The Power of Facebook Foodie Groups in the Houston Area Restaurant Scene

Members socializing at a Woodlands Area Foodies holiday event.
Members socializing at a Woodlands Area Foodies holiday event. Photo by Meghan Kuzmann

Members socializing at a Woodlands Area Foodies holiday event. - PHOTO BY MEGHAN KUZMANN
Members socializing at a Woodlands Area Foodies holiday event.
Photo by Meghan Kuzmann

“Peli Peli is so overrated.”

Typically when a review or comment is made on any of the various online review platforms, a restaurant owner isn’t able to see who the reviewer is and may not be able to understand why the statement was made.  These reviews and comments are seen by future visitors and may have a significant impact on the reputation and revenue of that business.

Fortunately for Peli Peli, this particular comment was made in a local foodie group on Facebook. A total of 238 comments later, not only was I able to communicate with the original commenter and understand her reasons for making that statement, but I also had the opportunity to see that a majority of the members disagreed with the comment and mentioned their positive experiences with Peli Peli. Some members, who had never been to Peli Peli before, even stated that they would try us after seeing the type of support that we received.

Foodie groups on Facebook have changed the dynamic between restaurants and their diners and how they
interact with each other.  These foodie groups, which are closed groups but are free to join, have allowed for increased exposure for restaurants and a more accurate depiction of a restaurant’s overall performance.

For restaurants, standing out from the thousands of restaurants in the Greater Houston area can be difficult. Since marketing is so fragmented between print, television and social media, reaching new customers and retaining old ones is not easy.  With foodie groups, restaurateurs are able to interact with customers and develop relationships with them. Creating a great reputation backed by a strong following in a foodie group can lead to increased revenue and improved reviews for a restaurant.  In addition, since posts are provided by individuals with verified Facebook accounts and are overseen by foodie group admins, the likelihood of an anonymous fake review or experience is reduced.

For consumers, foodie groups allow members to post about their dining experiences, share photos and connect with others who share the same passion and interests in food. Finding out about local favorites or new restaurant openings, especially in the suburbs where exposure by mainstream media may be limited, is a great benefit to members.

In Houston, there are a handful of foodie groups on Facebook (with at least 9,000 members) representing almost every community and the surrounding suburbs including, but not limited to:

· Houston Foodie Friends (21,355 members)
· Katy/Fort Bend Foodies (35,470 members)
· Cypress Area Foodies & Fooding (14,077 members)
· Woodlands Area Foodies (18,822 members)
· Tomball/Vintage Park Eateries (9,529 members)
· Woodlands Spring, TX Foodie Club (38,072 members)
· Memorial Area Eats (9,517 members)
· Bay Area Houston Food Lovers (13,649 members)

How do I know if those reviews are real?

One of the most frustrating aspects of online reviews for both consumers and restaurant owners are the authenticity and credibility of reviews.  Often times on Google, Yelp or Tripadvisor, it is difficult to determine if the reviews are real or fake since the true identity of the reviewer is not required to be posted by the restaurant.  Or was the negative review posted by a competitor, ex-employee or an internet troll?

“We are different in the fact that everyone who reviews or posts has to use their real Facebook profile. Yelp and other review forums don't monitor how many profiles one person has. I could potentially make 25 profiles and that could equate to 25 negative reviews for one business,” says Angelina Allen, one of the admins of Katy/Fort Bend Foodies.  “As an admin team, we review every account before it joins, so if you’re going to leave a bad review it’s going to be genuine because your name and face are behind it.”

Cleverley Stone, the Founder of Houston Restaurant Weeks, created Houston Foodie Friends in December 2012 making it one of the older foodie groups in Houston.  Stone has taken extra steps to ensure that transparency is key when posts are made.  “We have a rule that if a member has a relationship with a business that they recommend to the group, they should disclose that relationship in their recommendation,” states Stone.  “They could be the owner, chef, general manager, an employee, family member, public relations representative, social media manager, etc. I think our members appreciate this transparency.”

click to enlarge Peli Peli Co-founder Thomas Nguyen - PHOTO BY RICHELE BARKER
Peli Peli Co-founder Thomas Nguyen
Photo by Richele Barker

Connect With Your Customers

Restaurant owners can get critical feedback on their food, service and overall experience from consumer posts in the foodie groups.  Owners are able to monitor the foodie groups and interact with current or potential customers in a constructive manner.  This data helps restaurant owners keep their staff accountable and provides an extra set of eyes on their business.  In addition, restaurant owners are able to have immediate interaction and dialogue with customers and personally address their issues.

“The foodies page, especially in smaller markets with master communities, can make or break a restaurant,” says Shervin Sharifi, the owner/managing partner for Local Table and whose family started popular Houston concept, Hungry’s.  “I personally believe that the foodies page gives us a large enough sample size of people in our area to get a true gauge of how your product is performing.  From customer service to quality, the foodies page is a daily reminder of how powerful these pages can be good or bad.”

“People on Facebook are not shy about voicing their opinions, however, they may be shy contacting a restaurant directly,” says Susie Pyle, founder of Memorial Area Eats. “The food groups definitely give the restaurant a voice. There are a lot of restaurant owners on MAE and when a question or a negative or positive statement has been posted, the owners have been able to respond. I believe this is critical for the owners and helps their overall business.”

Some admins take it a step further and attempt to mediate a bad experience or interaction between a customer and restaurant.  This helps restaurant owners who are not well-versed in social media or have a hard time accepting constructive criticism.

"We are different than other platforms such as Google or Yelp in a way that if I know who our members are, I can help them resolve the situation that they have with a certain restaurant,” says Stacy Tran, the founder of Cypress Area Foodies & Fooding.  “Some other platforms can slaughter a restaurant just allowing people to post mean things because they’re having a bad day.  Words can hurt an establishment’s reputation.”

click to enlarge Andrew Leeper (on far right), along with members of Katy/Fort Bend Foodies at Katy Taste Fest.  Leeper created Katy/Fort Bend Foodies in 2014. - PHOTO BY DUSTIN ALLEN
Andrew Leeper (on far right), along with members of Katy/Fort Bend Foodies at Katy Taste Fest. Leeper created Katy/Fort Bend Foodies in 2014.
Photo by Dustin Allen

A Great Way to Market Your Restaurant

One of the best methods to organically grow your fan base and increase exposure is through word-of-mouth, but this process often takes too long for restaurant owners.   Foodie groups allow for word-of-mouth to
spread much faster.  A positive review can be seen by thousands of readers and these reviews can occur on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, all for free. As a result, a single post on a popular foodie page can lead to
immediate sales for a restaurant.

On the Katy/Fort Bend Foodies page, business owners can advertise their restaurant once per week and
advertising on the page is completely free. “Mom and pop shops that don’t have large corporate budgets behind them can really benefit,” says Allen.

Properly marketing the opening of a new restaurant opening is critical, but in today’s market, options for print,
radio and television can be cost-prohibitive. Facebook and social media advertising can be very effective, but
boosting targeted ads can be very expensive. To have a platform like a Facebook foodie page that is made up of members of the community that you are opening in is priceless for a restaurant.

“The great thing about Facebook community food pages is that it provides another avenue for us to keep our neighbors in the loop regarding special events we are hosting,” says Le Chau, General Manager of Tobiuo Sushi + Bar in Katy.  “It also helps keep our name in front of a foodie crowd, and it’s rewarding for us to see the positive feedback from these groups.”

Brittney Greene, who is a member of Houston Foodie Friends, Katy/Fort Bend Foodies, Cypress Area Eats, Cypress Area Foodies and Fooding, and The Woodlands Spring Foodie Club, joined in order to find the best food in Houston.  “I find out about new restaurants, soft and grand openings, and unique dining opportunities mainly through the foodie groups,” states Greene. “It’s great to see chefs and restaurant owners getting involved with the foodie community and offer events, special offers, and keep us up-to-date on restaurant happenings.”

click to enlarge A Bay Area Houston Food Lovers karaoke event at Bayshore Grill & Billiards in San Leon. - PHOTO BY SAMMI NGUYEN
A Bay Area Houston Food Lovers karaoke event at Bayshore Grill & Billiards in San Leon.
Photo by Sammi Nguyen

A Resource for the Community

If there is one thing that can bring people together, it’s food.  And the community aspect is perhaps the best part of a foodie group on Facebook. Having a platform where you can ask for recommendations on the best local places for sushi, wings, crawfish, literally any kind of cuisine, can be invaluable.  Recommendations are not just limited to food, and can help resolve immediate needs and answer questions related to catering, private events and recipes.

Stone recalled an occurrence on Houston Foodie Friends where a member found a solution to her catering dilemma.  “Recently a member posted a plea for help because the caterer for her engagement party cancelled. She needed to find a new caterer fast, and she had a limited budget. Four days later she posted that she found a caterer based on the group's suggestions.”

Albert Nurick, who created Woodlands Area Foodies in October 2013, considers the foodie page a community.  “During the Harvey disaster, WAF members came together to help our community. Members cooked and distributed food to those who were displaced or without power, some even opened their homes to those who had no place to go,” states Nurick.  “WAF published a running list of restaurants in the area that were open after Harvey, connecting hungry customers with restaurants that needed business.”

Houston Press contributor Jennifer Fuller, who created Bay Area Houston Food Lovers in 2015 after realizing that a foodie group did not exist for League City and the surrounding community, feels that groups like this provide an outlet not just for finding good food, but for helping others.   “I've discovered people love to help, and we have come together to help struggling small businesses,” says Fuller.  “Our most recent call was to FBQ Filipino Barbecue. The owner reached out to me because he'd decided to give his restaurant another shot after considering selling it. I stopped by, tried his delicious food and let the group know what was going on. Our members packed the place for days, took photo after photo, and shared it in the group.”

Foodie group members can also connect with others with similar tastes, socialize and make new friends.  Sean Fitzsimmons, who is a member of the Katy/Fort Bend Foodies, Cypress Area Foodies & Fooding, and the Woodlands Spring, TX Foodie Club, feels the difference between Facebook foodie groups and other apps and services is the ability to get to know people in the groups.

“Being in the group has changed our social life quite a bit because we now have friends we can go out with that we know will want to try new things and share new food experiences, and that has been so much fun,” says Fitzsimmons.  “When I post something that I have cooked or that I have eaten at a restaurant, and someone else comments that they tried  something because of my post, that makes my heart happy.”

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Thomas Nguyen is a freelance food writer for the Houston Press and co-founder of South African restaurants Peli Peli & Peli Peli Kitchen.