John Hudgell's approach to marketing his Cambridge restaurant Alimentum has impressed both customers and critics. He tells it like it is, whether it's enthusing about animal welfare or moaning about workmen. Emma White reports
When it comes to finding creative ways to publicise a new restaurant, John Hudgell's blog for his Cambridge venture Alimentum has proved a big success. Some 15,000 visitors logged on to the Alimentum website to follow Hudgell's story in the lead-up to the opening in July, with one in four returning for regular updates.
Hudgell's blog is much like an online diary in which he introduces the concept behind Alimentum and encourages potential customers to share in his enthusiasm for the core values behind the restaurant. As he explained in his first posting in May: "The idea behind this blog is to convey some of the core values that underpin the restaurant and to give you an insight and, to some degree, a say into where the food you're going to eat comes from. You can also follow my story and see the restaurant take shape by viewing my photos in the gallery which show each stage of the fit-out."
Hudgell says several TV production companies, including Ricochet, had approached him to feature Alimentum in a documentary, and while tempted, he decided to turn them down. "We've all seen restaurants on reality TV but I've never known anyone to document the lead-up to an opening in a blog," he says. "A production company came to the restaurant but I didn't feel comfortable having a furry microphone shoved in my face 24 hours a day and thought it didn't really suit the style of Alimentum."
Hudgell sent an initial draft of the blog to his media agency but says they didn't understand what he was trying to do and sent him back a piece of "polished marketing material".
"I wanted to be open and candid with customers and give them the opportunity to follow my journey while providing information about the restaurant," he says. "I also wanted to write the blog in a style that's easy to read and entertaining to give customers a reason to return for more."
Hudgell sets the scene by describing the layout and capacity of the restaurant but quickly moves on to the business of sourcing food. Through reading about Dutch eels smoked over beech and apple wood taken from regenerated forests, ethically sourced foie gras made from the livers of geese which naturally overfeed themselves, and fallow deer from the Denham Estate, readers are quickly made aware of Hudgell's concern for animal welfare and protecting the environment.
"The deer's stress levels are kept to an absolute minimum," he explains in one posting. "For me, this is what it is all about. Animals that lead happy lives with high standards of welfare, reared with passion and integrity, which in turn produces meat of the highest quality."
Customers can see that Hudgell takes the time to visit the farms where the animals are reared when he writes from the Spanish farm that breeds the geese used for foie gras. He includes pictures of the geese for added interest, and everything is told with humour while highlighting his point.
"I'm in Spain, just outside Badajoz, which is 420km from Madrid, or 560km if you get lost," he begins. "Eduardo even puts the geese to sleep before slaughtering, which demonstrates the immense respect he has for the birds. This really is in such contrast to the inhumane way of force-feeding which is widely practised throughout Europe."
Attention to design
In between his visits to various farms and food companies, Hudgell also shows his attention to the design of the restaurant by unveiling the stylish pieces he's bought, including a 1960s Murano glass chandelier for the bar and an art deco mirror from an antique fair. Through the descriptions and pictures, visitors can see the restaurant take shape.
The blog enables Hudgell to attract new members of staff as well as customers, and he wastes no opportunity to tag on a line at the end of his postings inviting people to apply for positions.
"All I need now is a restaurant manager, so if you've got Michelin or rosette experience, don't be shy, give me a call," he says in one.
A biographies section on the website introduces each member of staff with details of past experience in the restaurant industry. "Alimentum isn't a faceless restaurant," Hudgell explains. "Customers are able to see who does what and this is reflected in the friendly and personal service we offer."
The blog also allows Hudgell to reply quickly to queries. "I can respond instantly, whether that is to flag up a positive review we've received or to a query about opening hours," he says.
While Hudgell is quick to shout about the highlights of setting up a restaurant, he's also keen to convey the problems he's faced. In one posting he berates the workmen who are letting him down in the shop fit. His entries are honest and effective in building up the tension ahead of the opening.
"I can't believe how unprofessional the air-conditioning company has been," one reads. "I was absolutely fuming but felt much better once I had expressed my displeasure to the idiot I had been dealing with."
In another he jokes: "I'm sure the decorators will be painting the back door as customers walk through the front. It's going to be tight but it's going to open on time."
One unforeseen result of the blog has been to confuse the critics. In her review of Alimentum, Tracey MacLeod from the Independent says that as a result of reading Hudgell's blog it was impossible to write a review with professional detachment. "Thanks to the owner's blog on Alimentum's website I already know far too much about this Cambridge newcomer," she says. "I even know the date of his wedding anniversary."
Hudgell defends his open approach and says he wanted to get across the toughness of the situation in an upbeat way.
"For people to want to follow your story there has to be a degree of human interest. You can't just shout about how wonderful you are. However, you do have to give some thought to the messages you send out. I never wanted to write the blog in such a way that people felt sorry for me."
On the contrary, Hudgell explains that he wanted to show how he sought to turn negatives into positives. "When I revealed my anger that a member of staff had walked out I wanted to talk about the high standards that needed to be achieved and to make it clear that I was looking for individuals with passion and integrity," he says.
And if the positive comments on his blog are anything to go by, Hudgell's gamble has worked. One happy customer writes in a blog comment: "The food is simply superb, yet served in a swanky and funky environment without a trace of pretentiousness. Wonderful."
Others go one step further and congratulate Hudgell in person: "People come to the restaurant and tell me they have read my blog and they shake my hand," he says. "Feedback has been fantastic."
- 152-154 Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 8PB
- Tel: 01223 413000
- Owner John Hudgell
- Number of employees 18
- Total investment £700,000
- Capacity 62 in dining room, 26 in cocktail bar
- Target covers 500 a week
- Projected turnover £950,000 for year to November 2008
- Open Monday-Saturday, noon-2.30pm and 6pm-10.30pm
- Interior designer Linda Turner