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Fast Food 2.0: The Burger Goes Social

One SMB, 4food, uses crowdsourcing, iPads, and a technology obsession to rewrite the recipe for casual dining and compete against better-funded restaurants.

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Technology is a lot more to 4food, a New York City burger joint, than just managing its Yelp listing.

In fact, a mix of iPads, social media, crowdsourcing, interactive restaurant, and proprietary technologies are core to the small business's mission and model--so much so that co-founder Michael Shuman thinks of it as much more than a burger joint. As such, 4food and its 30 employees are out to help revamp the traditional "quick service restaurant"--industry-speak for fast food--around sustainable and healthy ingredients, social responsibility, and a green physical footprint.

"We thought there has to be a better way to do this. [Fast food] doesn't need to taste bad, be bad for your body, the land, the animals, the farm workers," Shuman said in an interview. "In many ways, we're a health and technology company and chose the burger as our medium."

Make that a social medium: Underpinning the 4food concept is the ability for customers to build their own burgers and then share their creations with other customers, who can in turn order it themselves. Of course, asking a restaurant for something that's not on the menu isn't new, but 4food takes it a step further with what Shuman called "the infinite SKU."

"It can't be so binary as: someone creates something, we save it, and they can order it again," Shuman said. "Why not enable that person to brand it, have fun with it, and share it with their network? And why don't we reward it?"

It might indeed be fun, but there's an extra motivation: Each time your burger sells, your account gets credited for future purchases--Shuman said "food for life" isn't inconceivable for a hot seller. Some burger-meisters opt to donate their proceeds to a designated charity rather than stockpile a lifetime of free lunch and dinner. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube--not to mention 4food's website--are all key parts of the social mix. Geolocation sites such as Foursquare are popular among customers, too, though Shuman said they tend to be extras rather than mainstays of how the social burger finds its next diner.

[Be careful on Twitter and other social sites. Read Social Media Can Hurt You In A Lawsuit.]

The social strategy appears to be working: Users have created 20,000 different burgers since 4food opened its doors about a year ago; some 1,000 of them have been named, marketed, and purchased by customers. A half-dozen dedicated burger inventors have surpassed--or soon will--1,000 units sold.

"Food is something that everyone is very opinionated about," Shuman said, noting that burgers have been based on anything and everything, including politics (Libyan democracy), Twitter hashtags, (#WINNING), and philanthropy (4food and its customers donated proceeds to relief efforts following the recent Japan disaster). "We could not have done this however many years ago--it has been timed very well with lots of technologies, especially social media."

While a customer could conceivably never set foot in the actual restaurant--4food delivers--the socialization actually increases inside the physical location. Software from Scala enables both a real-time digital menu and an interactive media display. The former includes a current top 10 list of burgers created by the public. The latter streams 4food's messaging--including its Twitter feed--as well as customer content, such as Foursquare check-ins or a YouTube video promoting a particular burger concoction. Customers can use one of the restaurant's iPads to invent their next culinary delight, place an order, or share something to the media wall; when the lines grow long, employees hop out from behind the counter with said iPads to take orders and keep the food fast.

Because social, mobile, and technologies are core to 4food's raison d'etre, return on investment is closely intertwined with the overall success of the company, part of which is tied to its plans to license the flagship model to franchise.

"They do give us a competitive advantage over some much larger, established chains," Shuman said. "Our customer service is rather instantaneous."

Shuman and company don't need to look far for the short-terms gains, either: For one, they spend zero--as in $0.00--on traditional advertising in a hyper-competitive local market (Manhattan) and a broader industry (fast food) that spends countless sums on TV, radio, print, and online channels. The social elements--both online and in the physical restaurant--have taken a life of their own. Shuman said seven of the 10 top-selling 4food burgers to date were built by users outside of the company.

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