“If we’re not recording, is it worth doing?”
For Chef Shawn Walchef, who began our interview with this question, this outlook defines his approach to barbeque – and arguably, his philosophy of life.
The secret to barbeque is often hidden in the sauce: but for this self-titled “digital sociologist,” there are no secrets. The path to success, said Walchef, begins with something nearly everyone has: a smartphone, and a story.
While Walchef didn’t grow up surrounded by tech, he established early roots in the restaurant industry, and has since adapted his barbeque business to a hyper-connected, digital era.
As a 12-year-old, Walchef bused tables at his grandfather’s breakfast restaurant in San Diego. His grandfather, Luben S. Walchef, grew up on Bulgarian farm and later raised Walchef as his own. While he admits to resenting the job as a child, Walchef now recognizes that working in his grandfather’s space – and under his tutelage – was a formative experience: one that ultimately pulled him back into the hospitality industry.
In 2008, the same year that his grandfather passed, Walchef took over Cali Comfort BBQ in East San Diego County. Today, Walchef wears many metaphorical hats, in addition to his signature snapback. He’s the founder of Cali BBQ Media, a restaurateur, podcast host, and speaker on “digital hospitality”: a kind of warmth that radiates through the cell phone screen.
In both online and offline spaces, “hospitality is about being kind to strangers and welcoming people into your home,” said Walchef. “At my grandfather’s restaurant, there was something magical about seeing families from all walks of life come in and have ownership in the restaurant. They didn’t own the restaurant, but it was their place.”
Today, Walchef seeks to replicate that sense of place in his own restaurant; and using the power of the smartphone, he’s able to share that place with millions of people. To showcase the physical features, people, and overarching vision of their restaurants, Walchef argued, owners must be willing to do one thing: talk to their phones.
By simply recording himself and his surroundings, Walchef shows customers – as well as potential collaborators – where his restaurant is located: surrounded by a tire shop, a church, and an assisted care facility. With their smartphones, Walchef and his team record plenty of barbeque prep and rib racks, but they also record the “un-sexy” moments, he said: ones that are easy to take for granted.
These moments include the seemingly banal, like unboxing their equipment for Toast, a payment hardware for businesses. By filming and sharing this hardware via social media, the videos ultimately fostered “a deeper relationship” between Cali BBQ and Toast, said Walchef. The content also contributes to the larger story told by Cali BBQ, in which the convergence of food and tech – enabled by smartphones – nourishes both customers and content creators.
“95% of customers just care about easy access to slow-smoked barbeque,” said Walchef. For this majority, Cali BBQ upholds its mission of digital hospitality, using Toast to ensure that customers receive hassle-free, meat-filled meals – and fast.
As for creators, nourishing their business is simply a matter of “documenting what they do in real life, telling it to the smartphone, and then publishing it online.” This content appeals to other businesses as well as the 5% of customers who care about the story: consider it a digital side dish to good barbeque.
It’s a simple model, yet Walchef recognizes that self-recording can strike fear in the stomach of the steeliest restaurateur. Recording and sharing video content are learned skills, and ones that Walchef is teaching his team. From his perspective, anyone is a creator, and job titles are never stagnant.
By cross training his staff in video content creation and the service industry, it’s suddenly possible to offer tech benefits for a hospitality job. In the world of Walchef’s making, dishwashers and bartenders learn to serve people and smoke meat to perfection; but they also develop the storytelling savvy needed to navigate a digital world.
In a world where many claim to be storytellers and content creators, it seems fair to ask: what makes a story, and who qualifies as a content creator?
Walchef doesn’t claim to have all the answers, “from the vantage of digital sociology nearly everyone has the capacity to create and share stories, drawing from those in-between moments that fall away in our memories.”
The morning commute to their kids’ school, the unboxing of an Amazon package, locking the door to the kitchen after a hectic day: in these moments, Walchef said, restaurant owners have an opportunity to hit record, reflect on what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.
Walchef invites customers and other creators to witness these instances, and to share the truth of what it’s like to run their businesses, in ways that distinguish them from others. Building a business is about studying and spotlighting these moments, experienced by real people on a global, online stage.
In the audience? An unlikely assortment of barbeque lovers, restaurant owners, and creators. Moved by the spirit of curiosity, all have the capacity to learn from one another.
To learn more about Chef Shawn Walchef and Cali Comfort BBQ, visit their website