Along with his arsenal of knives, his saucing spoon and a trusty fish spatula, Chris Lynch has recently added his cellphone to the list of essential tools in the kitchen at Atchafalaya, the Uptown restaurant where he is executive chef.
In particular, he and his cooks take a little time each day to open Specialus, a new and locally developed app they’ve installed on their phones. They use it to record short videos, usually no more than 20 seconds in duration, that show off the night’s special. Then they post these to a feed on Specialus that’s full of similar direct-from-the-kitchen reports from a small but growing collection of New Orleans restaurants.
“It’s become part of the routine,” Lynch said. “We come up with a special, we tweak it, then make one before service to show the staff so they can explain it to customers. The difference now is we shoot a quick video and put it right out there.”
Lynch’s kitchen has been a proving ground for Specialus because the app was created by Atchafalaya proprietor Tony Tocco.
The idea, Tocco explained, is to give prospective restaurant customers an unfiltered view of restaurants, their personalities and the newly created dishes available around town as they chose a dinner destination.
While many apps and web- sites now vie for the attention of potential diners, Tocco said he conceived Specialus as an industry response to the torrent of aggregated ratings, crowd-sourced rankings and consumer review sites rather than more of the same. The key difference is that Specialus content comes from the restaurants themselves.
“It’s a chance for restaurants to speak clearly and directly to their customers,” Tocco said. “There’s no reviews, no comments, no stars, no ratings. It’s just you and the food in your restaurant. It’s about getting the food and the vibe in one 10- to 40-second video.”
Tocco took inspiration from “pre-meal,” the restaurant staff meeting before service when a chef and staff gather to discuss specials and the game plan for the day. The name stems from industry parlance for sending a special dish to a table.
“It uses special as a verb, like when you send a special to a table,” Tocco said. “You’re specialing them, so the idea is ‘special us.’”
Tocco, 48, is new to tech ventures but a veteran of the local restaurant business. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, he came to New Orleans in 1984 to study theater at Tulane University. He worked as a waiter at some of the highest-profile new restaurants of the 1990s, including Upperline, Bayona and Gautreau’s. He later opened the Uptown dive bar Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club with business partner Dave Clements, and the two also opened the Circle Bar with the late Kelly Keller.
He sold his interests in those businesses and in 2008 bought Atchafalaya (then called Café Atchafalaya). The restaurant had been in business for decades under a string of different owners, and Tocco was eager to rebrand it as his own. But the going wasn’t easy in the beginning. Outdated consumer ratings lingered on review sites, and while he used the popular social media channels he felt he had to fight through lots of other content to reach restaurant customers.
“I started thinking it would be easier just to use the camera we all have in our phones these days, make a quick video of what we have going on here,” he said.
“That’s how it started to build.”
He started sharing his idea with friends and was encouraged by the response. One was Michael Myers, a partner with High Seas Consulting, a technology and design firm in Sausalito, California, which has developed Specialus with him. While Specialus is now up and running, they continue to refine its functions and capacity, often working with feedback from the circuit of New Orleans chefs and restaurateurs who have recently begun using it.
Tocco could hardly have asked for a better chef to start testing Specialus than his own at Atchafalaya. Lynch, who was cast as a contestant on the most recent season of the reality cooking show “Food Network Star,” already had high-profile on-camera experience and he was an eager adopter of the video medium for Specialus. Others from the first wave of restaurants now using Specialus needed some convincing, however.
“I was hesitant about it at first, because I wasn’t sure I could get people to use it in the kitchen,” said Samantha Fritz, community manager for the Commander’s Family of Restaurants, which includes Commander’s Palace, SoBou and Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar.
“But Tony told me there’s an actor in every kitchen, there’s always someone who wants to be on camera, and he was right,” Fritz said.
Fritz has been putting Specialus through its paces lately, shooting videos with a wide-ranging variety of staff from her company’s three local restaurants. In one recent video, for instance, SoBou head bartender Abigail Gullo explains why she recommends a certain rum cocktail for hot summer weather, while in another, Café Adelaide “bar chef” Lu Brow describes a special Restaurant Week prix fixe menu. Across town, Tom Robey, a longtime sous chef at Commander’s Palace, used a 30-second video to show a late summer mushroom omelet he was serving during one recent lunch shift at the famous Garden District restaurant.
“I like that it’s behind the scenes, and I like that it’s local. I like that this is coming out of New Orleans,” Fritz said. “I email Tony constantly with any little problem I have with his app and he goes to his designers to find ways to remedy the bugs. It’s nice as a restaurant to give feedback and help him refine his user experience.”
Restaurants can open a Specialus account and post videos at no charge. There’s also no charge for people to visit the site or download its app. Tocco said he has a plan for monetizing Specialus eventually, though he wouldn’t discuss details.
Initially, Tocco has been pitching chef-driven restaurants because their penchant for daily specials and seasonally changing menus makes them fonts for fresh Specialus content. He also thinks food trucks, pop-up eateries and festival food vendors are candidates for Specialus, and he sees potential in the future for other channels aimed at amateur cooks or barbecue fanatics.
“Few businesses have renewable content every day,” Tocco said. “We have to in restaurants because everything has to be fresh. That’s our content and that’s what we’re putting on these videos.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.