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Society Fair’s butcher and self-described “curd nerd,” Justin Owens, is spooning out quenelles of pistachio-studded pâté. He’s placing them onto a butcher’s block adorned with artfully displayed rounds of Genoa ham, ribbony piles of Serrano ham, and triangular pork rillettes. While he creates the charcuterie platter, Vina Sananikone darts around him with her iPhone, trying to snap the perfect picture.

Wearing a carrot-colored sweater over a lace sundress and cowboy boots, she could never be mistaken for a member of the kitchen crew. Rather, she’s actually a multimedia maven—“that’s what it says on my business card,” she says.

Unhappy with the shot she got, Sananikone asks Owens to stop for a moment and pick up the twine he uses to ensure the meats are in perfectly straight lines. She checks her screen. “Hold it right there,” she instructs, and then takes the photograph. “Got it.”

Later that afternoon, the well-composed shot will appear on Society Fair’s Twitter and Instagram feeds. In the meantime, Sananikone heads into the back room of the upscale food emporium in Alexandria, where she works most days. On an elevated pub table, her laptop is set up—a sticker of a juice box coyly framing the glowing Apple logo—next to a pro-grade Canon camera and a flurry of papers. The space is framed by shelving on three sides jammed full of gear for the market: coffee filters, cupcake towers, and wooden berry baskets.

It’s an unconventional workspace, but Sananikone has an unconventional job. She writes email blasts, shoots photos, updates the company’s web store, and manages all the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for the Eat Good Food Group’s various enterprises, which include Society Fair, Restaurant Eve, PX, the Majestic, and Eamonn’s Dublin Chipper. This requires her to be a social media schizophrenic. “There’s a different voice for each restaurant,” she explains. “For Society Fair, there’s a lot of exclamation points and food puns in my posts. I don’t do food puns for Restaurant Eve, because it’s classic and beautiful.”

Even five years ago, it would be impossible to believe that overseeing social media for a regional restaurant group could be a full-time job. It makes sense that multinational corporations like McDonald’s or Starbucks would be able to afford a social media coordinator, but not these smaller operations. Now it’s normal for a restaurant to have a member of the operational team focused—at least part time—on social media. After all, someone has to tweet out the daily specials and post food pics to Facebook.

Social-focused staffers like Sananikone are becoming more commonplace, but they’re still in the minority. Cava Grill’s community manager Liz McAvoy, who administers all their social media accounts, admits that people are sometimes surprised when she tells them what she does for a living. “But that’s because they’re jealous,” she jokes. “There’s definitely some skepticism about it. My dad definitely doesn’t understand what I do.”

Sananikone was amazed positions like this existed when she accepted the job in August 2012 after graduating from George Mason with a BFA in graphic design. Her annual salary is between $32,000 and $35,000, which falls into the $32,000 to $43,000 range cited by similar local employees who would comment on their financial arrangements. Creating the social media–focused position was a no-brainer for Eat Good Food Group co-owner Meshelle Armstrong, who had been handling the tasks herself. She didn’t want to pass off the duties to the restaurant group’s public relations team. “It’s very different from PR,” says Armstrong. “PR adapts for the media. Social media adapts for the diner.”

This same philosophical and practical division exists in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes fine dining establishments like Iron Gate and Vermillion as well as more casual spots like Buzz Bakery and Red Apron Butcher. Initially, the company’s public relations director, Megan Bailey, handled social media on top of her other duties. “It quickly became apparent how much work it was and how imperative it is,” Bailey says. “I realized that for the next person we hired, it had to be their main focus.”

So, in May 2013, NRG hired Marissa Bialecki as its marketing and communications manager to oversee and create individual Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for all of their restaurants. She also writes email marketing blasts, chef bios, and web copy. For the former food blogger and occasional freelance writer (whose work has appeared in Washington City Paper), this was the perfect job. “I love restaurants. I love food. I love chefs,” she says. “They have the coolest, craziest stories of anyone in the room, so it’s great to tell those stories through social media.”

In the beginning, Bialecki slept with the phone by her ear to ensure she never missed any online drama. These days, she feels comfortable turning off her notifications while she goes for a run, though she still checks nearly 60 social media accounts constantly. “You look to see what gets liked the most, or if there’s a certain comment that stands out about a dish or place—positive or negative,” she says. “When Arsenal opened, there was a sweet potato gnocchi with duck meatballs on the menu. I tallied up all the likes and mentions it got and realized, ‘We can’t take that off the menu for a while.’” The dish is still available, in part due to all the positive feedback it has gotten on social media.

Sometimes restaurants turn to outsiders for help interacting with their customers online. For a monthly retainer fee that varies based on the level of activity required, Doug Rashid offers both traditional PR and what he calls “full social media community management.” He does the latter for the Matchbox Food Group, so he oversees the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts of Matchbox, Ted’s Bulletin, and DC-3. Despite the fact that he rarely meets the customers with whom he’s interacting, he sees his job to humanize a restaurant. “It’s about creating sentiment,” he says. “If you can get someone to feel good about a brand, then you’re likely to have that individual recommend you and cut you some slack when you screw up.”

Shane Mayson, marketing director for Hank’s Oyster Bar, loves connecting with customers in real time in order to improve their dining experience. He does this almost exclusively through social media. “As a former general manager, I’m always looking for a way to touch tables and interact with the guests,” he says. “Just to tell them, ‘I hope you’re having a good time. How’s it going?’ Twitter is a great way to touch a table instantly.”

Getting that instant feedback has also been a way for Farrah Skeiky, creative director for Dolcezza, to win over skeptics. “Sometimes people gripe on social media, ‘Why does this gelato cost so much?’” she says. “So sometimes we invite people to the factory for a complimentary tour and tasting to show them how we do what we do and why we charge what we do. After that, they’re always like, ‘Oh, we get it now.’”

Founding Farmers and Farmers Fishers Bakers take the feedback they get over social media and review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor very seriously. When the first Founding Farmers opened in Foggy Bottom in 2008, co-concept developer and managing partner Dan Simons personally oversaw the restaurant’s online chatter. “I took the philosophy that a guest is a guest, whether they’re on the phone, at the table, in the parking lot, or online,” he says. “Without thinking about it, I engaged 100 percent and answered every single review, positive or negative.”

His responses pinned his heart onto his digital sleeve. “I’m emotional, so I use all capital letters sometimes and write like I talk,” he says. “So I’d respond with things like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m MORTIFIED. I can’t believe we let you down. I’m so sorry.’”

Soon he was spending an hour a day writing back to guests, which expanded to two as the restaurant’s popularity began to take off. It became such an important metric for all the restaurants that it’s tracked meticulously. Stats about the volume of reviews and the scores are listed on each restaurant’s weekly profit and loss statement.

Ultimately, Simons created a flow chart on how to read a review or email to “separate out the emotional shit and boil it down to the catalytic event that pissed off the guest,” he says. After identifying the cause of the diner’s distress, he would figure out how to make it right. Once the flow chart was perfected, he trained a subordinate in the process and his voice, then passed off those duties at the beginning of 2010.

These days, full-time “guest communications specialist” Monica Smith-Acuna responds to reviews and handles all other social media for Founding Farmers and Farmers Fishers Bakers. This means sending out hundreds of messages a week to thank customers for their positive feedback or placate customers. Every week, she offers a minimum of 20 complimentary meals to rectify issues, though she notes only five guests or so will typically take her up on the offer. “People really just want to be heard,” she says. “The best part of this job is when we recover someone. That’s when they make a full 180, and they become a guest for life.”

Eat Good Food Group’s Armstrong looks at it another way: “If you don’t reply to people and they’re angry, they don’t come back,” she says. “So how much money have you just lost? That is immeasurable. Social media is necessary. It’s simply the cost of doing business these days.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo of Vina Sananikone by Darrow Montgomery