When you're busy pouring your heart, soul and savings into your cafe or restaurant, sitting down to write a blog post singing the praises of a rival business isn't exactly standard practice.
It could be argued, however, that much of the success Harrogate's Paul Rawlinson has seen so far is precisely due to his willingness to promote other local businesses, as well as his frank approach to customer service.
We sat down with the owner of North Yorkshire's most popular Scandi cafe to find out how a combination of prolific blogging, support for fellow indies, and an earnest desire to be upfront with one's customers can do great things for your small business.
Self-starter Paul opened Baltzersen's in 2012, shortly after leaving the army. Borrowing his Norwegian grandmother's surname, the cafe offers Scandinavian-inspired food and baked treats, all made on-site and using local ingredients, with a heavy focus on sustainability and customer service.
Five years on, Baltzersen's is one of the top-rated cafes in the Harrogate area and Paul has just relocated Norse, his Nordic-themed dinner service which ran in the evenings, into premises all of its own. His team, too, has grown significantly: up from just six people in 2012 to 34 across the two businesses today.
With so much growth in such a short time, we couldn't help wondering whether Paul had always had a hand in the industry. Aside from watching his father at work, however, it seems that it was all relatively new to him at the beginning:
"My dad originally trained as a chef, as did my mum — they met in Little Chef," Paul told us with a smile. "He worked in Norway for a year as a baker and a chef in the army, then started his own company, installing kitchens and catering equipment in schools and prisons. Being in business wasn’t exactly alien to me but I had no real experience.
"Part of the motivation to open Baltzersen's," he explained, "was the baking and the food I grew up with. We always said it'd be great in a cafe, so one day we did it."
It's not just the tasty food and cosy decor that have made Baltzersen's the success it is, however. Those who have signed up to the cafe's mailing list or read the posts on the Baltzersen's blog will tell you that Paul's approach to promoting his business is curiously altruistic at times.
"People don’t want to get an email once a month telling them about the new coffee or cake," Paul told us. "They’re not excited about that email.
"Our goal is to keep us in the mind of our guests," he went on, "but we try to put ourselves out there as champions of independent business and talk about what’s good to do and see in Harrogate. We have a section on the Baltzersen's blog called The Locals' Guide, where we introduce the best restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries and independent gift shops in the area."
It's a bold approach to marketing — few small business owners would be confident enough to actively encourage their customers to spend money with their competitors.
But the thing about Paul is that he doesn't see the independent cafes and restaurants in the area so much as competitors as peers.
"We don’t have to fight each other for business," said Paul of his promotion of Harrogate's indies. "I'm a big believer in [the idea that] collaboration is greater than competition — if we all make the whole 'independent' pie bigger, we can all have a slightly bigger piece of that bigger pie.
"Inevitably, we’re writing these blog posts because we want to rank for certain keywords. And because we want to promote other independent businesses — we think that’s a good thing to do."
And it works.
The high quality, locally focused content on the Baltzersen's blog helps it rank highly in Google searches, asserting the cafe's position as one of the best in town while helping Paul achieve his goal of growing the indie scene in Harrogate. It's testament, if it were needed, that the humble blog still has a place in digital marketing alongside the Snapchats and Facebook live video craze.
The Baltzersen's blog isn't the only blog that Paul manages, however. As well as a slightly more conventional restaurant blog on the Norse website, he also keeps a personal blog, dubbed The Cafe Guy, where he writes about the trials and tribulations of running a cafe and the things he has learned through his experience as a small business owner.
"I started [The Cafe Guy] simply because I think I’ve got something reasonably useful to say to people in my situation," he said. "It's something that I really want to grow, to help other people with cafes and restaurants."
There's definitely plenty on there for small business owners to learn from.
'When Things Go Wrong: Averting a PR Disaster' is a post that particularly stands out.
In it, Paul writes openly about one occasion when a Baltzersen's customer took to a popular local Facebook group to vent her anger following a misunderstanding about breastfeeding in the cafe. The issue had been dealt with days earlier, and the post voluntarily deleted by the author, but even so, Paul doesn't shy away from going into gory detail so that others may learn from his mistakes.
It was this same level of frankness, in fact, that helped Paul fix the problem in the first place: responding to his customer's angry post, Paul named and shamed his own business, owning up to the fact that the incident had occurred in his cafe and explaining what went wrong.
By doing so, however, Paul managed to completely turn the situation around, the comments beneath the original post quickly changing from cries for blood to praise for Paul's business and his integrity as an owner.
Humility, it seems, can be a powerful tool when it comes to customer service and handling customer complaints...
TripAdvisor & Mailing Lists
While we were on the subject of disgruntled customers, we asked Paul about TripAdvisor and the influence customer reviews had on his businesses. The site's potential for boosting website traffic is well known, but just how many of Paul's customers came to him directly through the travel site surprised even us.
"We’ve been monitoring where the people making bookings [for Norse] on our site come from;" Paul told us, "about 27% are from TripAdvisor, so managing your reputation on there is really important — I think some people underestimate it."
When it comes to the actual comments his customers leave, Paul and his team take the time to respond to every single one, regardless of whether it's positive or negative.
When customers are less than satisfied, Paul is quick to meet the criticism head-on, inviting the customer to make themselves known to staff should they be willing to give his cafe another chance. Where he might struggle to win a customer over, meanwhile, he actively recommends a fellow indie cafe where they might find what they're looking for. True to his word, Paul seems determined to keep flying that indie flag, even when he himself is momentarily on the ropes.
But inviting your subscribers to rate you on TripAdvisor is only half the battle — before that, you have to get customers to agree to share their email addresses with you in the first place.
For that, Paul has a couple of approaches:
"We’ve long had a video that talks about our cinnamon buns — they’re kind of our hero product. You sign up to the [mailing] list and you get a free cinnamon bun. It’s a nice way to get people to sign up. They still have to come in to physically claim it, so they’re probably going to be within your target area.
"But I’d say that the biggest thing now is the Baltzersen's reward card. We’ve currently got about 1,200–1,300 people signed up to that, and when they sign up for the card, they go on our list.
One of the main difficulties business owners face with regard to their mailing lists is measuring their effectiveness. Services like MailChimp allow senders to track open rates and whether recipients have followed the embedded links, but gauging how many customers visit your cafe or restaurant as a direct result is a lot trickier.
Ever resourceful, however, Paul came up with his own way to tempt new customers — while working with other local business, of course:
"It’s difficult to link the person stepping through the door with the email address of that person," Paul told us. "But we did a campaign in January where we coined a hashtag, ‘ThinkIndie’, and gave vouchers to indie businesses in town that they could give out. They were literally just £5 or £10 vouchers — you didn’t have to spend a certain amount, you could just come and spend the voucher if you wanted to. We tracked the vouchers and we recorded how much the person spent so we could see whose customers are spending with us."
Of course, having tasty cinnamon buns and decadent chocolate brownies to show off online also helps...
Social media is in many ways the antithesis of the traditional mailing list. Impermanent, visually stimulating, and served to a global audience rather than just those who have already expressed an interest in your business, social media has the power to reach entirely new audiences — and woo existing followers without saying a word.
But which platform is performing best for Baltzersen's?
"When we started, Facebook was where we were biggest. But then they changed their rules and it’s become harder and harder to gain traction on without paying. We run [paid ads] on and off, [but] Instagram is probably our biggest platform now, probably because it’s so visual.
"We get people coming in all the time saying, ‘We saw this on Instagram, we wanted to get this; people who book tell us that they found us on Instagram. We’re probably more active there than anywhere else at the moment, it’s just completely not trackable — you only get one link."
But that's not to say that Paul doesn't make use of other social platforms. On the contrary, he and his team spend a lot of time making sure that their social media content is optimised for each of their accounts.
"I’m a big advocate of Gary Vaynerchuk’s Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook," he told us. "I think it's kind of the go-to text for any small business owner looking to improve their social media. It’s a couple of years old, but it's still really relevant.
"What he says about using specific types of posts or artwork for different places, for example — we don’t use the same content on our Instagram and our Twitter, or our Facebook and our Twitter. We have specific posts to go on each one, with the relevant-sized photo, hashtags on this one, or not on that one. It takes a bit of time to do all that!
He also shared a few quick tips on making posts stand out on social media.
"For us, visuals are key. We endeavour to use photography and create something really enticing. We’re not an 'offer' kind of place. Especially at Norse [restaurant], we don’t offer the kind of food that has the margin — both in terms of the food cost and the staffing cost — that we can be doing it at 50% all the time. So we focus on making the message resonate and the visual content of the advert rather than just a headline offering money off.
"We also try to add to the experience rather than discount it. So, book with us and quote X, Y and Z, and we’ll give you some champagne or something. We try to enhance the experience rather than discount the price — it just feels a little bit more real for us."
'Real' is a surprisingly apt word for Paul to end our interview on. From his frank and honest nature when responding to criticism, to his willingness to support local businesses instead of attempting to go up against them, Paul's approach to businesses is grounded in reality. He connects with people, admitting his mistakes when necessary, and sticking to the simple, but undeniably alluring, ingredients that make Baltzersen's Scandi-inspired treats so comforting.
The benefits of doing business this way are obvious, but for Paul, the bond he formed with the local community was the very thing that helped him turn his dream of making his dinner service a business of its very own a reality.
Join us next time as we talk to Paul about Norse, learning how, through the power of crowdfunding, big things can happen.