How a business shows up online is a reflection of who they are in person. Business owners often worry more about coming across polished than being themselves. In this episode, hear from restauranteur and media expert Shawn Walchef on the importance of being authentic and professionally raw online. Shawn hosts a podcast in partnership with Yelp and Entrepreneur Media called Restaurant Influencers.
On the Yelp Blog: Read more from Shawn and check out his five tips for building an authentic digital reputation.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it.
For this week’s deep dive episode, I’m bringing back former guest, Shawn Walchef, founder of Cali BBQ Media. Shawn isn’t just a successful BBQ restaurateur, he also runs a mini media empire—he hosts and produces 2 weekly podcasts and a plethora of digital media with his business. Let’s give our conversation a listen.
EMILY: Well, welcome back to the show. Now my most frequent guest, Shawn Walchef. Last time we talked, Shawn we were talking about all things digital reputation, and today we’re going to continue that theme, but honestly, some big changes have happened for you since we last talked. You’re not just a restaurant owner with a bunch of ghost kitchens and other fun things around San Diego. You have a new podcast. Can you for everyone who maybe hasn’t heard our previous episodes, give an intro of yourself, Cali Comfort Barbecue, Cali Barbecue Media. And then tell me about the new show Restaurant Influencers.
SHAWN: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on the show. My name is Shawn Walchef, owner and founder of Cali Barbecue Media. We are a barbecue brand and a media brand in San Diego. We are trying to build the Amazon prime of barbecue and media. We have a master smokehouse location. So we’re transforming our full-service restaurant that we’ve had for 14 years in a difficult location in San Diego. We’re transforming that into a master smokehouse and media center.
We’re opening up 10 friendly ghost kitchens in the San Diego market. And in order to do that, we are also content creators. So we create videos for Tiktok, for LinkedIn, for Instagram reels. We blog, we have two podcasts, like Emily mentioned. Digital Hospitality is our resident podcast that we’ve been doing for five years.
And recently we just launched Restaurant Influencers with Entrepreneur Magazine and with Yelp. And we are grateful for the opportunity to showcase the best in the world that are doing what we’ve learned how to do. And that’s taking that smartphone out of your pocket and sharing your story online.
It’s really exciting for us to dig deep into the thesis, the things that we believe in. We’ve been given a great stage—an opportunity to speak to not just restaurant owners, but business owners, all over the globe because of podcasting. And now we get to go and highlight people that we like to say are playing the game within the game.
It’s so much more than food. It’s so much more than hospitality. You have to know how to share your story. You’ve got to know how to do it online. And this podcast has allowed us to pick the best of the best on Tiktok, on YouTube, on Medium, on podcasting, no matter which platform it is. If it’s an app in the app store and somebody is dominating digitally, we want to hear their story and figure out how they’re driving new, different types of revenue to their profit and loss statement.
EMILY: I love that. And I think what I find the most fascinating about your show is you have this structure where you’re asking all of these different entrepreneurs a series of questions about how they reflect themselves, and their business, and their brand online. But you get such different answers from each of them because they’re in different industries or they have completely different concepts. And it’s a really fun way to start to hear the different ideas of how you can engage and connect with your customers online. Because there are so many avenues. And like you mentioned, there’s the main ones like Tiktok and Instagram and places that people might be familiar with or might still be afraid to use. But you kind of scale the whole range of the different ways that people can digitally connect with their customers.
So today’s going to be great. We’re going to take that one step deeper and not just talk about connecting with them online. Responding to things, for example. Posting, having an account that reflects your brand. But we’re also going to talk about how you do that in your online reputation. So really looping in those online review sites, as well as thinking about how your website or your Instagram or your Tiktok all become connected, and people can identify that it’s the same business and the same brand on these different platforms.
Why don’t we start with a little bit of background on your experience as an entrepreneur and how you originally managed your online reputation and maybe how that evolved as your business and brand grew.
SHAWN: Sure. On the podcast, we talk about lessons and stories, and it’s always easier for someone to share a story so you can learn the lesson in the story. And when we first opened up the restaurant, like I said, we were in 2008. A difficult time to open up a restaurant, a difficult location. We started doing barbecue on the West Coast, which a lot of people said was a very difficult thing to do and that we couldn’t do it.
We had a lot of challenges when we first opened. And one of the biggest challenges we had was just the layout of the restaurant. It was very awkward. It used to be a two bedroom house that was an add on to an add on. And one of the conversations I had with my general manager, Eric, at the time was what can we do to improve our hospitality? What can we do to invest in our hospitality? And everybody that’s been to a restaurant, you’ve seen a sign and the sign says, ‘Please seat yourself, or please wait to be seated.’
If you own a restaurant, you know why that sign exists? That sign is what I call a hospitality hack. So it’s a way to reduce labor costs. So during the non-peak periods of your business, you put this sign up to let the customer know: ‘We’re telling you some information. Please seat yourself.’ So the customer comes in, they walk in, no one greets them, they walk in, and then they go, ‘Great. This is a choose your own adventure. I get to go pick whatever table I want.’
And then they go and they walk. And anyone that’s listening to this, you know that when you’ve done that, you’re excited until you realize you don’t get any service. You realize you don’t get any hospitality. You get a server that has a section that’s too big or a server that’s coming back from break. Or is about to go on break. It’s literally the worst time.
When you should be able to give them the best service, you give them the worst service. And for us, we said: ‘What if we invest in hospitality? What if we pay to always have a hostess at the front of our restaurant?’ And when we did that, it transformed our business because we actually were living hospitality. We had somebody always there to answer the phone, always there to smile at a guest when they arrived, always there to thank somebody when they left.
It was very powerful. It was very powerful for our business. It was very powerful for our Yelp reviews. And it was very powerful to start to transform the principle of hospitality online.
So taking what we learned in real life and transferring that online to Yelp, to Google, to Facebook. Once a customer came in or wrote a review or commented on a post, instead of ignoring them, what if there was a human? What if it was me as a business owner? And I actually responded to that human. I welcomed them. I thank them. I listened to them.
Once we started doing that—once I started responding to every single review right when it was written, whether it was good or whether it was bad—it literally transformed how we did business. Does that mean that we didn’t get bad reviews? No, we got a lot of bad reviews. But when we went through the bad reviews, we took that objective data and said, ‘If three people in a row have complained about our brisket, maybe our process for making brisket needs to be looked at.’ And as we started taking that data and making that part of our business culture—that no matter what we were going to always respond to reviews, whether they were good or bad, we were going to listen. But we were going to provide that hospitality. Back to removing that sign, removing that physical sign and actually having a human that is there that is responding on all these different platforms was a game changer for us.
EMILY: I love both of those stories because I think they show that there is this deep connection between what you’re doing with your customers offline and how that translates online. And both in the way that you reflect yourself and what you prioritize when it comes to customer communications or getting feedback. As well as just showing that you’re there, right? Almost showing up like how you always had a hostess. By having a strategy for responding, you’re prioritizing a response, right? And the fact that showing up is half the battle. I think that’s really a good way to look at things.
I want to talk about authenticity because it has so much to do with how you and your team show up online. And I think a lot of people maybe missed the mark on this or they aspire to be something other than humans. So can you talk a little bit about what authenticity means to you and how that’s become a part of your digital strategy?
SHAWN: Yeah, it’s interesting because over 14 years, failing so many different ways. Doing marketing, doing branding, and learning who we are and how we wanted to show up as a barbecue brand on the West Coast as a barbecue media company. We’ve learned so many lessons from just trying to understand: What is marketing? What is advertising?
You know, a guest on one of my previous podcast episodes said, ‘Be the show and not the commercial.’ And it was the easiest way to sum up this content creation world of authenticity that I talk about. Because so many people want to be a commercial. They want to post a perfect Instagram feed—this curated Instagram feed of the best food photos of their restaurant.
And whoever’s listening to this. I know when I scroll, that’s not something—it looks like a commercial. It doesn’t look true. It doesn’t look authentic. Yet when a restaurant owner posts a video of their business, showing me how they made their recipe. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s real! It’s a video. It jumps out at me.
It’s the same when somebody has an automated response for an email or an automated response to a review. If you take the time to have hospitality, if you take the time to listen, you put someone’s first name in the response to your review. You acknowledge whatever they were complaining about and say, ‘Maybe I don’t have an answer, but I’m acknowledging that—I definitely didn’t want you to have a bad rib experience. I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy the St. Louis cut of ribs—that you wanted beef ribs. We don’t have beef ribs because of this, this, and this reason.’ Now I’m meeting them where they are. Now I’m listening to them. And even more importantly, I do it in public.
There’s never a time where I privately DM somebody. I never privately DM somebody. I always publicly acknowledged the person because they’ve publicly acknowledged us. If they privately send us an email, we will privately respond to that. But if they write a review, that’s public on Yelp, on Google, on Facebook, on any platform, we will always acknowledge that review. And I think that’s important.
EMILY: It’s extremely important. And you know, someone once gave me the analogy that not responding to a review is like having someone ask to talk to the manager and when they’re done telling you their feedback, you just sit there and stare at them. And you and I know—and we’ve talked before about how the response deepens the relationship with the consumer. If it’s critical, you’re turning it around, maybe. You’re surprising and delighting them by replying and trying to get to the root of the problem. Or if it’s a positive review, you’re deepening the relationship with them. Can you talk a little bit about how responding and responding authentically can help get potential future consumers?
So maybe not even in the lens of deepening the relationship with the critical reviewer, but responding to reflect to other people who you are as a brand.
SHAWN: It’s so basic yet we don’t talk about it a lot. My wife spends a lot of time on Amazon, like a lot of people do. And she’ll look at reviews, but even more than looking at the reviews, she looks at the business or if the seller’s responding to the review. Because then there, now you’ve proven humanity. You’ve proven that somebody behind this brand, behind this product, behind this service, cares about what they’re doing. Does that mean that they’re going to have all five star reviews? No, it doesn’t.
You know, and it’s the same thing with the restaurant. When you see a restaurant that is actively engaging. When you see a small business actively reengaging in their Yelp reviews, you know that somebody cares; it doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. You’re not going to make every customer happy. And trust me, we’re selling barbecue. There’s plenty of people that have opinions about barbecue and how much better their barbecue is than ours. But ultimately what they care about is that their voice is heard. And that’s really what hospitality is. And once you hear someone’s voice, you acknowledge their voice, you welcome them the same way you do it in real life. You welcome them online. You can create this incredible brand that when somebody comes to your page, they see that humanity. They see the humanity behind the brand. And I understand the bigger the brand, the harder it is to have reputation management.
And to start to understand on a local level, on a village level, the way that we like to talk about it. Every single business is in a village. You know, it might be a city, it might be a huge city like New York city. It might be Chicago, wherever you are. But we all live in a little village and we all are creatures of habit. We love to do the same things over and over. So you have all these micro moments throughout the day, throughout your week, where you can make an impact by acknowledging somebody that’s actually spent money in your business.
EMILY: Yeah. It’s really important to show them that you’re human beyond just the transaction or the sale. I think a big misstep or missed opportunity by business owners is this goal to have a perfect 5-star reputation or to have a perfect 5-star business. And they’re really not seeing all of the opportunity in the criticism or in the less than 5-star feedback.
Can you share a little bit about maybe what you’ve experienced in your own reputation, but also what you’ve just learned over the years as an entrepreneur and consumer about perfect 5-star ratings versus some pages with some criticism on them?
SHAWN: Yeah. I mean, when we first opened up the restaurant, I remember, you know, getting 5-star reviews. It was like a food reviewer came. I mean, it was the greatest thing ever. You know, somebody that took the time to talk about all the love and hard work that you had to open up this business and they’re writing it down and explaining how great the host that you hired was, or the server that you hired, or the music that was playing or the fact that you had their game on their TV, or you took care of their grandmother. And you did all of these things that, you know— literally a restaurant owner, a small business owner, they have so many things that we have to do to create an incredible hospitality experience, and to get that feedback is so positive.
On the same level, it’s devastating when somebody takes the time to write a 1-star review, attacking all of the things that you believe in—that you’ve invested in, that you’ve blood, sweat, tears, money, investment, everything that you’ve put into this business. It’s gut-wrenching. But when you can remove the subjectivity, which is very hard, very hard to do. And something that is so personal as a business, but if you can remove it, you can look objectively at the data and what are people saying in the review? If one person’s saying it, then maybe other people have experienced it and just haven’t taken the time to write it. Now, if multiple people are saying it—now, operationally we can look at it and go, ‘Well, maybe we have a problem and maybe we can investigate that problem.’
Sometimes, maybe it’s not a problem. Maybe it’s just a personal preference and we choose not to do a certain thing. I mean, our brand has evolved significantly. We were a breakfast brand when we first opened in 2008 and we became a sports bar and evolved to a barbecue brand. And now literally all we do is barbecue. So we have people that have come to love a lot of things that we used to do. They love the burgers we used to make. The salads we used to make. The steak, you know, the omelets, all this other stuff that we don’t do anymore. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want it. And they don’t still ask us about it, but we’re still true to ourselves. And the more that we explain it and we let them know, ‘This is the why behind the decisions that we’re making. We’re grateful for the support, but unfortunately we can’t add those menu items in order for us to sustain a profitable business into the future.’ And the more that we explain that, the more that people appreciate who we are and being true to who we are.
EMILY: Yeah. And I think the pandemic has for so many businesses shown that being human and being transparent and almost like letting them behind the curtain can really help when it comes to your consumers expectations, right? So much of expectation-setting comes from communication and comes from some transparency.
I really liked what you mentioned too, about how if you’re always worried about curating the perfect social media feed or visual display, you’re sometimes losing the opportunity to show who you are. And have people connect with all of the things about you that aren’t perfect, right? And really resonate with them as a person.
Like you said, your staff and your team are people. And the work that they do in your business is human. And that’s why people want to support you in the first place.
EMILY: I want to talk specifically about some of your podcast episodes. Let’s dive into that first one with Sam The Cooking Guy. He is so cool. And actually we’re going to attach your conversation to the end of today. I think that’s a really great example to give our listeners a bit more of what Restaurant Influencers is all about, but can you share with me some of Sam’s mottos or his approaches when it comes to his restaurant’s digital footprint and how he reflects his customer service online?
SHAWN: Yes, Sam The Cooking Guy. I mean, he was selected as the first episode for Restaurant Influencers for a reason. He’s been on Digital Hospitality multiple times. We’ve become friends. He’s become a mentor of mine. He has over 3 million YouTube subscribers. He has a quarter of a million Instagram followers, Tiktok followers, you name it. I mean, the statistics are unbelievable. But he does what we try to teach other small business owners and restaurant owners what to do. And that’s, it’s so much more than the product or the service that you’re selling.
And online storytelling—what we call smartphone storytelling—literally will differentiate you from everyone else in your village. Everyone else in your industry will be trying to catch up. But the problem, the most difficult part is that as business owners, we want someone else to tell our story. We want a journalist to come and write about our business. We want a TV station to come and feature our business. We want the radio host to talk about our business. But it just doesn’t happen unless you invest all types of money and public relations. And it’s not that PR isn’t great. It’s just that it’s very expensive, and for what you get. There’s never been a time where we’re building on the backs of giants. All of these apps are already there. They’ve already been created. And they already have hundreds of millions of users on these apps. And when you get down to it, all we’re talking about is audio, video, words, and images.
That’s how you tell stories online. Business owners are phenomenal. You cannot own a business, you can’t be an entrepreneur, you can’t open up a shop unless you’re great at telling a story. You’ve convinced your wife, you’ve convinced your husband, you’ve convinced your significant others, your family, you’ve convinced your community. You convince people to work for you. You convinced investors, the bank, and vendors. You’re in business! Like you’ve done all of it in real life.
The problem is most business owners aren’t great at telling the smartphone that same story. Publishing content online, publishing content on Instagram reels, on Tiktok, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on YouTube, on all the places that people are searching, which Sam The Cooking Guy does a phenomenal job of doing. Which is a huge impact, not just to his restaurant business, but to his consumer packaged goods: the things that he sells within his restaurant, his cookbooks, the knives that he sells. All of this is through storytelling and content.
EMILY: I want to drill in on something there because you are truly an expert at always capturing content and continuously posting content. And I think for many, that’s an overwhelming concept. Like, okay, I’m going to start to do things online, or I’m going to start taking more pictures or doing videos behind the scenes and posting them.
Do you have any advice for business owners about how to build that relationship with their smartphone and get more habitual about capturing and posting things?
SHAWN: Yeah, the easy answer to the Internet, and the problem that I see with most business owners, is that we want quality. So back to, ‘We want to be the commercial. We want the best image, the best foot forward for our brand, for our business. It’s our baby. We want it to be the best.’ But what the internet wants is authenticity. The internet wants raw. Professionally raw. And the more that you can get professionally raw—and you have the greatest tool that allows you to do that: the camera app on your smartphone. You don’t need an iPhone, you can have an Android, but everyone has a smartphone. So if you have a smartphone, you have the greatest tool in order to tell your story. And that’s the video. Video is so powerful. The internet wants video. Tiktok wants video. Instagram wants video. Facebook reels want video, YouTube shorts. Video can give you so much where you’re not telling the customer, ‘Hey, I sell barbecue.’ I’m taking a video, a 15 second video showing them not of me making barbecue, but our pitmaster, Bernice, at the Old Hickory Pit putting ribs on the smoker.
And I’ve made that part of my daily routine. The same way that I check email. The same way that I check text messages. Wherever I am is an opportunity for me to give access to the people that follow us online a sneak peek into the life of being a barbecue restaurant owner, a sneak peek into the life of being a podcaster, a sneak peek into the life of me going to Vegas to give a speech to other restaurant owners. Like now I’m bringing people into the story, and by bringing people into the story, more people are invested in our brand, and it gives us more opportunity.
EMILY: I loved that professionally raw advice. I think that’s the perfect way to describe what you’re trying to do, right? And it actually leads me perfectly into how I wanted to wrap this episode, because professionally raw is the best way to describe how you should be responding and representing yourself when it comes to your digital reputation. You and I talked before we started this interview about bringing emotion to your digital presence and bringing the real you. And I know for example, you talk about your family on your social and you talk about what you guys are going through. Mostly positive, but real stuff too. And you guys are people just like anyone else.
How can business owners channel emotion or maybe think about the best approach when they are connecting so deeply and they care so much about their reputation and then they get that negative review or that unfair criticism. How do you manage your emotions when you are so emotionally invested in what your reputation looks like?
SHAWN: I mean professionally raw is the best answer. And I actually stole that from a Toast advisory board. We were on an advisory board call and I was presenting an example about the restaurant and someone said, ‘yeah, that’s professionally raw, what Shawn is doing.’ But that’s the truth. And it’s because it is emotional. When you talk about your business, when you talk about your family, when you talk about your baby, which could be your business, or maybe it’s your family business, it is raw and it is emotional.
For me, it’s one life. I don’t have a business life and a personal life. I have one life and every day I have an opportunity to do the thing that I love to do, which is grow my business and make an impact for my family, for my community, for our customers, for all the people that we get to touch base with on a global scale now because of the internet. And truly, the most important thing for us is back to this digital hospitality. This how do I act in real life? If I act in real life the same way online, then people are going to understand that’s my truth. And my truth is maybe I have the wrong answer for somebody that is upset with us online, but I will explain my answer to the best of my abilities—professionally raw, leaning into my truth, and let someone know that maybe I’m not going to convert this customer to come back, but at least anyone else that comes to our page then sees my response will know that this business owner cares. He cares.
And now that you know, we’re over 2,600 reviews—thankfully four and a half stars, I got to a point where I could no longer mathematically answer all the reviews. Because now we have multiple brands. We have Cali Barbecue. We have Cali Wings. We have multiple brands where we’re producing content for Yelp, for Google, for Tiktok , for Instagram. And like, I had to build out a team. But I trust my team to empower them with hospitality. And Steven who’s replying to the reviews, he understands if he has a difficult review, he’ll ask me about it. Why? Because it’s that important to me. It’s that important to me because it’s a mini press release. The same way a tweet is a mini press release. The same way an Instagram post. Like all of this is our truth. It is our brand truth. It is the humanity behind who we are and what we believe in what we’re building.
But a lot of people get scared because they don’t want that to get used against you. If it is your truth, you should just lean into it. What one other podcast guest said ‘lean into your crazy.’ And the more that we lean into our crazy—who we are, what we believe—being professionally raw, the more the opportunities we have and the more that we’re connecting with customers all over the world.
EMILY: Awesome! To close us out and before we listen to the Sam The Cooking Guy episode, is there anything else you want to share about digital hospitality and what people can expect from your episodes?
SHAWN: Yeah, I mean, so we have the two podcasts. We have Digital Hospitality and then we have Restaurant Influencers. I think, you know, the most important thing is these are free resources. The way that I look at the stage that we’ve been given, this opportunity that we’ve been given, is I went to school and I thought I wanted to study business. And I went to these business classes and they were terrible.
You know, they were just not engaging. I wasn’t hearing any content that made me excited. And now I have an opportunity every single week, twice a week, to interview the best of the best. So I feel like I have my own university. This hospitality university where I get to selfishly learn from somebody that I think is literally doing an incredible job, but more importantly, impact whoever’s listening to the show. If they take these principles that these guests that we have on are doing and put them into work in their business, I know firsthand that it will transform their business because it transformed ours. And we’re starting to get more and more stories. We’re getting more people reaching out to us, asking for help, asking for advice, joining our clubhouse calls, following us on Tiktok, following us on LinkedIn.
And we’re following them. Because we believe a rising tide lifts all ships. And if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re part of a special group of business owners. So many business owners are so stuck in their business that they’re not focusing on growing their business. So if you’re listening to this podcast, you care about improving. The next step is actually getting involved. So stay curious, you’re doing that. Get involved and finally ask for help.