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Case Study: Q&A with Madeline Dow Pennington of Tom Douglas Restaurants

On the important role that websites play for hospitality and restaurant groups

a close up of a man with a beard looking at the camera

Tom Douglas is renowned in the Seattle culinary scene with an impressive portfolio of restaurants and cookbooks, a popular radio show — and not to mention — the Hot Stove Society, a cooking school. Managing such a portfolio requires an extensive team of individuals behind the wheel. Like many restaurant and hospitality groups, a strong marketing department further empowers the brand, thrusting it into the spotlight. For Tom Douglas, that department is headed by Madeline Dow Pennington, Director of Marketing and PR. We caught up with her to find out how she came to work with the renowned chef and to learn of the important role that websites play in hospitality and restaurant groups. 

Madeline and her family

Madeline and her family

How did you get involved as the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Tom Douglas Restaurants?

I went to college actually for public relations and advertising and fell in love with that world. I was born and raised here in Seattle and went to college at Chapman University in Orange County, California, and wanted to come back to the city. I love Seattle. It's just such a vibrant city and always will be for me. My father was in the wine industry for a long time and pointed me in the direction of the Washington State Wine Commission, which is a state commodity commission that helps market and promotes Washington state wines around the world. So I worked with them for about six and a half years, managing a variety of marketing campaigns, a little bit more geared towards the trade side.

I started working with winemaker Charles Smith who owns Charles Smith Wines out of Walla Walla, WA. We got to know each other while I was working for the wine commission and he wanted somebody to help him with his marketing and PR. So I was with him for about four years. I wanted to do something different so I ventured into food. I've known Tom and his wife, Jackie and their family here in Seattle for a long time and fortunately, they were looking to fill a marketing position at the time. And so I said, yes, and here we are five years later.

How’s it been working with Tom?

I’ve loved every second of it. Prior to March, we had 18 different restaurants and five additional concepts ranging from concessions at the big Paramount Theater to our Hot Stove Society cooking school. So in addition to restaurants, we were sort of scattered all over the city with various projects and really leveraging the kind of celebrity nature that Tom is. You know, he's a great personality, not only in the food and wine world but also here as a community champion of Seattle. He’s involved with a lot of really great local organizations and charities.

Tom Douglas looking at the camera

Tom Douglas — executive chef, restaurateur, author, and radio talk show host.

Tom diversified what each restaurant offered with products and other events that appear to be ahead of the curve — especially in regards to COVID-19 forcing more to-go operations, right?

Yeah. I think he was always wanting to push the envelope and do different things and reach audiences in different ways. We started seeing trends in Seattle where you have a demographic who wanted something to go or a quick meal. For instance, Seattle has 40,000 Amazon employees that surrounded us who needed to grab a quick meal and get back to their desks. Pivoting a few years ago to accommodate that type of audience was different and unique for us. 

So we definitely have a little bit of experience with takeout and to-go. Of course, nowhere near what March gave us. Tom is always ready to pivot; he's happy to move on from an idea that's not working or reshift a restaurant concept to accommodate what people want. 

How do you view a restaurant’s website as a digital marketing tool? How do you use it as a marketer?

When I first started in this position, [the website] was just not a strong priority for our company. When I came on board they had ‘tomdouglas.com, backslash, restaurant name’ for about four of the restaurants. And then some of the other restaurants had their own website. There was no consistency - and for a neurotic brand manager like myself, that just gave me hives. 

The websites were all functional, but we needed to use this platform to educate our customers that all these other restaurants exist. Or for instance, someone being a huge fan of one restaurant, but did they know that our bakery is right next door?

The restaurant website for Serious Pizza

The restaurant website for Serious Pie

Right from the get-go, I wanted to take tomdouglas.com and make it our umbrella website and then get all of the older restaurants onto their own platform. Being such a marketing icon and utilizing Tom the best way we could, we wanted this umbrella site to not only highlight who he is in the industry but also our family of employees, the benefits we create and the things that we do in the community. We didn't really have a home for that at the time online. 

My belief is that you have half a second to capture your audience. If you go to a website and it just looks poorly put together and you can't figure out where the restaurant’s located or how to view the menu, you're going to lose them. And it's unfortunate for people to not have a business model where that's a priority. I think that this is such a huge priority for a business, especially restaurants, to make that initial impact with the customer from a well-designed website.

How do you see the website in accordance with other marketing channels, in particular Instagram and Facebook?

I see it as a shortcut. We've been really trying to emphasize our website as much as possible on our social media platforms — using the swipe up feature to order online for instance. Recently, Tom was grilling cheesesteaks for our pop-up. We took amazing photos and videos of the food — wet, gooey, delicious provolone melting on steak — it was so good. And we’re just like, okay we captured those visuals, let’s create a call to action and link that all together. It’s a huge priority for us. Using that event as an example, people commented, “It's awesome to see Tom working the grill.” Here he is, wearing a hairnet, a face mask and gloves and he's the one chopping stuff up. We wanted to create that connection for people, but then seamlessly connect the post and the website to create a sale.

Do you find that Instagram is good for engaging your hardcore fans and do you think that you're also generating new customers through it?

Yeah, it's a good question. I would say it's hard to answer because our Instagram fan base is very active and very loyal to Tom. There are a good number of people who are not in Seattle and therefore cannot order certain things from us — as much as they would love to. This is something that I've had to get over because I sometimes struggle with linking things to Facebook. Facebook, to me, is a bit noisy. But we have a lot of Tom's fans use only Facebook, so we have to be strategic about certain things. For example, Tom is renowned for one of his signature dishes: the triple coconut cream pie. When we were promoting that the coconut cream pie was going to be available at Metropolitan Market, which is a wonderful independent grocery store chain here in Seattle, promoting that on Instagram did okay. It was exciting and people were excited, but after putting it on Facebook, it just exploded. We had thousands of more shares and likes and comments.

a close up of a slice of pizza sitting on top of a stove

Tell us about what your role was like before BentoBox?

As I mentioned, I kind of came in ‘guns blazing’ when I first started and was really focused on revamping our websites. We worked with a local agency that is awesome and wonderful, but it was challenging because there wasn’t a universal backend for all of our websites. It took a while for us to communicate that need to our previous web design team. I came across BentoBox after finding all these websites that I loved and saw all of them were designed by BentoBox. That was just music to my ears to hear that the backend was so easy and so universal — that you could create different levels of access to folks in different restaurants. We move at such a quick pace, especially since March, that we have to make a change sometimes within hours of being open or 15 minutes of being open. So to have that power in our own hands, with a backend like BentoBox, has been awesome for us.

Back in March, when shutdowns started happening, was the website an important tool to communicate to your customer base? What was that process like?

It was heartbreaking. We created static headers on all of the websites announcing that we were closing all properties except for one bakery location. But we had to scramble to get all of the messaging out on all of the restaurant websites. 

Our agency had to actually make all of the changes. That was something we didn't have control over which was frustrating. We started utilizing this message of “checkout tomdouglas.com for the latest news of what's open and what's closed” because things were changing so fast. It was definitely a tough few months. 

With the permanently closed locations, we asked ourselves, how do we communicate that on the website and social media? Unfortunately, here in Seattle, it's becoming so often with our neighbors and partners that we don't typically make it very public. We kind of close the doors and say our goodbyes. We don't really blast it out to the world. We're fortunate that we have other locations open. We'd rather drive web traffic there than highlight things that people can't go to. That’s the content strategy that we came up with. 

Did you have any initial hesitations or questions that made you think BentoBox might not be a good fit? How did they turn out? Why did you ultimately make the switch to BentoBox?

There was definitely the initial question of should we just go with BentoBox? It's easy, standard and we know how it functions. Or should we support a local firm? Together, as a team, we all came to this moment where we agreed to just start from scratch. Nothing's the same. Just because we did something last year, doesn’t mean we have to do it this year. The cost was a huge factor. We were sort of locked into a pretty substantial contract that had all these existing websites that we weren't doing anything with.

We thought to ourselves, “alright, let's mix it up, let's try something else.” I also felt like the timeline for what BentoBox could deliver versus our previous agency was going to be exponentially faster. It was a no brainer. 

a slice of pizza sitting on top of a cutting board

How was the onboarding and design process after signing up with BentoBox?

We really enjoyed it. We were happy with having a beautiful, image-driven website. The design process was super smooth. It was quick to request certain little changes here and there and the initial design was attractive to us out of the gate, so we didn't have much need to go back and forth.

How has the support service been and do you feel like you and your team are taken care of?

It's hilarious. We haven't needed it! I truly cannot speak to a time where we've needed it. We've been able to figure things out as we go and add new team members, create pop-ups, we've filled the event page and rearranged photos.

That’s great! How has your experience been using the platform now that the website is live?

The thing that I talk to people about most — and I think that this was a huge selling point early on with BentoBox — was providing such usability within the restaurant industry. The backend is so user-friendly and well designed for those who work in restaurants. You're not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. That was one of the challenges that we faced with our previous agency. 

Having BentoBox be this pillar of communication with restaurants around the world, I'm looking forward to benefiting from tools that have been requested from other restaurants. It’s great to be able to take advantage of the fact that you're listening to every restaurant that is searching for solutions or tricks or time savers. To me, that's super attractive.

How do you feel about the overall value of our service?

For us, it's been so refreshing to pay a monthly subscription and know that we're satisfied, that we have support if needed. We appreciate the transparency and the level of professional service. 

You can check out tomdouglas.com to learn more about his portfolio of restaurants, the cooking school, Hot Stove Society and more. Be sure to reach out to a BentoBox specialist to learn how we can help your restaurant online. 

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