It should come as no surprise that the world’s first marshmallow café would attract a lot of social media attention. XO Marshmallow brand co-founders Lindzi Shanks and Kat Connor created their handmade gourmet confections in their home kitchens before expanding from digital direct-to-consumer to include a café and a separate production and shipping space.
Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine asked Shanks about the brand's growth, compeition, loyalty, and social media savvy.
What is the XO Marshmallow concept and how is it distinguished from its competition?
XO Marshmallow is the premier gourmet marshmallow company with the world’s first marshmallow café in Chicago, IL. We create gourmet marshmallows and marshmallow-based treats in a variety of flavors.
We have distinguished ourselves in a number of ways including innovation, brand, and quality. In terms of innovation, we are constantly thinking five steps ahead of our competitors to create new products inspired by pop culture, our customers, and what’s trending. We are often imitated but never duplicated because by the time we are copied – we are already on to the next thing.
Our brand is also quite different from other marshmallow companies. Many focus on a rustic and natural vibe (think summer camp) while we focus on color, playfulness, and joy. We think eating marshmallows and desserts should be a happy experience and created a brand that reflects that. Our marshmallows are also superior in terms of quality – we have a rule: if it shouldn’t be in a marshmallow, we don’t add it. That’s allowed us to create delicious products using premium ingredients that are also allergy conscious so that many can enjoy them.
What is your best advice for building relationships that lead to loyal customers?
More than ever customers want to feel like they are being heard. That goes far beyond responding to their Yelp reviews. That means engaging with customers on social media, listening to feedback and suggestions, and then implementing them.
Restaurant owners and chefs can sometimes get into the mindset of “I know everything” because they are so good at what they do, but they forget who they are ultimately serving – their customers. If the customer feels involved in the process and feels heard, they will stay loyal and tell all of their friends. Try letting customers vote on a new dish on social or even just naming a dish. You’d be surprised at how much a little thing like that goes a long way in creating loyalty.
What are some examples of how you involved customers in menu decisions and why do you feel that was effective?
Every year we create a marshmallow advent calendar – 25 different marshmallow flavors leading up to Christmas – the vast majority are ones we’ve never made before. Then in January, we send a survey to all those who have purchased them asking for feedback. What did they like? What did they not like? And what flavors do they want to see next? Those answers greatly affect what becomes a marshmallow of the month or seasonal marshmallow – and even what flavors go into the following year’s advent. This cycle allows us to really predict what flavors will sell well and it’s so great seeing comments on social that say things like “OMG that was my idea! Thank you so much for listening to me!”
What are some of the key lessons you have learned about growing a business?\
Oh goodness – I feel like I could write a book at this point on how much I’ve learned in the last eight years. I’ll share what I feel is by far the most important.
Never, ever underestimate the value of a good team. A good team isn't just skilled at what they do, but they also are representative of the company culture you are trying to achieve. When you have a good team – continue to invest in them – whether that’s pay, benefits, or further job/education/training. Hire before you need people and listen to your gut when it’s time to let someone go.
How important is it for a restaurant to be part of the community and in what ways can a restaurant engage locally?
This is still something we are learning. Since we have an international presence with our online store and our community is much larger, we sometimes forget the importance of being involved locally in the neighborhood of our café location.
We've learned in the last year that our new neighborhood is very involved with the businesses, and they support the ones who are involved back – so we have started to try to do more at a micro-level with our Lincoln Park community.
Just like with marketing – listen to your customers. If it’s important to your community that you are involved, you should be – because that affects how your restaurant is being talked about. Remember, people don’t support you just on your food alone.
How important does social media remain once the initial “insta”success wears off?
If done right, it doesn’t wear off. Successful social media has a lot more to do with consistency and customer engagement than it does with a one-off viral moment. Yes, we all want to go viral and yes it can be helpful – but virility wears off. Community doesn’t. Focus on creating consistent, quality content – and engaging with your customers when they comment. They took the time out of their day to engage with you – so return the favor. Pick a content schedule that works for you and stick with it. If you do, both customers and the algorithm will learn to expect you. Posting every day for two weeks and then silence for three months isn’t helpful – it would be better to just post twice a week without any misses.
Has Tik Tok replaced Instagram as a marketing tool for restaurants and how should restaurants better showcase their restaurant on each platform?
I think a better way of saying it is that video has replaced photos. Whether we are posting to TikTok, IG reels, or even FB reels (often the same content) we are seeing massive results in terms of engagement and conversions. People want to see the behind-the-scenes, the “how it’s made” aspect of the product these days.
Instead of posting a beautifully plated dish – show us the process of how it’s plated. Interview the person at the farmer’s market where you got the ingredients. Just let your customers into the overall experience and process.
Once a restaurant is no longer the new kid in town, how can it still attract guests?
I think it’s so important to start laying the foundation when you are the “new kid in town” to help avoid future slowdown. When you first open and people are eager to stop by and see what you are all about – what are you doing to make sure those people come back again? Are you creating amazing food? Is your team providing excellent service? Are you offering incentives for them to come back? Focusing on repeat customers will help you when you are out of the newness phase.
Create a space that you yourself would love to be in. Otherwise, people can tell when you’re faking.
How important is a restaurant’s aesthetic and how can you make it authentic to the brand?
It’s important as long as the food is good. We’ve seen too many instances where people have created these beautiful and photographic spaces only to close quickly because their food was meh. You want to create an aesthetic space that 1) people will enjoy being there/want to take their friends and two) people will share that content – but only if the food is good.
Brand is so important, but it isn’t everything – instead it has to work hand in hand with the food. The best way to make a brand authentic is to believe your own story. If you are designing a space or creating content solely based on what you’ve seen other spaces do and what has worked for other people – then it will show. Instead, focus on creating content you enjoy and saying what you mean. Create a space that you yourself would love to be in. Otherwise, people can tell when you’re faking.
What kind of experience do guests want and expect?
Ultimately, I think that depends on the guest and on the space in terms of the vibe – but guests want to be somewhere that makes them feel something. Whether that is through food or décor (or preferably both), guests want to feel connected to your space. They want to feel heard. They want to feel valued and special – and they want to feel involved. We are so disconnected in today’s world – and coming to a restaurant to enjoy a good meal with friends is an opportunity for us to feel connected. If you can create an experience that helps guests create a feeling or a memory – I promise they will be back.