It started as a shared passion for coffee with his brother. For Matt Wright, that passion evolved into a mini-empire of Austin, Texas-based cafes, coffee shops, and bars. These days, like much of the food-and-beverage industry, the approach to content for Matt and his colleagues starts with Instagram and its ease of use and timely updates.
Aside from social media, the menu’s content and design are careful considerations for Matt and his team. Through trial-and-error and lots of iteration, Matt’s establishments settle on menu content that works best for them. Tuning into the preferences of their clientele—for instance, Austin’s fondness for mid-afternoon breakfasts—and focusing on which dishes to highlight has helped design dishes and menus that click with their audiences and drive revenue.
Matt Wright is co-founder of Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, Better Half, Little Brother Bar, and The Bistro at Lark & Owl in Austin, Texas.
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Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!
[Voiceover] Welcome to The Future of Content, a podcast exploring how we create, manage and distribute content. Brought to you by Four Kitchens: We make BIG websites.
[Todd] Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. Every episode, we invite a guest to explore an aspect of content, and to make predictions about the future of that content. If you create, manage, or publish content, welcome. This podcast is for you. Today we’re talking about a different kind of content consumption. How the service industry—food and beverage—uses content. Our guest is Matt Wright, co-founder of Brew & Brew, Better Half, Little Brother Bar, and The Bistro at Lark & Owl in Austin, Texas. Welcome to The Future of Content, Matt.
[Matt] Hi. Thanks for having me.
[Todd] Absolutely. So you may notice that there’s some background noise. There’s some construction where you’re at, Matt. So you’re in the throes of something related to a new project. Right?
[Matt] It’s always in my life, it feels like, these days. But, yeah. We’re at another location for the Little Brother Coffee and Bar project.
[Todd] Got it. So with that in mind, tell us a little bit about the service industry, and how you got involved in it.
[Matt] Yeah. So this is actually my second or third career. And it came about via a partnership with my brother and another guy that we met over the bar at a restaurant here in Austin called Frank. They did hot dogs. But they also had an insanely good coffee program kind of at random. Me and my brother were regulars there. He was in construction project management, and I was in startup world tech stuff. We both hated our jobs. And I thought, “What would we do if we could just pick our job?” And it started off as a coffee and beer bar, and has now grown to the four locations that are all kind of food- and beverage-focused, with— All have a coffee component.
[Todd] So the thing that ties it all together is mainly coffee.
[Matt] Coffee was a start. And then you make all your money off alcohol.
[Todd] So what does a typical day look like for you?
[Matt] Depends on the day of the week. So I am kind of the one who fills a lot of gaps in whatever needs across— Needs of all the companies. So I do the reporting and the analytics. Which is a throwback to my days in Excel in startup land. And I run payroll, and try to handle insurance, and a lot of admin that relates back to my experience in the corporate world. And then I’m just there to be collaborative on the decision-making. So a typical day would be bouncing around to whatever meetings we have. I mean, here’s a good example of— I had to drop off my kids at the grandparents’, go in and answer some emails, send out some reports, make it to this construction meeting— Fit in a podcast, apparently. And then I have another product demo. We might change payroll providers. It’s a little bit of all those kind of decisions.
[Todd] Little bit of everything.
[Matt] Yeah. For sure.
[Todd] Got it. So when we talk about the service industry, what exactly does that comprise?
[Matt] Well, for us, it’s basically restaurants. That’s where our world is moving a little bit in terms of— We thought we could just do coffee and beer at the first project. And we’re just finding that people really want to have a food component. So for us, service is just the right food and beverage for the location that we’re in. And then for the customers who are then getting it to them in an optimal way. What’s the right word for it? Local is overused. But we like to feel like we’re part of the neighborhood. We’re all from Austin. And it’s a way that they’re comfortable getting that product. And then being able to enjoy themselves in the space.
[Todd] What are some key statistics or facts that people should know about the service industry?
[Matt] I’m [inaudible] off the top of my head. But I think it’s just a much larger part of the workforce than we tend to think of. Because it tends to be split across so many different individual operators—to say nothing of the big chains. But I wish it was thought of more as a component in the market—in the labor market. So that way we’d get treated as such, and maybe have more of a voice. I don’t think people think of it quite like that. And then the other thing I would say for the service industry is just that I think people think of waiting tables. But it’s everything that we’re going to talk about. From the concept to the communication. And that culminates in that hopefully quick human interaction.
[Todd] What are some common misconceptions that people have about the service industry?
[Matt] I think the most common one that I come across is that people underestimate just how much time and effort it takes to simply keep product on the shelf, to keep your stuff in stock, and to keep it fresh, and from generating lots of waste. That is a very time- and attention-intensive effort that ends up taking more of your manager’s time, more of ownership’s time, than most people think. I think the general public thinks of running a restaurant as being very focused on what exactly is on the menu, pouring the drink itself, what drinks are you serving, what recipes are you cooking. And really once you get into running a restaurant, you’re delegating all of that to somebody else. And you spend very little time as engaged with the product as you would think going into it.
[Todd] So most of your time then is spent just making sure that all the ingredients for what you’re trying to put together are fresh and available.
[Matt] Yeah. You’re basically creating this support mechanism that—either you’re ordering it yourself, or you’re empowering the people you delegate to to order it. And that includes not just keeping things on the shelf, but just keeping the utilities running, and keeping the maintenance up. Just a lot of things that are not involved with product service at all that end up dominating your time as an owner and/or a general manager.
[Todd] So how do you, in your role—and having to wear all these different hats, and delegating all of this work, and coming up with new restaurant concepts—how do you consume content on a daily basis as part of your job?
[Matt] We have a lot of interchange among my team members now. We’ve got three co-founders, five different kind of manager-level people, general manager-level employees. And then I would say another eight to ten secondary management layer—kind of directors of certain product categories. And we communicate a lot through text. Through Instagram is one of the most common ones. Just sharing articles, other people’s social media posts, our own experiences out in the wild. You can funnel all that through one kind of chat channel. And for most of my projects, Instagram has been the easiest to use.
[Todd] Why is Instagram so easy to use?
[Matt] It’s low-touch in that everybody’s kind of on there, anyways. It’s not sending a bunch of notifications. And it can accommodate all the video, images, links to articles. And people can kind of consume it at their pace. As opposed to official business, is running through email. We’re not all reading the newspaper and sharing it that way. It’s just— That ends up being the place where we’re at the most in our downtime. And the downtime is when you have the best communication for what’s going on in our industry, what do we like, what doesn’t look so good. Those kind of questions.
[Todd] Is there anything about Instagram, besides the functionality that it provides, and the ease of use, and that you’re already there— So there’s a sense of affordance because you’re already using it in your downtime. But is there anything about the medium itself—that it’s highly visual—is that part of why it’s so appealing to people in the service industry?
[Matt] Oh, yeah. It’s highly visual. And readily updated by everybody. By media and restaurants and bars and individuals who we trust, who have good taste in food and beverage, who we also follow. Or just our friends. And what we’re seeing in feedback from there. So there’s just a constant stream of images which are very quick and easy to process. And then functionally the way it’s designed. Just the UI of, you see something, you hit that little— [construction noise] Oh. I’m sorry about that. That’s a loud one. You hit that little share triangle. Whatever that is. A little paper airplane thing. The icon they have. And you can send it to a group chat that’s already pre-defined. And it ends up working like Slack in that regard. But it just is a little more free-flowing and always updated.
[Todd] So you’re using Instagram as a collaboration tool with your coworkers and colleagues?
[Matt] For sure.
[Todd] So this is an example of how you have used a social media tool to collaborate. Not only to develop the products, but to build your team, and camaraderie, and getting a sense of how you’d all work together.
[Matt] Oh, yeah. Definitely. Social media these days, I think— It still falls under the general catch-all term of marketing. But it allows you really to— And the technology’s evolved in the last five years in the way that people use it that, first and foremost, you can have a direct line of communication to your customers and potential customers that allows you to speak with your voice to communicate what you’re about, what your principles are. In addition to what you’re serving. Just the bare facts of what’s on your menu. But they can get a sense of what you’re excited about, are you a part of the community. There’s just a whole lot of elements that kind of bubble up on the really authentically-run social media accounts. So that, I think, is— That direct line is unique from the last few years. That, and I would say the other big push there is also to share media. To help spread earned media that’s written about you is very helpful as an opportunity that restaurants didn’t have before. And then just general information about hours that you’re open, specials that you’re running, big events that you’re hosting— That’s pretty key. That would have also been maybe run through advertising before.
[Todd] Do you think, then, that social media has taken the place of advertising for the service industry? Or does that apply to a certain kind of restaurant or a certain kind of coffee shop and bar?
[Matt] I mean, I think out of necessity, you’re talking— We run very small shops by comparison. We haven’t actually successfully launched a second location of anything quite yet. That’s what we’re working on. But even along those lines, we’re not— It’d be very hard to target advertising to the kind of neighborhood-focused concepts that we like to run. So we’ve done a little bit. Put a little flier in the paper near The Bistro at Lark & Owl. So we are at the scale where we just don’t have a lot of advertising budget. We don’t have someone who can focus on it and make sure it’s targeted the way it needs to be, or that it’s in a channel or a medium that our customers are actually paying attention to—because that’s going to cost money—when we could do something that’s at least an approximation of all those things for free, if we just put a little effort into our social media. So for anybody that’s a startup—our oldest business is only six years old—you have an opportunity to do something for free, you’re going to take that as opposed to speculative spending. But we are a small sliver of the overall marketplace. We run, like I said, very small cafes. So at the industry level, you see tons of advertisements for the guys that move the most actual product. And those are the big chains. And so I don’t think we’ve changed much in the advertising landscape.
[Todd] Alright. We’re going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we’re going to talk with Matt Wright about menus and menu design.
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[Todd] Welcome back. We’re talking with Matt Wright, co-founder of Brew & Brew, Better Half, Little Brother Bar, and The Bistro at Lark & Owl in Austin, Texas. And we’re talking about content consumption: How the service industry uses content. So when I think of content in a restaurant or bar context, the very first thing I think of is the menu. So what goes into designing an effective menu?
[Matt] So menus at our scale evolve very organically. That’s because the products are changing as we are kind of trial-and-error figuring our way out to what’s going to be the best fit for the restaurant. And then, from there, what you’re trying to communicate based on what you’re selling is going to determine the menu structure. So the biggest decisions we had to make, for instance, at Better Half, was, “Do we do breakfast, lunch, and dinner?” But we actually decided to do an early and late menu—just do two—and have breakfast and lunch be on one menu. Because— Kind of a diner concept. And, also, Austin likes to eat breakfast well into mid-afternoon.
[Todd] Very true.
[Matt] From there, then the menus themselves took shape in terms of— Yeah. How their organization is going to be. And then do you do a broad sheet? Do you do a regular sized paper? Those are all a little bit— Like I said, a lot of trial and error. And a lot of just kind of, “Does this feel intuitive? Can people skim it quickly? Is it laid out and placed so people can find what they’re looking for quickly?”
[Todd] And when people are trying to find stuff quickly in the menu, I assume there’s also a really strong sales component to the menu. Right? You want your menu to push certain things at certain times. Whether it’s: You ordered too much of something, so we need to use it up; or you have some kind of special going; or there’s some kind of item that’s highly profitable, and so you really want to push that. How do you communicate the sales aspect of your product on a menu?
[Matt] Yeah. So there’s some research into that. And there’s a panel at the Craft Brewers Conference that we attended, I guess, two or three years ago now, that talked specifically about how you can lay out your menus to push people, nudge them, towards high-margin products or things that you’re just proud of and you want them to see. And one trick is to put that item or items in the upper right corner of the menu. Maybe put a box around it. And just kind of keep it small, to one, two, three things. And it kind of calls it out as, “This is pretty special.” And so we’ve done that. We did it at Better Half at brunch, where we started doing mimosas and a house sangria. We were offering them in carafes. They weren’t moving particularly quickly, even though our brunch is popular. Brought that tip out, and overnight we saw the sales had previously doubled or tripled of that particular product. And that was just an attention thing. You just draw attention to something that you know people are looking for at that moment. And then similarly when you lay out the base menu, you want to design it so that people can find the thing they’re there for the quickest. So that upper left column should read kind of like a table of contents, is kind of how we approach it. And starting from the thing they’re probably interested in at the top, down to the, “Okay, I’m feeling adventurous,” stuff as you kind of work your way down.
[Todd] So is it right to say, then, the way you’re laying out a menu, and you put the more common stuff at the top, and then people become more adventurous as they move down— Do those items also tend to be a little more expensive as you move down the menu? And so you’re trying to establish a certain price point early on, and do some kind of a— I don’t know, a gentle sales technique as their eye scans the menu from top to bottom?
[Matt] Yeah. For sure. There’s another book on this kind of topic—it talks a lot about pricing—called Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely, that I read by coincidence, that I found at the airport before I’d ever opened a coffee shop. And I just thought it was interesting. But he’s got a lot of tips about anchoring, so that you can establish kind of the general price point of your shop pretty early on by having one affordable item, one kind of Cadillac Deluxe item that is priced significantly higher. And then you can kind of nudge people towards the third item, which is right in between. And if you do your menu correctly, that third item should be both appealing and yet high-margin. And so you’re kind of letting people opt into spending a few more dollars to get you a better margin in the end. And you can do that kind of anywhere on the menu. Ours just tend to be— Because they’re small shops, they’re not the big fold-out menus like you get at a chain restaurant. We want people to be able to skim them really quickly and make a quick decision. Because we also do counter service. So we don’t want a ton of— It’s to our benefit to have people see, “Oh. The breakfast sandwich looks great. I want that.” Or the lunch menu at the bistro, sales data has said, hey, the turkey club is the most popular. Just put it at the top. Because then people see it. And they go, “Yeah. That sounds great.” And whether you’re doing that because it’s crowd favorite, or you’re doing that because it’s high-margin, it just depends on the priorities of the business, and the actual products themselves that are being sold.
[Todd] You raised a point just now that never would have occurred to me. And that is, particularly when you have a counter service —which, for those who may not be aware, is the idea of walking up to the counter and ordering there rather than sitting down and being waited on—that line of course can get really long if people are sitting there, looking at the menu, trying to figure out what they want. So it sounds like another reason to feature certain items on a menu, to draw a box around them, or put them in the upper right hand corner, or put a star next to them, or whatever you do to call them out, is to speed up the decision-making process. Because you got to get to the next person in line. That never would have occurred to me. Do you have any statistics or things that might reflect how important that is in the process of managing orders and customer flow and things like that?
[Matt] Yeah. I mean, so I don’t have the precise numbers off the top of my head. But we definitely saw an increase— I want to say at our peak volume— so Better Half is the biggest restaurant that we run. And it’s very popular for brunch. So it’s the only place where we are maxing out our capacity pretty consistently every weekend during those brunch hours. Literally as much food as we can produce from the little kitchen that’s there. So the menu design and also the presentation at the counter— We can’t improve ticket times. People are— They’re there for brunch. They know they’re going to wait. They’re going to order. They’re going to get a drink. They’re probably going to wait 40 or 45 minutes when it’s packed. But what we’ve found is we can make it easier for people to withstand— Or, sorry, we can make it easier for people to tolerate that wait by giving them an option on the counter. Maybe a savory kolache—something they can grab right there in case they’re starving. And then again, the sangria or the mimosas— “Okay. Cool. We’re going to go hang out.” And what we saw was people were more willing to tolerate that wait. Which then led to more people just sticking around. And more people not being scared of the line at brunch. And so our sales—the max we can do on an individual day—went up 15% or so, which is a pretty significant uplift when you’re talking about feeling like you’re maxed out. And then by tweaking what you put on the counter, and eliminating a few items from the menu that jam up the kitchen, so that they can cook more things, multiples of things at once— Ends up you find an extra 10% or 15% at your peak business volume. That’s pretty significant to the restaurant’s bottom line.
[Todd] Interesting. So sometimes to increase sales, you just need people to make decisions more quickly.
[Todd] Well, let’s move onto the content about the service industry. So lots of stuff is written about restaurants and bars and coffee shops and things like that. There are critics. There are high-end magazines like Food & Wine and Bon Appétit. And there are blogs and all kinds of stuff. How do you feel about the content that’s being written about the service industry? What do you like and what do you not like about it?
[Matt] I enjoy just seeing what everybody else is doing around the country. I think that environment is great in terms of people. The big magazines are very interested in going into other towns besides the big cities, besides the biggest markets, and finding what’s interesting. Or finding smaller trends among different ethnic populations, different food trucks, different service models. It’s not all just kind of one thing these days. I enjoy that part of the coverage. I do think most of the coverage kind of tends to be a little bit of an offshoot of marketing. Or earned press. And it is in the sense of trying to get you excited about something. With the exceptions of those pieces that are about when things go really wrong with maybe some high-profile chefs. Because I don’t think the day to day experience of the service industry worker is covered a ton. Because it’s very hard to peg what that grind is like to a specific event, unless there is some kind of newsworthy legal dust-up. And then also I think everybody at an ownership level— The problem with the service industry is you can’t get a ton of honest assessments of what it’s like to be in the industry. Because if you’re an operator, you have to always project confidence, certainty that your business is doing great, that you— You really can’t go into an interview and say, “Here’s what I’m struggling with,” in a super-honest way, because it’s going to show weakness. Someone may read that article and then not invest in your next concept. Just because they think that you aren’t fully committed, or you’ve got too much on your plate, or you— It’s a little more— You just can’t be totally forthright about what it’s like to truly operate a place, and what the dollars look like.
[Todd] So it sounds like where you feel content about the service industry is lacking is in telling the real story of a service industry worker, and what that grind is really like.
[Matt] Yeah. I would say so. And the reality of what it’s like to work in the kitchens, even at places where they really want to take care of their employees, where they want benefits and better wages. And why restaurant owners can feel hemmed in and unable to pay them what an entry-level tech worker makes, for an experienced line cook or something like that. Those are just very hard realities to describe in kind of the way that magazines are— The content that’s out there is written these days. Which is why I think it tends to be more of critiques or kind of… I don’t want to say puff pieces. But definitely, “Here’s what’s exciting right now in this market,” which are great too. There’s a place for that for sure. But that’s what I see lacking, is I don’t think people get an honest assessment of what it’s like to be in the industry. But they do get a sense of what people in the industry are excited about. That comes through clearly.
[Todd] Do you think that the lack of this kind of content is one of the reasons why authors and personalities like, for example, Anthony Bourdain and Kitchen Confidential, become so popular in the mainstream? Because it’s a side of the industry that either you experienced because you have or had a service industry job. Or for somebody that has never worked in the service industry, it just feels more… I don’t know. Interesting or authentic or a different angle of that industry. Do you think that might be why that content seems to gather so much momentum in the mainstream?
[Matt] Yeah. I mean, as with anything like that— Bourdain was uniquely talented. You see his show— I read Kitchen Confidential. He had a unique ability to write as he speaks. Or at least to have it come out that way in the book, which is very engaging just to read. And he’s an interesting person. And then he’s taking you into places you don’t usually see. He was definitely kind of the first to open it up a little bit. Make you feel like you’re getting a sense of what’s going on in there. And I think that he was— People are inherently interested in it because it’s a place they love to go. And there is a kind of behind-the-curtain element to it. “What’s happening back there? How do you make this stuff come out that’s so much better than what I can do at home?” And then you also get his sense of personality coming through. That’s a pretty unique combination. But he was just the best example of a genre that I think has a ton of appeal.
[Todd] Well, one last question before we go: Where do you see the future of service industry content heading?
[Matt] Man, that is a tough one. Because just the twists and turns with the technology make it so hard to predict. I will say I do think you’ll see it become a little more professionalized across the established, big platforms. It just feels like it’s going that way. And then I think that there’ll be maybe a little bit more— There’s an opportunity for a little more in-depth reporting. Kind of like I said, from the outlets like Eater and CultureMap or something. These things are now— Someone will maybe figure out how to cover even a little bit more of the industry. But beyond that, I’m really curious myself where the next piece of technology is. Because the service industry is— The restaurant owners are going to go where the engagement is. And that one, no one seems to know. Or we’d be in a different market. We’d be investing in tech if we knew where that was going to happen. And that’s going to require everybody to adapt, just the same way we did to Instagram and Instagram stories. And what’s the next one that actually has a hook for people that moves the needle when you want to get people in your door? So my only prediction is that we have to follow the technology. And we’ll see where that goes.
[Todd] Well, thank you, Matt, so much for taking time out of your busy schedule—and in the midst of construction on your most recent project. Congratulations on that. It’s always exciting to see you open up new stuff. So thank you for joining us this time on The Future of Content. And until next time, everyone, enjoy your content.
[Voiceover] You’ve been listening to The Future of Content, a podcast from the Web Chefs at Four Kitchens. Hosted by Todd Nienkerk. Produced by PJ Hagerty. Theme song is PAFRATY by DJ Listo. Find us on Twitter @FoCpodcast [https://twitter.com/focpodcast], and get in touch by email at email@example.com.