Behind the Review | Bringing your in-person hospitality to the digital world

What does digital hospitality mean? “Every business needs to be digital first, and every business needs to be in the hospitality business,” says Shawn Walchef, owner of Cali Comfort BBQ and founder of Cali BBQ Media. And while this may sound like just another industry buzzword, its importance has been expedited over the course of the pandemic. In this week’s deep-dive episode, we speak with Shawn about what digital hospitality really means, why it’s crucial, and how businesses can implement it.

In order to run a successful business, the customer has to have a great experience. And when you’re able to interact face-to-face with your customers, it’s easy to prioritize hospitality. The tricky part is when you can’t interact in-person with your audience—like during a pandemic. At that point, the experience is likely moved entirely online, and as Shawn shares, it’s about how those customers are treated on the digital stage.

“Digital hospitality is about integrating your in-store experience with your digital strategy,” Shawn says. It’s about ensuring the online experience matches the quality of the in-person customer journey. When thinking about where to start, Shawn says, “You have to extend who you are—no matter what kind of business you are—to the online business and to your communication.”

And despite how important that is, for many small business owners, a digital strategy may be considered a “nice to have” with how busy their day-to-day operations already are. But an online strategy is becoming more and more crucial every day. The landscape has completely changed, and consumer expectations have changed along with it. On top of that, the pandemic has accelerated the online movement, making consumers even more reliant on the digital interaction they have with brands—whether it’s the local barbecue joint, the mom-and-pop coffee shop, or the family-owned hardware store. Consumers expect the ability to connect with your brand online, and how you show up and service them makes a big impact on their experience.

Here are some other lessons you’ll learn from this week’s episode when thinking about your own digital hospitality strategy:

  • Hospitality is about more than just the in-person experience. You can interact with your “digital guests and customers” with the same level of hospitality as you do people who are physically in your business. It’s important to extend those same principles of care and engagement to an online audience.
  • Storytelling is key. When thinking about your digital brand, it’s much more than just setting up a website, social media accounts, and a Yelp Page. While those are all crucial elements, you should always be sharing your story. People make purchases based on their emotions. They spend their money and time with businesses they love or care about. When you communicate your story well and connect with your customers in an authentic way, that will pay off down the road because those people will share their own experiences online—reaching more people than you would have on your own.
  • Technology is your friend. Technology is ever-changing, and that can certainly be overwhelming, but try thinking about how it can benefit you. There are many platforms that can help you run your business more efficiently, with many offering free trials so you can see if it’s the right fit.
  • Always be learning. Shawn’s advice is, “I’m a student every single day. I’ve got to learn. So stay curious. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re already so much farther ahead than so many people because you want to be better. Get involved, take some action items from this podcast, and then finally, ask for help.”

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Shawn, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Behind the Review, episode 19 transcript
Taking your in-person experience into the digital world

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 barbecue restaurateur. He also runs a mini media empire—he hosts and produces a weekly podcast and a plethora of digital media with his business. We’ll chat on what exactly digital hospitality is, how he grew and evolved his brand over time, his software recommendations, and how building a digital brand impacts reviews and your businesses’ online reputation.  

SHAWN: My name is Shawn Walchef, chef owner of Cali BBQ Media and host of the Digital Hospitality podcast. We have a barbecue media company located in San Diego, California. We’ve been in business for 13 years. And we subscribed to the thesis of digital hospitality. Every business needs to be digital first, and every business needs to be in the hospitality business.

One of the things that we have learned in the last 13 years is that in order to succeed as a brick and mortar business, a restaurant business, you need to care as much about the guests that you do that come in your restaurant as you do online. And that’s essentially the essence of digital hospitality. Every restaurant owner, we spend so much time caring about what our menu looks like, what the music is in the restaurant, what the wallpaper is, what’s playing on the TVs, what the menu looks like.

That’s all the hospitality that we care about. We also have to start treating the customer, that’s on Yelp, that’s on Google, that’s on Facebook, that’s on Instagram. The people that send the DM, somebody that interacts with you on your website, we need to take care of those customers the same way and the restaurants and the brands and the small businesses that are doing that, those are the ones that are winning. 

EMILY: I personally have gotten to know you and I think of you as a digital branding expert; how would you describe the concept of digital branding to a business owner who maybe isn’t so well versed in that side of business? 

SHAWN: Well, I think what’s most important is storytelling. When you think about branding, you think about story. And the way that we all learn is we buy on emotion. So when you’re buying from somewhere that you love or somewhere that you care about, or the way that they made you feel, that emotion goes and allows you to go and spread the message to someone else that you love and that you care about.

So if you went to get your nails done, like my wife does, and she has an incredible experience, then she’s going to go and talk about that with her girlfriends, whether that’s by text or whether that’s on Facebook or whether that’s, in a COVID safe environment. But that’s what branding is.

And that happens in real life. But what happens online is back to the digital hospitality thesis. You have to extend who you are as a brand, the heartbeat of the people, the people in real life, no matter what kind of business you are, but you need to extend that brand heartbeat to the online business and to your communication because everything is about communication and everything is about time. So if you have an incredible time and you have an incredible experience, the easiest way for customers to share that is online these days. And when you share it online, you have the ability to impact many more people than you would in real life.

EMILY: Absolutely. So you happen to have created a couple of brands and then really grown their presence. Talk to me about how you do that. How do you take a brand and make it bigger digitally? How do you get people to connect with your brand online? 

SHAWN: The most important thing is to understand that we’re students every single day, we have to be a little bit better.

The internet has changed so fast just in the time that we’ve been in business since 2008. I mean, I talk a lot about those first iPhone coming out in 2007. And the reason I bring that up is because, you know, here we are in 2021 and we’re getting close to iPhone 13 but so much has changed so quickly for all different types of businesses, big businesses, small businesses, medium sized businesses, and the ability to communicate with a customer directly through Twitter, through Facebook, through Yelp, through Google.

It’s unbelievable. And it really is exciting. It’s exciting, but also you have to understand that something’s changed, you know, the evolution of all of these apps, the evolution of all of these tech companies. Facebook business today is a lot different than the Facebook business that I opened in 2008.

Twitter is different than it was before. Yelp is different than it was before, but we have to continue – as entrepreneurs and business owners – to invest, time, resources to understand these things because they are important. That’s where people go to find products and services and that’s where you’re going to stand out.

EMILY: Yeah, couldn’t have said it better. So how do you evolve a brand? I mean, in this past year with the pandemic, your barbecue business for one has really evolved. What do you think are the core components to evolving a brand and taking your business into a different direction than maybe you originally planned on heading?

SHAWN: I think one of the most important things that we do in our business is to listen to what our customer’s needs are. And, you know, we spend so much time in the hospitality business, helping other people. That’s literally what we do. We want to make memorable moments for our guests. Memorable moments for our community and make an impact.

And when the pandemic hit, we knew about digital. We’ve been having, we’re a digital media company. We are a BBQ media company. We put on a podcast, we do all these different things that most small businesses don’t do. But we also knew that we’re an e-commerce company. We have to care about our website. We have to be mobile first. We have to do things to make it easier on the customer to get our products and to get our services. So, really leaning into that. You know, a lot of people talk about the pandemic, it was a pivot. We pivoted to do this. We didn’t pivot. We just went all in. We went all in on what we know we’ll continue to be into the future. And that’s digital, digital is not going to go anywhere. Do we love people? Yes. Do we want to have people back in a restaurant? Absolutely. But we need to use technology in order to get people products and services BBQ the way that they want it. We can’t discriminate. We can’t make somebody drive across San Diego County for 45 minutes and wait in an hour line on an NFL Sunday to enjoy our brisket. 

We’ve got to find ways to get brisket to them when they want it. As they order it. And those are the things that we’re focusing on doing. And there’s never been a greater time to be in business because there’s technology, there’s people that are coming into the restaurant space that have these tech pieces that we’ve never had before.

That really has allowed us to be more profitable than we’ve ever been. And to give better service. 

EMILY: Well, you lead me right into my next question. You are a big user of a lot of different technologies and different platforms to help streamline your business. Let’s talk specifically about your favorite tool or app or technology to manage or engage with your digital brand.

SHAWN: So there’s two things that I’ll mention. So our primary technology partner that we switched to during the pandemic is Toast. And Toast is our point of sale system. We were with Aloha point of sale, in 2008, when we opened, we chose between Micros and Aloha. Those are the two biggest point of sale players.

And so much has changed, back to the smartphone, back to the first iPhone getting released. So much has changed with how people interact with brands online. When you go to search on Google, or when you go to ask Alexa or you ask Siri. We need to be able to be mobile first. So having a website that is mobile first and responsive and easy for somebody to come on and buy barbecue, the way that they want it, check out, get their email address, thank them for coming in. Get them rewards. Toast has allowed us to do that. Toast has literally allowed us to take control back of that customer so that we, now we can foster this digital relationship and actually build a sustainable future with the guest. Because we care about them, whether they came into our restaurant or whether our barbecue is just going into their home.

And that’s something that we’re really excited about. They continue to have different tools that allow us to grow our digital hospitality footprint. The other technology is Ovation. Ovation is a guest customer satisfaction survey. So it’s a QR code that enables us to ask the guests, how was your experience?

And it’s four emojis. So between four emojis, either it’s a great experience; It was an okay experience; not so good; or it was a bad experience. If they didn’t have a good experience, if it was any of the three, that isn’t a great experience, it will send them a text message to my manager on duty. So my manager on duty will be able to resolve the complaint, just as we would in real life. So when you go into the restaurant and you tell, you know, how was your meal and the meal?

And the meal wasn’t great, I didn’t enjoy the steak. Okay, well, let me get a manager. Digitally, you don’t have that. So you need technology in order to bridge that gap. Innovation has done that for us with GrubHub and DoorDash.

So it’s really exciting for us back to, you know, living in a world where there’s all these incredible technologies that are available to small business owners that enable us to do what we love to do, and that’s create memorable experiences for our guests. 

EMILY: I love that. To close us out, let’s just talk about how your digital brand impacts your online reputation or your reviews. How do you see those two things as coming together and working in a symbiotic fashion? 

SHAWN: I mean, we care so much about reviews, because we know the impact that it makes on local search. We know the impact that it makes on our brand. We know that the impact that it makes on the perception of what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong.

One of the most important things is removing the subjectivity of the review and moving to objectivity. So if we see that multiple people in multiple reviews say something about our potato salad or our brisket operationally, we can go and say, well, now we can look and how do we make it better? And there’s been so many times where, whether it was Yelp or whether it was Google or it was Facebook, but some feedback, you know, before it was so hard to get feedback from customers

And if they didn’t have a good experience, or somebody who doesn’t like to complain, but these are people that are actively telling you how their experience was. The least we can do is acknowledge them, hope to be better, work to be better. And by doing that, when someone comes to our site and they see that we’re actively engaging, they don’t care. They care less about the one-star review than they care, What did we say about that? One-star review? And, that’s putting us in a really great place to develop deeper relationships with people that are taking the time to write reviews for our business. 

EMILY: I love the idea of developing deeper relationships with people who write you reviews. I think that’s great. Alright, to close us out Shawn, any other advice you’d like to share?

SHAWN: I mean, I think it’s the same thing that we say in our digital hospitality podcast. And that’s stay curious, get involved and ask for help. 

I’m a student every single day. I’ve got to learn. So stay curious. If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re already so much farther ahead than so many people, because you want to be better.  That’s amazing. Get involved, take some action items from this podcast, and then finally ask for help. I mean, there’s never been an easier time to, if there’s somebody that you admire, no matter what business you’re in, if they’re doing something great on Instagram or they have a great YouTube channel, send them a message.

I mean, chances are, they are willing to share their wisdom with you. And, that’s a great digital world that we live in. There are less barriers than there’ve ever been. 


The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.