Food trucks, pop-up dinners, blogger-baiting Twitter hashtags—these are the tools of the modern-day aspiring restaurateur. But now Canada’s leading chicken chain wants in on the foodie fun.
On a Wednesday evening in August, curious onlookers press their faces against a Yonge Street restaurant’s front windows, wondering who’s attending the private dinner inside. A long table runs down the middle of the dining room with two wine glasses at each setting. It’s not time for dinner yet, as guests are still getting a kitchen tour of the hot the stoves and fryers that will soon cook our meal, which is detailed in the three-course menu placed at our seats.
I order a glass of cabernet sauvignon—and the quarter-chicken dinner with a side of ribs.
Yes, I’m at a pop-up dinner hosted by chicken chain and (one-time Barenaked Ladies lyrical inspiration) Swiss Chalet. Over the past year, the chain restaurant has pursued a particularly aggressive marketing strategy, including a 24-hour rotisserie chicken channel launched last year. In the past few weeks, Swiss Chalet unleashed three food trucks to roam the country giving out fries. And, on this night, they’ve rounded up 10 food writers and bloggers (Twitter handles clearly printed on our nametags) who were encouraged to live-Tweet using the hashtag printed on the bottom of our menus as we toured the kitchen, got a lesson on making spring rolls, and went around the table asking who drinks the Chalet sauce from the bowl.
“For a brand that’s been around for almost 60 years, you have to evolve and change with the times,” says Swiss Chalet’s brand manager, Lindsay Robinson. “What we’ve been finding is that we’re not getting the credit we want our guests to know about in terms of the food we create, the service we give, and the experience when you come in.”
It’s a bold but necessary move for a large chain restaurant trying to promote itself at a time when many downtown diners are scoffing at the big-box dining experience. (Robinson says the Toronto market makes up 60 per cent of Swiss Chalet’s national business.) The irony is that Twitter hashtags and food trucks are usually associated with small, cash-strapped, independent businesses and pop-up operations hoping to open their own restaurants down the line. Larger companies like Swiss Chalet and the PepsiCo-owned Sabra hummus company (which also has a fleet of food trucks roving the city this summer) are going backwards in a way, resorting to a more hands-on approach rather than buying up giant billboards and 30-second TV spots.
Parked just around the corner from our dinner at Yonge and Gerrard was a Swiss Chalet fry truck. “It’s totally a trend right now and we felt it was the time for us to get on. You see Eat Street and trucks everywhere,” says Robinson. “Swiss Chalet is a part of [restaurant group] CARA and they have a vendor show every year, and we have vendors coming in to tell us about upcoming trends. Food trucks are now the only thing people talk about, and it’s usually something for independents, but for a chain to do something like that is different. It’s why we hopped on the bandwagon.”
It’s also a way for a large, national company to put a friendly, relatable face on the frontlines (see: successful prime-time show/quasi-infomercial Undercover Boss). Swiss Chalet also has a person within its marketing department dedicated to managing the company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, as automated and outsourced Tweets have their pitfalls.
It’s too soon to say whether this advertising 2.0 approach will have any effect on Swiss Chalet’s public image or attract the kind of discerning diners who attended our pop-up dinner. But, for what it’s worth, the groups of families and tourists patiently waiting outside for the restaurant to reopen for regular service didn’t seem to care that the company now boasts a food truck or a spunky Twitter persona—they just wanted their quarter chicken.