When we called Joe Isidori one Friday afternoon in July, he was knee-deep in the weeds, managing a long line of people — a four-hour wait’s worth, to be exact — wrapped around the Chelsea location of his ultra-popular NYC hot spot, Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer.
It’s the kind of problem every restaurateur hopes to have: people clamoring to get into your establishment. These days, diners from far and wide flock to Black Tap for the awesome burgers, beers and most of all, the Instagram-breaking milkshakes.
The professionally trained chef spent five years overseeing food preparation for Trump International properties before branching out on his own, developing the idea for an easygoing burger joint whose over-the-top shakes turned into a national sensation. Thanks to a few genius, food-porn-worthy shots — giant shakes with toppings like Sour Patch Kids, full-size cookies and cupcakes, caramel apples, rainbow-colored candy canes and more — Instagram photos went viral virtually overnight. Isidori shared his take on how the social media platform can be an effective marketing tool, plus how to use it to drive business.
BLACK TAP MARKETING
Where did the idea for the shakes come from?
We didn’t plan on it. It was all by accident. One day my wife came to me and said, “I love cotton candy. Make me a cotton candy milkshake.” You want to impress your wife, so I went and made a cotton candy milkshake. We adorned it with all these amazing things — candies, lollipops, whipped cream, you name it — put it on Instagram, and literally the rest is history.
From the day I put it on Instagram, people were coming into the restaurant with their phones in their hands going, “I want this, now.” From there, we realized we were onto something. We created about half a dozen shakes, put out a full menu, and we’ve had a line ever since. We launched the shakes in mid-November last year. It’s now mid-July, and we still have a four-hour line.
Let’s be real: At $15 a pop, Black Tap milkshakes aren’t cheap. How did you decide on a price point that would jive with the rest of your menu and not alienate people?
Obviously, these things are really unique, so they’re going to garner a higher price point. While the shakes bring a lot of value outside of revenue, they actually cost a lot of money to produce. If I were to follow a proper protocol as far as pricing goes, some of the shakes would be probably be even more. But they can’t be so expensive that they’re unattainable. I always have this rule of thumb where everything should be under $19 — all our food. So we don’t have any burgers or any plates of food that go over $19. We serve beer and wine, and most of our beverage options are under $10.
When it came to the shakes, I asked a lot of people, “How much would you pay for this?” I heard $14, $15, $16, and at the end of the day, I said, “You know what, let’s just make them a blanket $15.” We make it more of an experience (not about the dollar amount), so people can choose whatever they want. Since everything’s the same price, they don’t have to think about it, and they can have fun. And that $15 mark has really worked, because it sits right in the middle. It’s not $16, it’s not $14. It’s fair, and people feel comfortable about it. Every once in awhile you get the naysayers but the majority — I’d say 90% of people — always say it was well worth it.
How influential do you think Instagram is in driving actual foot traffic?
It’s number one. I don’t think there’s anything that can beat it. Outside of me being on TV next to a celebrity with a shake in their hand, nothing else beats Instagram. We’re what you call “an Instagram brand”.
How much has Black Tap’s following grown since the shakes blew up on Instagram?
We opened up in March 2015, and we had a great run — we were at about 10k followers on Instagram. In October 2015, we won NYC’s Food & Wine Burger Bash, where we became the official #1 burger in New York City. So we were like, off to the races. The whole world was looking at us, and that’s really when the lines started, because we had the best burger. We got to about 24k followers, and then I woke up one night and my phone had crashed (because I left my notifications on). When my phone came back to life, we were at 100k followers. In reality, it [that kind of rapid growth] happened all within 72 hours. Now we’re at 201k followers, and we expect to be about 250k by end of year. We average about 1,500 new followers a week.
Wow, that’s amazing. Any advice on how other restaurateurs can maximize their reach on Instagram?
There is no strategy. There are two rules. One: You cannot create the next food trend. You cannot wake up one day and say, “I’m going to create the next food trend.” It doesn’t happen. And two: You cannot wake up one day and say, “You know what, I want 100k followers.” It’s the power of the people. The only way it happens is if you capture their attention with interesting content, and they do the work for you. You really can’t do anything. You just gotta do what you feel is on brand, gear it towards certain crowd, go after them, and hope that they do the rest of the work for you.
So if people come for the shake, do they stay for the burger (or other stuff)?
85% of our customers all get a burger and a shake. The other 15% come in just get one or the other. Also, 20% of our clientele buy some sort of swag, whether it be a T-shirt or a Black Tap backpack. They’re really attracted to the brand, so whatever they can get to bring back with them, they do.
Has what you’re doing at Black Tap changed at all since the shakes took off?
Not at all. What you see now has been the same since Day One. The only thing different is we added the shakes. We had all the merchandise the whole time, and the shakes were really the last piece of the puzzle. Outside of that, we’ve done everything the same. Even in our expansion plans, we’re sticking to our DNA — burgers, shakes and beer. And that’s what you’re gonna see on our Instagram.
What’s your top marketing tip for restaurateurs?
Just do your thing, make sure people are happy, and always provide great quality. If you do that, the people will do the rest.
Fill in the blank:
If I could be anything other than a chef, I would have been an art director.
The person I most admire is my father.
My last meal would be spaghetti pomodoro with fresh shaved Parmesano Reggiano.
One word that describes me is ambitious (or relentless).
My favorite ice cream flavor is cookies and cream.
My least favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip (ugh).
My guilty pleasure is Taco Bell.
My best habit is being OCD.