Serving good food is always a key to success in hospitality, but harnessing the power of social media is now equally important for truly engaging with your customers, reveals one Victoria-based cafe owner, Hunnah James.

For many small businesses, social media can act as a rocket launcher, reaching the kinds of customers who’ll sing your praises and return again and again. Creating a strategy that works for you is the hard bit. That said, you don’t need to know a lot about social media to use it effectively, as cafe owner Hunnah James found after launching the much-loved Hunni’s Cafe in Warrnambool in September 2015.

Moving their family from the Northern Territory to the pretty port town on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, James and husband Aaron, a plumber by trade, started talking about buying a business.

A lover of all things vintage, James had previously sold homemade clothes at markets – so when she spotted a vacant shop on Warrnambool’s main street that looked like it hadn’t been touched “since the 1950s”, she fell for it. “It was so retro inside and I thought if I was to open a cafe, it had everything I wanted.”

The couple approached NAB for a business loan, which was successful. “At first, we had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, just what Warrnambool needs: another cafe – which was a bit disheartening,” remembers James, “but I was sick of all these dark little cafes I kept taking my kids to. I wanted to create an enjoyable experience for people and a place they could bring their kids for a bit of fun.”

Recipe for success

Hunni’s Cafe, with its funky pastel booths and American diner-style thick shakes, has lured a loyal following since opening. The booths are regularly packed, Hunni’s Facebook page has over 3300 likes, and the Instagram feed is over 2000 followers. Such popularity can be slow even for those with years of hospitality experience; James freely admits she has none. However, her strategy of creating a strong, visually-appealing brand identity, especially in today’s social media-obsessed world, is paying off.

“People interact so much on social media and everyone’s a photographer. We knew the cafe and its pastel booths would offer a great backdrop for selfies – and because pastels were really on trend a few years ago, I was confident using those colours,” she says. “Having the right chef was also crucial. I was trying to find my feet initially, and my chef, Brad Chapman, had good ideas and was able to refine what I wanted to do.”

Hunni’s was the first in town to serve the elaborate, calorific shakes the cafe is so popular for, and on social media they just sell themselves, says James. “We knew not being on the waterfront [in Warrnambool], we’d have to do something out of the park with the food. And, having a new shake flavour every week creates a buzz; people love something new, and I really think that has helped our reach.”

Building brand awareness

James did pay for a $29 Facebook promotion for two of the first shakes they ever did, zeroing in on women aged between 16 and 24 as per her Facebook page insights. “We really targeted younger women mainly still studying who are huge on social media. They’re the people who tag their friends and those people tag their friends – I was amazed at how well it worked, to the point where we don’t need to do it anymore.”

Another key strategy James uses is to time her posts to pop up when people might be thinking about lunch – around 11am daily. She also edits her Instagram photos carefully, ensuring the whites are similar by adjusting the brightness rather than using a filter. “I’m very big on consistency, especially for Instagram. Everything has to look visually fitting with everything else we post – so you scroll through our feed and you get those 12 tiny thumbnails and you know instantly the images are from Hunni’s Cafe.”

James is also passionate about cultivating a genuine voice on social media and believes that’s the key to establishing a solid following. “I’d done some research on how to use social media, but I don’t think it’s so much about getting likes and comments and followers. Those sorts of things are a bonus and they bring other people to your page. But for us, it’s more about creating a story about our cafe through social media. One thing I was very conscious of was being honest and having a genuine voice. You can’t be generic.”

A clear focus

While the temptation is there for small businesses to use every gimmick and social media platform around, James’ success proves that less is often more. She uses hashtags sparingly, not wanting to inundate her followers.

Like many entrepreneurs, James has an open mind and is keen to do different things to keep the business growing. She says she’d love to join forces with another brand or business in the future. “I feel like we’re in quite a movement of collaboration; I thought the recent Peter Alexander and Moccona coffee collaboration was genius. If you find the right business to partner with, it’s a win for both and you can use each other’s platforms to grow. It’s definitely something I’d be open to exploring.”

The cafe owner is still surprised by how quickly her business has taken off. “I was never expecting it. I never thought I’d need two chefs! I really think though it’s about giving people something different. Finding a gap in the market is always ideal, but if you provide customers with a unique experience, they’ll keep coming back.”

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