Why Cali BBQ is a Digital-First Restaurant

Why Cali BBQ is a Digital-First Restaurant
Shawn Walchef

By Shawn Walchef

We started our restaurant in 2008, during what is now known as The Great Recession. And we transformed it into a media company during a global pandemic in 2020. To say we’ve had to learn to be resilient at Cali BBQ is an understatement.

By embracing new and emerging technologies, and going all-in on smartphone storytelling, we found a way to become much more than a single-unit barbecue restaurant on the outskirts of San Diego. We became a global media company.

Our goal now is nothing less than to become the Amazon Prime of BBQ. We want anyone in the world to be able to get slow-smoked barbecue whenever they want. Amazon started with books and we are starting with BBQ.

One thing we’ve learned in our restaurant journey is that when you combine technology and passion, anything is possible.

Big ideas have helped us grow. The power to change your business is in your hands.

Embracing technology

We all have an “Oh Shit!” moment when it comes to an understanding the importance of technology. Mine happened when I realized social media wasn’t about meeting new people — it was about communicating in a brand new way.

Before my “Oh Shit!” moment, I was digitally naive. I would make fun of friends and others who talked about QR codes or using Facebook in college. I remember teasing San Diego Charger Lew Bush at a catering event in 2007 because he told me he was going to stand in line for the first iPhone. I thought, “Why would anyone do that for a phone?”

More than a decade later, I’m a smartphone superfan. It’s an essential tool for our restaurant and media company. That’s why we purchase smartphones for all of our managers—and pay for their plans.

While the restaurant industry used to be about “location, location, location” now it’s about “internet, internet, internet.” Our single-unit barbecue restaurant on the outskirts of San Diego became the loudest barbecue restaurant in the world thanks to our smartphone storytelling.

When we started our restaurant, marketing meant the Yellow Pages and billboards. Now marketing is Yelp and TikTok.

@calibbq Pork Ribs Loading… 🍖🔥 #foryoupage #calibbqlife #fyp #tritipsteaks #drippy #porkribs #calibbqmedia #juicyfood ♬ ROCKSTAR - DaBaby, Roddy Ricch

We wouldn’t have been able to sustain the barbecue side of our business for so long if it wasn’t for technology - specifically, digital media and digital marketing. We used to wonder why the media wasn’t telling our story. Press release after press release got ignored. Then we started to tell our own story online. That’s when we became our own media company. Once that happened, a wealth of news appearances began flowing in. Incorporating video and audio storytelling into our toolbox has opened up even more opportunities.

I remember reading an article on RestaurantOwner.com that said just because a restaurant is busy doesn’t mean it’s profitable. Isn’t that so true? You could be doing great work. You could have a full restaurant. But if you’re not telling anyone about it, then nobody will know.

The internet lets you talk to the world whenever you want. There’s nothing more powerful than that.

So what’s stopping you from taking the next step and future-proofing your business with all sorts of new technology? It comes down to fear. Fear of admitting that you don’t know everything. Fear that people will make fun of you. Guess what?

When you realize you’re not alone, you can finally get down to business and ask for help.

Building our tech stack

Where do you start improving your digital hospitality? It might sound strange, but begin with a pen and paper. Do what my GM Eric Olafsen and I did when we drew out our “restaurant tech stack”, a diagram showing how all of our different restaurant tools and technologies worked with each other.

drawing of restaurant teck stack

What do you use for marketing? What do you use for back of house? How are you managing checklists and procedures? What about email or text marketing? The world we live in as restaurant operators is very complicated.

Your tech stack is your restaurant’s digital heartbeat. It’s what gives your business life.

It was illuminating for us to see how complex our system had become in the years since we started adding technology to our operations. We thought we were building a tech stack. Instead, we were making a tech maze.

What you will probably learn from doing this exercise is that your restaurant technology landscape is a lot like Frankenstein’s monster, built from various pieces and somehow miraculously given life.

Your tech stack is your restaurant’s digital heartbeat. It’s what gives your business life. Only when you can visualize this heartbeat can you find ways to make it beat stronger.

It took a pandemic to get us out of our outdated legacy POS system and switch to Toast for its cloud-based and real-time ordering capabilities. It was a game changing moment for our business.

People talk about pivoting in 2020 as the world shuts down. We didn’t pivot; we went all-in on becoming a digital restaurant. Toast let us do that.

We are always on our technology journey. Which means our tech stack is always changing.

Toast was just the first unlock in modernizing our operations. We got stronger and stronger with each new tech partner: 7shifts improved our team management significantly. Marqii gives us better control over our online information. Ovation lets our customers communicate with us. Atmosphere entertains guests. DAVO aids with sales tax. The list goes on.

Now everything is based around the internet and deepening relationships with our technology partners.

How Tech Helps Restaurants

Whatever your pain point, there is a tech tool to help.

Thankfully, exciting tech solutions like 7shifts, Toast, 5-Out, and many more, are making our jobs easier so we can focus on what we do best as restaurateurs: offering great hospitality in-person and online.

One of the most important things about hospitality and fostering a strong culture at your company is being flexible and having empathy towards your staff. In the modern age, technology like 7shifts allows our managers to help our team with scheduling, and a voice to communicate their needs.

Time and money are incredibly important to your staff. When they can easily block time off, and most importantly, actually get the hours they requested, they are happier. Same with how 7shifts technology lets us easily handle tip pooling and payouts. This all adds up to more time for managers to do other, more meaningful tasks, while all staff know they are taken care of.

If you don’t prioritize using technology to take care of your team, then you won’t have a team to take care of your customers.

Tech has also helped us become a scalable business. Before we started digitizing our employee checklists and other operational data, everything was written out by hand and attached to clipboards. We did the same with recipe cards.

Transferring all this information into spreadsheets, uploading it to Google Drive, and putting the information on kitchen screens has made for a better final product, greater consistency, and more efficient operations. Wins all around.

We know this isn’t the end of our technology story because the internet will always evolve. The platform that works today might not work tomorrow. The social media site you use every day might vanish. That’s why to truly be resilient, you have to open your mind, and business, to new technology and embrace the feelings of fear.

Technology ties all of us together. From a coffee stand to a donut shop to a Fortune 100 company. Don’t forget, you’re not alone.

Stay Curious. Get Involved. Ask for Help.

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Shawn Walchef
Shawn Walchef

Shawn Walchef (@shawnpwalchef) is the founder of Cali BBQ Media, restaurant owner, keynote speaker, technology advocate, and proud dad.