- Associated Press - Sunday, September 26, 2010

CHICAGO | When Tony Bosco saw mostly negative reviews about the restaurant Wow Bao, he Tweeted: “Going to ‘business’ dinner @Wow Bao. Can any1 tell me if it’s going to suck as much reviews suggest.”

Almost immediately, he got a response almost from an unexpected source — BaoMouth, the official Twitter feed of Wow Bao, an upscale fast-food place in Chicago. The restaurant offered him a coupon to find out for himself, on the house.

Wow Bao sent Mr. Bosco two $15 gift cards via an iPhone application. Mr. Bosco went the next night and posted pictures of the food on Twitter.

“I would say it made it a little more exciting,” said Mr. Bosco, 34. “That immediate interaction.”

Conversations about food that once happened only between friends are now public thanks to the Internet, and the microblogging site Twitter has only sped up the conversation. Whether it’s reviews before the meal or the service afterward, opinions are voiced freely — and restaurants are taking notice.

Many eateries have been tweeting about specials or other events for a while. But recently restaurants — locals and chains — have started Twitter conversations with customers. Chains such as Chipotle and Pei Wei have full-time social media employees.

Previously corporate-sounding restaurant Twitter feeds now are filled with streams of replies directly to diners, in some cases performing nearly instantaneous customer service.

Geoff Alexander, managing partner of Wow Bao, explained his company’s Twitter commitment like this: If somebody has 1,000 followers and writes a negative Tweet about Wow Bao, then 1,000 people could think the restaurant is bad. But if Wow Bao publicly responds to that Tweet, 1,000 people may see how the issue is being handled.

“We created this entity to talk to people,” Mr. Alexander said. “BaoMouth can do whatever it takes to enhance the guest’s experience.”

Chipotle, based in Denver, also has responded to customer problems through Twitter, even though the chain has about 1,000 locations across 50 cities. Their entire feed, ChipotleTweets, is a list of answers to consumer questions and responses to problems.

Dennis Yslas tweeted in a Fort Worth, Texas, Chipotle about a lack of corn tortillas. Less than 2 minutes later, the company replied to Mr. Yslas, a 47-year-old actor. The corporate office called the local manager about the tortilla situation even before Mr. Yslas had left the restaurant, Mr. Yslas said.

“I was kind of frustrated that they didn’t have them,” said Mr. Yslas. “But Chipotle was totally, totally ready to cover me.”

Chris Arnold, one of the several people who tweet for Chipotle, said the volume of tweets is the greatest challenge for such a big chain. They have an employee dedicated to social media and a slew of part-time customer service representatives who tweet and use Facebook.

“It’s time and resources very well spent,” Mr. Arnold said. “You can either pretend that [the conversation] isn’t happening or decide not to be part of it. To us, it just really makes sense to use those as tools.”

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