A lot has changed since MK Washko and her wife and business partner, Shari Drewitt, started Better Being as a catering service for New York photographers back in 1994. As technology evolved, so did they and their embrace of blogging helped them when they eventually opened a take-out shop and a restaurant serving a market-driven, daily changing menu. Today, Better Being deliciously caters shoots and sets for a long and glittering client list of famous photographers, actors and musicians including Oprah Magazine, Rolling Stone, Nicki Minaj and Tina Fey.
Running a food business is hard work, and a lot of restauranteurs don’t have the budget or technical knowledge to build and run the online component while also running the business itself, especially if they have more than one.
The dynamic duo spoke with Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine to share some lessons learned about building an online business with tips for building and managing a site, optimizing its SEO and promoting it with digital marketing.
How did you get the idea to start a health-conscious catering company?
Shari: It wasn't our idea exactly. MK is a gifted chef and was in between jobs. A friend called and asked if she'd like to cater a photo shoot. Naturally, I said yes.
MK: It's a good thing I didn't answer the phone.
Shari: She was a bit of a snob.
MK: But I came around!
Shari: I actually think she elevated the photo shoot lunch model.
What were your first steps to getting started?
MK: Well, I didn't know what catering a photo shoot meant.
Shari: There was no Google back in them old days.
MK: So I made a menu based on what I thought people would want to eat. I shopped, prepped and even delivered it myself.
Shari: I was doing other things at the time.
MK: They liked it.
Shari: They LOVED it. The photographer asked her to cater every day the following week. That week, everyone was like, this is the best catering ever.
MK: From one client, a business was born.
What advice do you have for someone looking to take their food business online?
Shari: If you're a great chef or caterer or you have a genius business model, it doesn't mean you can build a website, but you need one.
MK: Food needs to be represented cleanly, colorfully, and in a clear & organized fashion. If it's messy or unprofessional, people will assume that's how you run your biz.
There are so many beautiful images you can capture in a kitchen that will make your online visitors drool.
Shari: It’s also a lot of fun to customize your site to match your business’ design aesthetic and you really don’t have to be an expert to do it.
MK: Don’t be afraid to make it your own. There are so many beautiful images you can capture in a kitchen that will make your online visitors drool. Short video clips of plating or of gooey desserts can go a long way, both on your site on Instagram.
What challenges did you have to overcome before bringing your business online?
Shari: In the early days we didn't have much money, so we cobbled together a website.
MK: Like we just said not to do.
Shari: In the end, you do what you can do. There weren't so many places that would give you the kind of support you can get today so we made our own–and it wasn't half bad. Alright, maybe it was HALF bad.
What was your strategy for promoting Better Being after first building your website?
Shari: It was the beginning of blogs. My assistant at the time, Wilson – he's now a partner and CEO – told me I had to "blog." With all we had going on, we'd just renovated a new kitchen, the recession was just beginning, we were opening a sandwich shop, he wanted me to start a blog. I resisted up until the day I didn't and guess what? It kind of changed everything.
MK: People came out the very next day.
How did you bring your business online after that?
Shari: We used Wix.com and that made it easy. We worked with a pro (hey Medvis!) who helped us figure out how to organize the site and how we wanted it to look. Then we actually built it together.
MK: For FREE.
Shari: Yeah, for free. Then we were able to upgrade for all the bells and whistles.
What led you to go in that direction?
Shari: Beautiful templates for one thing.
MK: It was actually hard to choose.
Shari: There's a ton of features like online ordering, analytics & email marketing so we can talk to our customers.
MK: And the support is amazing.
Shari: Yea, they called me on my birthday.
MK: They did not.
Shari: No, but maybe if they see this. The birthday call is next level, Wix.
What are some of the basics that food entrepreneurs should make sure they have in place before launching a website?
MK: The menu is incredibly important but a lot of restaurants tend to just scan it and post as a pdf, which isn’t super helpful when people are looking at it on a phone.
Shari: And that’s what most people are doing when they’re already out looking for a place to eat!
MK: It also isn’t search engine-friendly. So, you want to make sure you create your menu as an integrated part of your site and then make sure you keep it updated. You should also sync it up to your social media, so your customers are up-to-date no matter how they’re looking you up.
Shari: Then there’s other very practical things you have to include online nowadays. Taking reservations or orders is all a lot easier now that you can manage it all in one place, on the back end of your site. It’s much easier for us now to take payments online before we cater a shoot. You can even have fun with customizing the confirmation message you send to people when they make a reservation or place an order.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from becoming your own webmasters?
Shari: Make sure people can find you – make your contact info on your site big and easy to find and register your business on Google My Business so you’re fully searchable.
MK: Don’t be shy! When the blogging took off, that’s when it clicked for us how important it is to tell your story, and the internet just gives you so many ways to do that.
Shari: That’s right – don’t just make your “about” section some measly paragraph. Put some videos or press clippings in there if you have them. Most importantly, remember that your story is unique. You started your business because you have a passion for it, and you want that to show through.