The Power of Storyselling in Hospitality

Stories help anchor ideas in the mind of the consumer. They help them better understand and appreciate what they’re buying and give them the opportunity to deepen their relationship with the brand. (Storyselling and Restaurants)

By Chip Klose, Chip Klose Creative and Restaurant Strategy Podcast

How many job interviews start with this same question: “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?” While overused, it can also be quite effective because it gives the candidate an opportunity to breathe life into their resume, to help craft a narrative for themselves. Never do you hear the response, “Well, I’m 5’10”, about 170 pounds with blue eyes and brown hair.” The interviewer isn’t interested in a recitation of facts and figures. They want a good story.

Storytelling is the foundation for all human connection. It’s how we relate to others and give meaning to the world. And day after day we use stories in the most interesting ways… not the least of which is to sell. As it turns out, there’s a word for that — it’s called storyselling. I’ve spent the last 20 years working in restaurants and have identified five ways we can use stories to sell.

1. Stories That Communicate a Brand’s Mission

What are you all about? Why do you exist? How do you want people to think about your brand? If I open a high-end steakhouse serving premium cuts of beef, I will need to identify specific ways to communicate that mission to the diners I’m serving.

Guest: “What’s so special about this ribeye?”

Server: “Well, it’s from Niman Ranch.”

Guest: “What’s Niman Ranch?”

Let me tell you a story. Niman Ranch was founded in the ‘70s by a guy named Bill Niman. It’s based out in California, but really it’s a network of hundreds of ranchers all over the country who have committed themselves to a strict series of protocols and guidelines. Steak lovers know that Niman Ranch stands for quality. My restaurant is aligning itself with Niman Ranch, and thus telling a story about who we are and why we exist. Once you figure out you are and why you exist, you must seek out different ways to tell that story.

2. Stories That Spark Conversation

The Four Seasons restaurant was an institution for decades here in New York, situated in the ground floor of the Seagrams Building in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. It was a place to see and be seen; at lunchtime, the tables were often filled with bestselling authors and their publicists, famous primetime news anchors, big league sluggers and Oscar-winning actresses. The crowd was serious about their overpriced food. And yet every meal ended with a jar of bright pink, homespun, gourmet cotton candy – a bit a fun amid all that severity, a conversation piece for when you tell your friends about the experience.

Word-of-mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool we have. How can you use stories to extend the conversation beyond the four walls of your establishment?


3. Stories That Validate Price

When it comes to selling wine, there’s a simple fact that many of us hesitate to admit: On a page listing 50 different bottles of California Cabernet Sauvignon, there are far more similarities between them than there are differences. To a certain degree, everything on that page is a full-bodied red wine from California, so why exactly does this wine cost twice as much as this other one?

Of course, you could talk about the different regions or styles. And yes, an educated sommelier may even get technical and talk about fermentation and oak aging. But really, any good salesman knows that the best way to get the sale is to tell a good story. Often you’ll hear sommeliers talk about a specific winemaker and their approach to winemaking as a tool of closing the sale. Or they’ll talk about their pedigree. They’ll talk about the nature of the vintage, the meaning of the wine’s name, or even the picture on the label. At the end of the day, those are all things that the diner will be more apt to remember. Those are stories that sell because they help validate price in the eyes of the consumer.

A mediocre wine with a good story gets sold more than a superior wine with no story.

Storyselling and Restaurants
Image by: Dzmitry Dzemidovich / Bigstock.com

4. Stories That Bring a Deeper Appreciation for the Product

In the spring of 2005, Chef Grant Achantz opened Alinea, which has arguably become one of the most important restaurants in the country. It is the recipient of three coveted Michelin Stars, and it has become a Mecca for foodies all over the world. Yet the thing that brought the restaurant fame actually has very little to do with what’s on the plate.

In 2007, just two years after he opened his prized dining room, Chef Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4 mouth cancer. There was a very real possibility that one of the most celebrated chefs on the planet was going to lose his ability to taste his own food. In the end, the medical team at the University of Chicago was able to save his tongue (and his life) using an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation.

Dinner at Alinea is an event full of unique quirks and theatrical surprises, and the story of the chef’s battle with cancer gives the diner a deeper appreciation for the dining experience.


5. Stories as Mythology

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 – often referred to these days as “The Judgement of Paris” – was a famous blind tasting where a panel of eminent French judges swirled, sniffed and sipped some of the most fabled wines in the world. For the whites, they lined up many of the great white burgundies of France and a small sampling of upstart chardonnays from California. When their scores were tallied, the judges were shocked to discover that they had chosen the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as the finest white wine in the world. That’s right – a California wine had beaten out some of the greatest French producers!

The winemaker was a Croatian immigrant who over the course of 20 years had worked his way up through Napa’s most revered wineries. At the time of the tasting, however, he was still a virtual unknown on the global stage. Of course, all that would quickly change. Within weeks of the tasting, he was approached about starting his own wine label, and by the following spring they were breaking ground and planting a slew of fresh vines.

Grgich Hills Estate now produces some of the finest wines in California, a full lineup that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and, of course, Chardonnay. Their origin story is a powerful bit of mythology that provides the foundation for everything they do. It gives the consumer a sense of scope, a way to understand what makes the product so special.

Share YOUR Passion and Knowledge Through Stories
Overall, stories help anchor ideas in the mind of the consumer. They help them better understand and appreciate what they
’re buying and give them the opportunity to deepen their relationship with the brand. Using stories to sell is a way of sharing your passion and knowledge with the people you serve. It’s not only good for business, but a useful way of building a community of fans who will return to you time and time again.

Chip Klose is based in NYC, where he runs the marketing agency Chip Klose Creative, working with chefs and restaurant owners to help them grow their brand presence and increase revenues. Klose is also the host of a weekly marketing podcast, Restaurant Strategy, where he talks about many of the strategies and tactics he uses day-to-day in marketing restaurants. To learn more, visit ChipKlose.com.