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Local Business Podcast talks Digital Hospitality with Shawn Walchef

Loyal listeners of the Digital Hospitality Podcast had the recent pleasure of hearing marketing mastermind Bruce Irving talk pizza, pivoting and podcasting on the Cali BBQ Media podcast in July 2020.

Podcast host and Cali BBQ owner Shawn Walchef also hopped on Bruce Irving’s Local Business Podcast to discuss why every owner should dive into digital media and digital marketing.

DH043 Bruce Irving Shawn Walchef

Listen to the full episode of the Local Business Podcast featuring Shawn Walchef on-demand.


Learning Social Media Marketing

As it turns out, Shawn Walchef wasn’t all about social media and the smart phone when he first opened the doors to Cali BBQ in Spring Valley just over a decade ago.

“I made fun of my business partner, Corey Robinson, when we opened up Cali BBQ back in 2008 for being on Facebook,” Shawn says with a laugh. “I thought he was just trying to pick up chicks! Then I realized we couldn’t pay our payroll and we were having a trouble getting people in the doors.”

Shawn’s early estimates of social media quickly prove shortsighted. In order to keep the doors open, he had to learn how to use Facebook’s business services on the fly. This adversity created not just curiosity but a new understanding of how business was to be done moving forward.

“I started learning how to take pictures on my iPhone and started to post our events,” says Shawn. “All those things have led us to where we are now: we are firmly committed to believing that every single business needs to be in the media business.”

Being the in the media business for Shawn means creating content on all of Cali BBQ’s social channels, appearing on local TV broadcasts and hosting his own podcast.

Scott Yoffe on Digital Hospitality podcast

Now a digital evangelist, Shawn is set on showing other small business owners just how important it is to use the new tools presented.

“It’s crazy to me to see restaurant owners that have a prejudice towards Yelp,” Shawn says on those still yet to adapt. “They don’t like Yelp because there’s a negative one-star review or they feel like you have to pay to play. Listen, it’s a free platform. You can claim your business page. You can optimize your business page to have correct hours and the correct links to your mobile-first website. Yelp, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all those tools are openly available right in everyone’s pocket. The people that are using them? Frankly, they’re winning.”

Winning is what Shawn and his team at Cali BBQ are committed to day in and day out. This means offering the same hospitality online that they would in their own dining room.

The Future of Restaurants is Online Ordering and Digital Media like at Cali BBQ

What’s that look like? It looks like treating every inbox message as if it’s spoken to their staff at the entrance to their physical Spring Valley space.


Engagement is Crucial for Business Owners Online

Being hospitable digitally is something Shawn challenges his peers to take seriously.

“If somebody sends a direct message on Instagram, is somebody responding?” Shawn asks fellow business owners. “If somebody responds on a post, ‘Hey, I’d love to buy a sandwich,’ but it’s on the Facebook wall, is somebody actually gonna send them the correct link to order online so that they can order it? Is somebody actually following up? If they’re not following up, they’re getting ignored. You have to take that personally, just as you would if someone walked into your restaurant and your host didn’t say hello.”

Shawn is walking his talk online and so is his staff. He’s all about Digital Hospitality.

Cellphone and Heart Emoji Icons Red and Black

What he’s not about is the concept of customer service.

“Customer service is bullshit,” Shawn Walchef said.

“Any restaurant owner, anybody that cares about what they do, how much they love their community or how much they love their passion, listen: customer service is treating someone like a human. That’s literally what it is. Smile at somebody. Say hello when they walk in. That’s just basic human decency…

“Hospitality is the level above where you’re talking about anticipating needs. You’re listening. You’re observing. These are all the things that we teach our servers and our bartenders. We teach our host how you answer the phone, how you anticipate a woman walking in with a stroller so that you’re going over and helping her.

It’s asking the question, ‘How do we make this experience better?’ All of those things are going to help someone choose to pick your restaurant again.”

Treating people right in person and online is the easy part for someone like Shawn. The difficult part is making people come by or order in the first place. To do that, Shawn is committed on making the discovery and delivery aspect not difficult at all.

“We want to make it as easy as possible on the guest,” explains Shawn. “That digital experience, that digital journey, that’s where the hospitality kicks in and that’s where restaurants have a competitive advantage. We have a competitive advantage because we’ve built our whole business on being hospitable.

“We want to take care of people. We care about touch points. We care about a five-star Yelp review and the fact that we’re investing so much money in labor to make sure that people thoroughly not just enjoy their experience there, but they enjoy it so much that they’re compelled to share that experience online when they leave. So, we’re really equipped to be able to deal with the digital side.”


What is Digital Hospitality?

So, by now you’ve heard all about digital hospitality and if you’ve ordered online from Cali BBQ you’ve felt it. Still having trouble describing this new term to your friends, though?

Shawn Walchef has a perfect example from a restaurant chain you’re sure to know in order to illustrate that idea.

“The easiest way for me to describe Digital Hospitality is understanding Domino’s Pizza,” begins Shawn. “Domino’s Pizza’s app was a revolutionary app because it essentially made that customer journey a play-by-play journey. You order the pizza, you get notified, ‘Hey, the pizza’s in the oven,’ and it’s giving you a breakdown of where your pizza is. In the digital world, you want to know that something’s happening. You want that confirmation when you buy something online. I want a confirmation email to say, ‘Yes, you’ve purchased something online. Your package hit the warehouse.’ We want to be interrupted because that’s the way for you to prove to me that you care. You care by letting me know where my package is and telling me when I’m going to get my package, essentially telling the customer what’s happening along the way.”

Right now, the Walchef family and all other restaurant owners are continuing to lean into digital as the COVID-19 pandemic changes the way business is done.

The Walchef Family at Cali Comfort BBQ's 2019 Spring Valley Tailgate and BBQ Festival

“During the Coronavirus I think we’ve all kind of figured out that if you’re not a digital first business, you’re gonna struggle,” reflects Shawn. “The people that are winning understand that that thing that we all have in our pocket — that smart phone — is the most powerful tool that a small business owner has.”

Using his smart phone over the course of COVID has made business more efficient.

Still, adjusting to running a restaurant without dine-in traffic was difficult.

March 17th was the day that I laid off 27 employees,” Shawn says somberly. “We retained 29, laid off 27, but we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. I mean, there was a lot of fear at that time. We went to social and we asked our customers and our community for help.”

Laying off your beloved staff is not easy.

Neither is being vulnerable with your community. Due to the times, Cali BBQ was forced to do both.

“We’re going to focus on doing take out and focus on doing delivery,” Shawn told the Cali BBQ followers after the shutdown. “We’d really appreciate if you support us. We’re still selling barbecue. Please buy gift cards. Please go to our website.”

So, how did the followers respond?

“They reshared it and they retweeted it,” Shawn exclaims. “They came out and supported us because we’ve been part of the community as a restaurant.”

2016 Spring Valley Tailgate and BBQ Festival

It happened because Shawn shared. It also happened because Shawn had been sharing his successes with his community when business was better.

“Restaurants are the best,” says Shawn. “Everyone comes in and asks for help for the local church, asks for help for the local little league. And we always say yes. It’s not like we have a big budget, but we always say yes. If it’s in the form of gifting barbecue or showing up at an event, we do whatever we can do to help out.”

Simply put, giving is just what Shawn does.

Asking for help himself? Well, that’s a little harder.

“We’re the ones that are in hospitality and it’s in our blood,” Shawn states. “So, it’s hard for us to ask our community, ask our village, ask our city for help. But there’s never been a time that people are more willing to help. Local media and other outlets that actually have larger platforms, they’re willing to share that message because they need content as well.”

Eric Kahnert interviews Shawn Walchef on CBS 8 in May 2020

Getting love on social and on TV turned into real life love that still makes Shawn smile.

“The most touching thing for me is watching so many people that I never thought would ever come out to our restaurant, people that were essentially digital friends that actually drove two hours to come out to buy a sandwich and to post it on Instagram,” smiles Shawn. “Stories like that means the world to us. That makes them part of the story, that’s something that really brings the digital and the hospitality components together.”

Strong social and the ability to serve despite all the obstacles allow Cali BBQ to stay in business.

Cali Comfort BBQ in Spring Valley is open for takeout and delivery

However, business these days is much different then the business world when the year began.

“We’re serving out of windows,” Shawn starts. “We’re using a side window on our patio so that we keep drivers distant from the people that are coming to pick up orders. We’ve done everything we can to keep our staff safe and our customers safe. So, for us to open the doors back up would mean putting everything back to where it was and then operating a full-service restaurant with a broken model.”

Jim Trotter gets Cali BBQ to go from Shawn Walchef in East San Diego County

Tables are no longer of use for Shawn, his staff or his customers. Oddly enough, that obstacle has led to new discoveries and new strategy moving forward.

“Coronavirus has attacked the heart of hospitality – it’s literally the antithesis of everything we do,” Shawn acknowledges. “Everything we do is to bring people together, to bring them to our table. Right now, we’re more concerned with improving consistently what we’re doing on the digital side and looking at real estate deals for micro units. We want to sell as much barbecue digitally. I mean, essentially we want to do slow food — fast.”

KPBS April 2020 shawn walchef smoker pit

While the pandemic proved a challenge, its timing has allowed Shawn and his staff the space to have new perspective on old realities of the restaurant industry. With that comes new solutions and ideas.

“Labor costs continue to go up,” Shawn notes. “But what we can do is serve incredible craft, slow smoked barbecue, which is our specialty. We’ve reduced our menu by 90%. Really, we’re focusing on our core menu, our core things that we do best, which is slow smoking meat. All we’re gonna be doing is adding more meat to the smoker and distributing it to smaller distribution points. It’s not necessarily a ghost kitchen, but we’re gonna have units that are less focused on the dining and more focused on distribution.”

So, will Cali BBQ’s online expansion and new delivery destinations see the same fanfare?

“Our theory is that people don’t give a shit that it was smoked 10 miles away,” says Shawn. “They just care that they have access to incredible slow smoke tri-tip. That the ribs were smoked for six hours. The product itself will speak for itself. Plus, we’ll be able to document the journey socially so they will be able to see, yeah, these actually came off the smoker. They weren’t smoked and frozen and then reheated. No, this is fresh barbecue. Once we sell out, we’re sold out.”

Selling out of barbeque is good on any day, but it means a lot in this current economy. If you ask Shawn why they’re able to thrive and expand, his answer is as expected: Digital Hospitality.

“It’s proven our thesis,” said Shawn about the Digital Hospitality concept and way of life. “We knew the people playing the game within the game. We know that this is coming. We know that all businesses — not just restaurants, not just pizza shops, not just barbershops — need to be digital.

“You need a mobile-first website. You need to care about your website. You can’t send out a corporate bullshit email, send out a personalized email to the people you care about. And then guess what? Those high-priced clients that you have will want to share it. I want to share it because it’s you. It’s my guy that’s talking. It’s not somebody with some stock photo out of who knows where. It’s you.”

As a busy as ever, Shawn Walchef continues to delegate responsibility to his Cali BBQ and Cali BBQ Media staff while also improving his social skills as the face of the business.

“As the business owner, I have to get out of my own way and I have to do it myself,” Shawn Walchef says on the juxtaposition.

“I have to learn how to talk to the camera. I have to learn how to talk on a radio show. I need to learn how to talk on a podcast. I need to put myself out there digitally as the business owner because by me learning how to do it for myself, I learn how to do it better for my business.”

Walking the walk, talking the talk, the proof is in the pudding — or in this case the peach cobbler — as Shawn Walchef continues to grow Cali BBQ and Cali BBQ Media — just as he grows himself.




Local Business Podcast by Bruce Irving


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