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Baltimore cafe’s Foursquare mayor promotion generates buzz, check-ins

Baltimore cafe’s Foursquare mayor promotion generates buzz, check-ins

Fair or not, in cities and towns across America, the mayor can walk into a packed restaurant, past the waiting crowd, to the front of the line. That’s the case at the two locations of breakfast/lunch spot Miss Shirley’s Cafe in Baltimore, said owner Eddie Dopkin, but there’s one big difference.

Nobody elected the diner whisking past the little people; that person gained “mayor” status by checking in more often than any other customer at Miss Shirley’s on the location-based social network Foursquare.

While the line-skipping perk, which began in April as part of the restaurant’s foray into Foursquare, can go only to the one person who currently is the mayor, it benefited Miss Shirley’s by generating buzz within its college-student-heavy customer base and fostering competition for the most visits, which contributed to steady gains in traffic and sales, Dopkin said.

“It’s been a hoot,” he said. “It’s been fun for us in the restaurant to watch the customers jockey [for the mayor title]. Sales are up between 12 percent and 18 percent, and I can’t attribute all of that to just Foursquare, but it’s a big part of it. We’ve also been doing a lot of Facebook and Twitter and actively writing blogs.”

By promoting the benefits of being mayor through word-of-mouth and fliers at the host stand and on check presenters, Miss Shirley’s drove a 427 percent increase in check-ins, from 115 before the start of the offer to 492 during the promotion’s run from April to mid-June.

Checking in, standing out

More chain and independent restaurants have recently turned to Foursquare, or location-based competitors like Gowalla and Loopt, either to reward frequent guests or encourage more visits from casual and lapsed users. Pizza Hut has offered the Foursquare mayors of its locations free breadsticks with a large pizza purchase, while Chili’s Grill & Bar has rewarded each Foursquare check-in with free chips and salsa.

Miss Shirley’s moved its mayors to the front of the waitlist — which can be as long as two hours for Sunday brunch — to get its Foursquare offer noticed, said Ryan Goff, social-media director of Baltimore-based MGH, the full-service marketing firm that developed the promotion with the restaurant.

“We wanted something to stand out, particularly now that restaurants in the area are picking up on [Foursquare],” Goff said. “While it was limited to just one person, it created a strong sense of competition. People were really trying to get that mayor spot.”

About five different people took over the title of mayor at Miss Shirley’s during the promotion, Goff added.

Miss Shirley’s offer was advantageous to the bottom line because it didn’t involve a giveaway, said Joe Saunders, senior vice president for consulting firm BrandStand Marketing Group.

“What I like about the program is that these folks aren’t discounting, but they’re giving good customers something to make them feel special,” Saunders said.

Dopkin continues to make Foursquare part of his restaurants’ digital-marketing strategy. For instance, at his other restaurants, S’ghetti Eddie’s and Roland Park Bagel Company, customers are eligible for a freebie with every fifth check-in. Meanwhile, he uses Twitter and Facebook to monitor what customers are saying about all his restaurants and to follow up on guest questions or complaints.

Free to disagree

While restaurants and other businesses have benefited from leveraging location-based networks, at least one major research firm has tempered the buzz surrounding their effectiveness. Forrester Research stated in a late July report that such applications make sense for a limited number of companies, mostly ones targeting a young, male demographic.

According to the report, only 4 percent of online adults in the United States have used a location-based service on their smart phones. That user population skews heavily male, at nearly 80 percent. The report also pointed out that Foursquare just reached 2 million users this summer, while Twitter has 125 million users worldwide, and a majority of them don’t tweet on a mobile phone, the most common way to check in on Foursquare.

Goff disagreed with the Forrester report, because while location-based networks aren’t as widespread as their forerunners, they soon could be.

“I understand the point — that Foursquare is not Twitter or Facebook yet,” he said. “Foursquare only has a couple million people using it, but it’s free [for operators], and the time to do it is now. If you don’t, every single restaurant will be there, and you won’t be able to break through.”

Dopkin agreed, citing the fact that Miss Shirley’s didn’t have to pay Foursquare anything to execute its offer, making for a favorable return on the time and fees paid to MGH.

“You can achieve what you need without spending a dime,” Dopkin said. “It’s the buzz — that’s what you’re looking for. It travels so fast, and the multiples are scary, actually.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]

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