Kids Donating Birthday Presents

Abundance. Life in the affluent burbs is all about abundance. We have an abundance of stuff. Clothes, useless kitchen appliances, $300 hand bags, cars, backyard grilling items. You name it, we’ve got it and a lot of it. As my kids get older I’m starting to notice that they are developing this abundance thing as well, with their toys. I try my best to teach them that they are fortunate to have this abundance of toys, but I don’t think they don’t get it.

We celebrated a birthday this past weekend for my youngest. I got to thinking about this idea while he was opening his mountain of presents. I wish I could take credit for this one but I first heard about it at church years ago. Here’s how it works… As the birthday approaches, you talk to you kid about donating one of his presents to charity. You explain that some children are not as fortunate as you… you know the drill. The important part is that you want junior to decide to do this on his own. Don’t force them into it but rather offer it as an idea.

The charity here locally that is pushing this is called And One to Grow On. Click the link and check out their website. They will guide you through the process once your little one decides to go through with it. First, they will provide you with a card to include with your party invitations. I’m not sure if this is completely necessary but it promotes the charity. Once your party takes place, AOGO makes it easy to donate the gift. The have drop off locations for toys or they will arrange to have it picked up.

If you don’t want to go with this specific charity, I’m sure you could accomplish the same kind of thing on your own. There are dozens of local charities that will take a new unopened toy.

To me this isn’t about the gift itself. Let’s be realistic, one toy isn’t going to change the world. This is about teaching your child to think of others and give. It isn’t a huge sacrifice and your kid won’t miss one toy. Yet this is something that might spark your child into becoming a giving person. If you can raise a child in our gilded suburbs to think this way as an adult… consider yourself a successful parent.

Alpharetta in Pop Culture

The release of the movie The Joneses has brought Alpharetta some attention recently. It got me thinking about how our area is portrayed in movies and popular culture. I started making a list of movies and TV shows that were filmed here or other northern burbs of Atlanta. Here’s what I came up with. I figured there would be more to this, but I can’t think of anything else. Add a comment if you know of a movie or TV show I’ve missed.

The Joneses

I wrote about this last week but still haven’t seen the flick. The neighborhood shots are from The Manor in Milton. There were other on-location scenes that I hope to write about.

Celebrity Residences

Alpharetta and Johns Creek are home to an above-average number of celebrities, mostly from professional sports and the R&B music scene. This is probably a topic I could take up in a post of its own. Our local celebs want to live as quiet a life as they can, and thus pick neighborhoods like Country Club of the South. For the most part they stay out of sight except for…

Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston

These misfits lived in Country Club of the South back in the early 2000′s. In 2005 they had a reality show on Bravo called Being Bobby Brown. I didn’t watch much of it, but I remember seeing some local haunts. But what got Alpharetta into the news was Bobby’s trouble with the law. Remember when he hit Whitney and was brought before Fulton County court? Or what about the time he was arrested while eating at Atlantic Seafood in Alpharetta? This all made national news back in the day. Were you shocked when this marriage ended in divorce? Hardly. Today Bobby and Whitney are long gone from Alpharetta but they left their mark.

Real Housewives of Atlanta

This show proves that there is very little ‘real’ about reality shows. I also didn’t watch a lot of this glorified soap opera. I guess you could split hairs and say this isn’t about Alpharetta. But nearly every one of these women lived in the northern burbs in places like Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Sugarloaf in Duluth, The Manor in Milton, and St. Marlo in south Forsyth.

Good Eats – Alton Brown

Now here’s a show I watch! Alton Brown lives in Cobb County and films his Food Network show locally. It is fairly common for him to film grocery store scenes in places like Harry’s on Hembree Road or various Kroger locations in Alpharetta. He’s filmed episodes in places like the In Your Dreams horse farm in Milton and the Art Institute in Dunwoody.

Social Networking and Alpharetta’s Restaurants

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

I had good intentions of writing today about using social media to promote your restaurant. I was going to use a handful of Alpharetta restaurants as examples of what to do. So for the last two weeks or so I’ve researched this topic. I’ve become a Facebook fan of some of Alpharetta’s finest and most popular restaurants. What I’ve found is disappointing.

Let me say first that I’m not really an expert on social networking. I’m a fairly active user of Facebook but not nearly as active on Twitter. And I’m not to the point of promoting my blog on either site. But I know good use of the tools when I see it. At this point I’m not seeing anyone locally make real good use social networking to promote a restaurant. Take notice, restaurant owners!

I’ll go over some social networking best practices and try to highlight some local restaurants that I think are doing it right.

Updating Menu Offerings

If you’ve got a menu that changes frequently, social networking is for you. By far the best example of this is Dutch Monkey Doughnuts at Avenue Forsyth. They change their doughnut offerings daily and post a complete list to Facebook, Twitter and their website. They also will post pictures and an occasional tease of tomorrow’s menu. If you are not familiar with this place, check them out.

‘Cue in Milton will sometimes post updates to their seasonal vegetable on Facebook. Recently they were showcasing a baked sweet potato that sounded delicious.

Milton’s is providing updates on their vegetable garden on Facebook, which is kinda interesting to follow.

Specials and Discounts

I’ve yet to see many restaurants around here offer specials for social networking users. Ray’s Killer Creek currently is offering a free dessert for Facebook fans, but that is about it. If a restaurant wants to increase their online fan base, this is the way to do it!

Be Social

It is called social networking after all. Interact with your customers! Most people on Facebook will “become a fan” of a restaurant as a way to let their friends know they like it. As a restaurant owner, you can learn who your best customers are. These are your ambassadors, the key customers who are talking about your food to their friends. These are the customers who are worth their weight in gold! Engage these people online. Create dialogue and request feedback. I don’t see ANYONE doing this well in Alpharetta. If no one is talking about you on your Facebook page, then ask! Create a reason for people to post. Give away a free entree to the fan who suggests the best new side item. Or how about a picture contest? Free dinner to the fan who uploads the cutest picture of their kid eating at your restaurant. Be creative and get people talking.

Post Other Relevant Content

This kinda goes back to what I said about blogs a few weeks back. Don’t make everything on your Facebook page about you. Here’s an example… say you run a barbecue restaurant. You learn that there is a BBQ festival this weekend. Mention it to your fans. Don’t you think they’d be interested in something like this? Whatever you post, keep it on topic. They probably don’t want to see pics of your pet guinea pig for example (unless he’s on the menu, yum).

Creative Use of Media

Pictures and video. I know it can be hard to photograph food but do the best you can. If that doesn’t work, photograph your customers. Sage, Kozmo’s and Pure Taqueria are among the best spots in town for happy hour and night life. They each have some hot pictures on their Facebook sites.

Location-Aware Mobile Apps

This is so new that Facebook and Twitter arn’t even here yet. Check out Foursquare for example. Yelp isn’t far behind. The general idea is that with an iPhone (or similar smart phone), these apps will use your phone’s GPS to determine that you are currently at a business. From there you can register your visit (called ‘Checking In’). Foursquare keeps track of how many times you’ve been there and who’s been there the most.

This is a goldmine of information to a restaurant owner. You know exactly who is coming and who is there the most. It creates competition among your customers to see who can visit your place the most. Restaurants should be all over this like white on rice. How can you encourage it more? Offer specials with these services. Better yet, offer the user with the most visits (called the ‘mayor’ on Foursquare) with a SWEET deal. The idea here is that you want people competing for this offer, trying to oust the mayor by visiting your place more often.

This is huge and almost no one around here is taking advantage of it as far as I know. The only place that comes close is the convenience store chain Racetrac. They offer a special for each check-in at their stores.

Again, I think most restaurants in Alpharetta are failing when it comes to the free marketing available on the various social networking sites. I’d have to say Dutch Monkey Doughnuts is the only place doing things right. They seem to have a clear social networking game plan and it is working. They have over a thousand fans on Facebook alone. Kudos to you guys!

If you know of a restaurant with a cool social networking presence, let me know!

Alpharetta Jobs April 2010

Around the middle of each month I survey the websites of Alpharetta’s largest employers.

April’s numbers show a nice little bump. LexisNexis, E-Trade, Equifax, AT&T, Verizon and Radiant all added jobs in the last month. Here’s your numbers…

Alpharetta Jobs April 2010

Company Number of Jobs
McKesson 98
LexisNexis/Choicepoint 65
ADP 48
E-Trade 27
Equifax 24
AT&T 14
Verizon 13
Radiant 12
HP 9
Infor 7
Phillips 4
Alcatel-Lucent 3
Oracle 2
Hansgrohe 1
UPS 0
IBM 0
Total 327

I will also start trending these numbers from month to month in a graph kinda like this. Ok, well really I’m doing this because my readers kept pestering me to do so! We’ll track this going forward.

Restaurant Owner’s Guide to Online Reviews

On Friday I reviewed the online review websites. As a followup to that article, I wanted to mention this topic. I’m not sure how many restaurant owners read my blog. Probably not many. Nevertheless, I think what I have to say here could be of some benefit. And I don’t think this advice is being followed by many restaurants at all.

Do not ignore or underestimate the significance of online reviews. Your restaurant could struggle as a result. On the other hand, your restaurant could thrive because of what is online. Or better yet, your joint could go viral online!

I’ve been writing reviews online for several years, both here on my blog and on other websites. I’ve seen a lot of restaurants handle online reviews totally wrong and I’ve seen it done extremely well. I’ve also seen a lot of marketing blogs offer advice that is just plain wrong! Some of this is counter intuitive but I promise it is the way to go.

Claim Your Business Page

Go to the various review sites (yelp, urbanspoon, citysearch, four square, etc) and enter your business’ information. Sure, this is a no brainer. Enter your hours of operation, links to your website, menus, and any other information. But beyond that, make sure your address is correct. I cannot stress this enough. Many of these online review sites have iPhone, Android and Blackberry apps. These apps have location-aware technology that is very cutting edge. Your customers are using these mobile devices to find and locate your business. Make absolutely sure your address is correct and displays in the correct place on google maps. Many times I’ve seen google put a restaurant blocks down the street, or perhaps not list them at all. And here in the northern burbs of Atlanta, addresses can get squirrely when you have overlapping cities and zip codes (Johns Creek versus Alpharetta for example).

Specials and Coupons

Sure, you offer specials on your website and in other marketing. Why not offer something on the review websites? And I’m not talking something like a free Coke. Make your initial offer on the review sites something significant! Your goal here is to get reviewers into your restaurant. Give them a very tempting reason to go for the first time. More on this later.

Don’t Review Yourself

Do not, under any circumstances, review your own restaurant. Not only is this dishonest but it is pretty easy to spot and looks desperate. Even with your clever wording, people can tell. Just don’t do it.

Don’t Encourage Customers to Write Online Reviews

This is the counter intuitive part I spoke of earlier. This is also where most marketing blogs will lead you astray.

Maybe you’re a new restaurant and you’re frustrated that you’re not getting reviews. So you talk to some of your regulars and encourage them to go to yelp or urbanspoon and write reviews. Sounds perfectly legit, but don’t do it. For one thing, yelp openly discourages this in their business owner’s FAQ. And if it does happen, the review will likely get gobbled up in their review filter. But worse than that, many in the online review communities consider these to be “shill reviews”. They believe is it just the business owner writing reviews. Right or wrong, your restaurant may open itself up to ridicule by the community. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I cannot stress this enough… don’t ask customers to write reviews.

Reach Out to Reviewers

So you want to get credible online reviews? Ask for them! Seriously, just ask. Let’s say you opened a new barbecue restaurant in the northern burbs of Atlanta. No one is reviewing you online and you’re growing frustrated. Go onto the websites and find active reviewers who have visited other nearby barbecue restaurants. Send them a private message. Be polite and friendly and invite them to try your restaurant. No form letters, no spam, just a personal and sincere invitation to try your place. Should you offer a freebie? This isn’t necessary in my opinion but you could if you wish. Make it clear that you don’t expect a review, you just want them to try your place. Chances are… if they come, they will review you. And in addition to the review websites, reach out to local bloggers. Yeah, I’m a blogger so this is easy to suggest. A feature on a local or foodie blog is worth a lot.

Respond to Early Reviews

Good or bad, I suggest responding directly to your early reviews. If someone had a good thing to say, thank them! If someone had a bad experience, treat them like a customer who complains in your restaurant. Actually, you should probably do MORE than you would otherwise. Reviews online are seen my thousands of potential customers. While negative reviews are bound to happen, I think you should respond to them head-on. Offer to make it right or return their money. I’ve heard of businesses who have paid for an upset customer to go to a competitor. Are you willing to go that far to make things right? You ought to consider it!

Do not respond in an angry way to critical reviews online. The last thing you want is to piss off an already unhappy customer. The next thing you know your ugly private messages to that person are posted online in a forum for the world to see. Again, I’ve seen it happen.

I hope what I have to say makes sense. Consider it sincere advice from someone who is likely to review you one day! And even if you are not a new restaurant, pay attention to what is written about you online. Google yourself and see what the search engines think are important about your restaurant. The majority of the hits I get on my blog are from people searching for a specific restaurant I’ve written about.

Next time I’ll write about social media and restaurants. Until then… if you think I’m off base on my advice or have any questions or comments, leave them here or e-mail me at lee@rootsinalpharetta.com

The Joneses to Open Next Week

Alpharetta is set to make its debut on the silver screen. Roll out the red carpet. Are you ready? And what better way for this to happen than with a movie about materialism and keeping up with the Joneses? Can this play any better with my blog’s theme? I love it!

This movie starring David Duchovny and Demi Moore was filmed all over Alpharetta almost a year and a half ago. I’m surprised it took them this long to finally open. But nonetheless it is here. The premise is that Duchovny and Moore are new neighbors in a posh gated community in the burbs. But looks are deceiving. They are really slick marketeers trying to sell high-end merchandise and toys to the affluent locals. The story sounds interesting and strangely believable. You can read reviews for the movie here or check out the trailer.

The neighborhood shots were filmed at The Manor Golf and Country Club in Milton. This neighborhood is no stranger to pop culture. One of the Real Housewives of Atlanta lives here. There were also scenes filmed at Muse Hair Salon in Alpharetta. Muse got a lot of publicity out of this, something which I’m sure will make for good business in the future.

I can’t wait to see the movie and pick out other locations around town. And while Alpharetta will be duly proud of its new movie stardom, will the joke actually be on us?

The Joneses opens on Friday, April 16th at a theater near you. Look for me there. I’ll be the one driving the new BMW (yeah I wish).

Reviewing the Review Websites

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

I’ve come to rely on a few online restaurant review websites. As web 2.0 and social media continue to grow, the influence of the online review portals multiplies. Here is my take on those that have the biggest footprint in the Alpharetta area. Each of these places have their own uniqueness so try several and see what you like best.

urbanspoon.com

Growing very fast. As someone who writes reviews, I don’t care for them much. On the site you give a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. Such a binary opinion isn’t very granular. But what I’ve found is that after a restaurant gets dozens or hundreds of these binary reviews, urbanspoon tends to get it right. The truly outstanding joints percolate to the top.

Urbanspoon is very good at integrating external blog content into their site. There are not a great deal of food bloggers in the northern burbs, something I hinted at recently. But nevertheless, they can direct you to cool content elsewhere. I’ve also found that they are more likely to be the first site to have reviews of brand new restaurants.

yelp.com

By far my favorite. Yelp mixes social media with online reviews. I’d say the functionality leans more towards the reviews and less towards social media. But you can have friends and vote on your favorite reviews. Yelp tends to be bigger in the cities where they have a paid community manager on the ground (of which Atlanta is one of them). The average yelp users also tends to be younger, a Gen-Y type person.

Yelp’s presence in Alpharetta was pretty thin a few years ago. Today they are much larger. I find the reviews to be well written and funny. If you’re reading reviews of a restaurant, I suggest sorting by the “useful” tag and go from there.

Citysearch

Losing ground in my opinion. For a long time they were just about the only game in town for Alpharetta reviews. That all has changed. They still have a lot of local reviews but I find that they are not as deep and well written as yelp. Still worth looking at.

Others

I don’t know of any other sites that have a large presence here. Higher end review sites like Zagat and Gayot simply lack depth in Alpharetta. Yahoo and Google are a decent alternative, and of course they integrate well with other features on those sites. Google probably wins on the sheer number of reviews, but I find them to be almost complete devoid of detail. You’ll find reviews like “I like this restaurant. They kick ass.”

Things to look out for… Watch out for shill reviews from business owners or their acquaintances. In general you want to trust reviews from people who have reviewed a LOT of other local restaurants. If a reviewer isn’t active on the website, I wouldn’t rely on them much. Yelp does a great job here. They will simply hide reviews like this. This practice is getting them into some hot water, but it keeps the integrity of the review process in check. I appreciate that and I think general users of the site do too. Other websites are not as proactive so it is up to you to filter these shill reviews on your own.

Most of these sites have feature-rich apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. Yelp and Urbanspoon have some very cool mobile apps, with neat location-aware technology.

Alpharetta to Extend Greenway… a Little Bit

The city of Alpharetta has voted to extend the Big Creek Greenway from its current end at Webb Bridge Road up to the end of Marconi Drive. This is only about three quarters of a mile. Doesn’t seem like a lot really, but it is one step closer to Forsyth’s Greenway. It also opens up access to Windward. There will be a very small parking area here at the cul-de-sac on Marconi. They are also building a tunnel under Webb Bridge Road just for the path.

The trail is starting to get very close to cubicle land. This might be a nice lunchtime diversion for folks working at McKesson. But from here, the path is uncertain. Crossing Windward will be a problem. If the city is willing to spend the dough to tunnel under Webb Bridge, then you’ve gotta think they would be willing to do the same for Windward. Or perhaps a pedestrian bridge?

It appears that the future path from Forsyth’s current end at McFarland will follow the new Ronald Reagan Blvd. If they ever build it, this will be real close to the proposed Taubman Mall. I think this will take away from the woodsy feel of the path. It also means that Alpharetta will have some choices to make on how to get to McGinnis Ferry Road. Will they continue to follow the creek and cut through the Windward golf course? Or perhaps they can go north and follow Alderman Drive near LexisNexis and Equifax? Stay tuned.

Ancestral Roots

This post continues a discussion on the Peter Kilborn article on being Rootless in Alpharetta.

There is a place in rural North Carolina where a street bears my surname. There are also a few small family cemeteries with my last name on them. I guess you could say this is where my ancestral roots are located. It really is just a place where my family landed in the middle of the 18th century. My line move away more than 100 years ago. But when I hear someone talk about the word “roots”, I think of this swampy place in eastern North Carolina. If I were to pick up my family and settle there, I would be more rootless than I am here in Alpharetta. Sure, the locals would be better able to pronounce my last name, but I wouldn’t know anyone. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have a Starbucks on every corner there. I’ll stick to Alpharetta for now.

Is this the kind of roots that Peter Kilborn is talking about in his article? Maybe. There are streets in Alpharetta named after the original settlers of Milton County. Maybe your last name is Haynes, McGinnis, Mayfield, Mansell or Kimball. I’m not exactly bumping into people with those last names amongst my fellow cubicle dwellers.

I got to thinking about all this when I read this recent article on the Manning family of Alpharetta. It is one of those feel good articles about a very deeply rooted family in Alpharetta. The article has a lot of stories about the old days, when none of this was here, etc. And sure enough, they have a street and even a school named after them (Manning Oaks Elementary). It is a cool article.

But even this Manning family didn’t completely stay put. The article talks about some living in Duluth and Winder. So where am I going with all this? At some point Alpharetta went from being a sleepy little town to a place with one hundred thousand cubicles. These cubicles need to be filled with skilled technical people with advanced degrees. It is very unrealistic to expect the Manning families of the world to be able to supply all those workers. And plus, I’m sure many of them found reasons to move out of Alpharetta too.

So yeah, there are going to be rootless people that come to Alpharetta and a lot of them. Human beings will always be somewhat nomadic in nature. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I’ve said it before on this blog… this is where I want to be. I’d rather be here than the swamps of eastern North Carolina. That means I’m not gonna get a newspaper article written about five generations of my family staying put. Then again, maybe in seventy years they will interview me talking about how I remember when Windward Parkway was only four lanes and we didn’t have flying cars.

The Restaurant Randomizer

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

Where do you want to go for lunch? I dunno. Where do YOU wanna go? I dunno.

Ever been stuck in this endless loop? It happens all the time to me. In many ways we are lucky to have so many restaurant choices in Alpharetta. But at a certain point, it is overwhelming and hard to make a choice. But don’t fret because I have the perfect solution… The restaurant randomizer!

We started something like this at work many years ago. We just made a large spreadsheet of every restaurant close enough to go to for lunch. Add a random picker and you’re all set. Well, except being the nerdy technology people that we are, we added a complicated ranking system to the selection process so that the truly shitty places would come up almost never. This is overkill.

As a sample, I’ve created this Restaurant Randomizer spreadsheet for my blog readers. I probably should put my computer science degree to work and built a web-based randomizer for my readers, but who has time for that? I whipped this up real quick today and listed every restaurant on Windward Parkway. There are almost fifty of them! That doesn’t count maybe two dozen more that are a block of so off Windward at Highway 9. But nevertheless, it is the concept here that I’m going for.

Here’s how to play… each person has to agree to trust the randomizer, but each person also gets one and only one veto. So you click the “New Restaurant” button and see what comes up. Maybe it suggests Ray’s New York Pizza. You’re not feelin’ like franchise pizza today, so you exercise your veto. Next up is The Red Hen. You might not be totally cool with that pick, but you’re out of vetos. Your lunch partner thinks the Hen is good and off you go for some overpriced breakfast grub for lunch.

There are several things like this online that basically extend on APIs offered by yahoo or yelp or something. I kinda like Wheel of Lunch as an example. The problem with these is that you have to zero in on a zip code. My lunch options usually span three or four zip codes so I don’t like being pigeon holed like this.

So make your own list, maybe starting from my own. Add or remove places as you see fit. Don’t want high dollar expense account places like Vinny’s or Cabernet? Just remove them. Think driving up to Norman’s Landing on exit 13 is worth it for lunch sometimes? Throw ‘em on the list!

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