from the city’s best new bakeries, from Easter Bunny Churros to Carrot Cake Macarons, here are 8 Easter desserts to try in NYC right now.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery

Magnolia Bakery

Throughout April
Various locations
There’s great news for devotees of Magnolia Bakery’s Classic Banana Pudding: For Easter, the spot is mixing up the iconic dessert’s vanilla pudding with some carrot cake. The Carrot Cake Pudding is filled with freshly grated carrots, coconuts, pineapples, raisins, and walnuts. And if both bananas and carrots aren’t your thing, they’ll be offering their Classic Vanilla Cupcakes in pastel colours with a Cadbury chocolate egg hidden inside.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

Funny Face Bakery

Through Easter Sunday
NoHo and Seaport
Known for their celebrity face and meme-worthy decorated cookies, fans of Funny Face Bakery know that a new fun design is always just around the corner. For Easter, they’ve created the adorable Hoppy Easter decorated cookie that resembles a classic box of marshmallow Peeps. Along with that, they also have the return of their fan-favourite Caramel Pretzel Chip cookie flavour, plus a set of three mini-decorated cookies perfect for gifting.

The Doughnut Project

Friday, April 7 through Easter Sunday
West Village
With the ever-changing flavours at The Doughnut Project, it’s super easy to miss out on trying out a new debut. But this Easter weekend, there will be two new flavours available. One is of course, a carrot cake doughnut topped with a cream cheese glaze, and the other is known as the Doughnut Nest-a French cruller “nest” with a cream-filled doughnut hole “egg” in the centre.

Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour

The Fragile Flour

Wednesday, April 5 through Easter Sunday
East Village
For stellar vegan desserts this holiday, head to The Fragile Flour, a plant-based bakery and dessert wine bar. They’re known for going all out for each holiday with a variety of new pastry options that you can pair perfectly with a glass of wine. This Easter, they’ll have a whole dessert menu that’s both delicious and gorgeous for posting on IG. The menu includes Stuffed Carrot Cake Cookies, a Lemon Cake (whole or by the slice), some festive cupcakes, and specialty macarons.

Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Through mid April
Midtown
For a luxurious take on Easter chocolates, browse the selections available at Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate. You can even pick the Easter Signature Chef’s Selection for a special box curated by award-winning chefs. For something other than chocolate, choose between the Carrot Cake Macarons or the cake flavored Easter Marshmallow Trio, both of which are almost too cute to eat.

La Churreria

Throughout April
Nolita
This churro-centric spot is putting the cutest Easter spin on their crispy cinnamon churros by twisting them up into bunnies and bunny ears. At Churreria, choose from a Bunny Churro Lollipop topped with your choice of chocolate or dulce de leche and sprinkles, or the bunny ear churros in the Ube and Matcha ice cream sundae or the Ube Milkshake, both of which are made with ice cream from il laboratorio del gelato.

Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci

Lafayette

Throughout April
NoHo
You’ve surely seen this croissant tons of times while scrolling through IG or TikTok, whether it’s the Pain au Chocolat one or the latest of the month. Known as Supr√™mes, these filled croissants went viral and continue to live up to the hype each time a new flavour comes out. April’s flavour-sour cherry amaretto with a Luxardo custard and toasted almonds. While you’ll have to be super early and wait in line during one of their three drops of the day to get a taste, we promise you it’ll be worth it.

Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain

Levain

Seasonal
Various locations
We all know the iconic cookies from Levain-they’re gigantic, perfectly crispy and chewy, and well worth the long lines. For spring, the shop is launching a new flavour: Caramel Coconut Chocolate Chip. Filled with gooey caramel chips, fresh shredded coconut, and melty dark chocolate, it’s one you’ve got to try while it’s still around. To further celebrate the new season, all of Levain’s storefronts will be decked out in spring floral displays, serving as the perfect backdrop for pictures.

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Alaina Cintron is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist. Her work can also be found in Westchester Magazine, Girls’ Life, and Spoon University. When she’s not at her desk typing away, you can find her exploring a local coffee shop or baking a new recipe.

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