'Best-of' lists give food businesses something to build on

· The Pulse

Being listed as one of Edmonton's best places to eat brings in customers, but converting that advantage into repeat traffic is the key, say some business owners.

Edify (previously known as Avenue Edmonton) has been publishing its Best Restaurants list since 2012, and the Top 100 Best Things to Eat or Drink in Edmonton from The Tomato has been around since 2013.

"It's part of the reputation-building part of the business," said Jeff Nachtigall, co-owner of Sugared and Spiced, which was named one of Edify's best bakeries in 2022 and saw its lemon tart reach 52nd on the Tomato's Top 100 in 2023.

"Edmonton has lots of good bakeries that make good stuff. When people are making a decision, they have it in their head that we're one of the top ones."

When the bakery's peanut butter marshmallow squares made the 2022 list, "sales went up about 12% to 15% over the year compared to the year before," Nachtigall said.

Being featured on the cover of Edify as 2022's Best New Restaurant was a boon for Tryst, a St. Albert wine bar that focuses on sharable small plates.

"In March, the floodgates opened," said co-owner and chef Zach Eaton. "We had an immediate boost in our covers and sales. Our numbers for that month went way up, almost 50% more than the month before."

Tryst had "pretty good reach in St. Albert," but Edify helped bring people in from Edmonton, Eaton said. Though sales tapered off the following month, guests continued to refer to Edify into the summer, he added. "It was cool to be featured that year because some people were only starting to go back out after COVID," he said. "We were the first place they'd been to in two years."

Eaton recognized it was up to the Tryst team to ensure guests would return following that initial visit. "You have to capitalize on that surge and capture as many people as you can," he said. "But we're pretty decent at getting them to come back."

Goldie Hazrah, proprietor of Monsoon Bistro & Bar, had a similar view. Monsoon's Tandoori lamb dish placed second on The Tomato's Top 100 list in 2022, but Hazrah knew it was the overall experience that would lead to repeat customers.

"The Tomato was a gift to us, it did bring quite a few people in," said Hazrah. "But I always tell my staff — nobody comes for the food. You can go anywhere for food. You want them to feel welcomed because if you don't give them that personal touch, there's no point."

Jeff Nachtigall stands behind a glass case full of baked goods with a brick behind him emblazoned with the Sugared and Spiced logo

Sugared and Spiced has seen a boost in business from local food lists. (Mack Male/Flickr)

The Tomato first mentioned Monsoon as a notable new restaurant in September 2021, and then again on the Top 100 list the following March. Hazrah observed an immediate change in her customer profile, which was primarily South Asian when the Indian restaurant opened in July 2021.

"After The Tomato write-up, it jumped to the non-Indian community right away, 50% Indian and 50% non-Indian," said Hazrah. "I go to tables and ask them how they heard about us, and a majority of people said they read it in The Tomato and wanted to come try."

Sugared and Spiced prominently displays plaques from both magazines on its bakery case. "The signs that they give us to put up in the shop are great for people who have just stumbled upon us," Nachtigall said. "It gives them confidence when they walk in. Even if they haven't heard of us, they've probably heard of Edify and The Tomato."

Without the resources for a formal marketing budget, Nachtigall has embraced the opportunity to gain annual recognition for his store, which opened in 2017. "I have a reminder every January to share The Tomato's nomination form with customers because we don't want to miss being on the list," said Nachtigall. "It doesn't cost us anything, and there is a huge group of regulars that come every week that want to see their favourite item on the list."

Eaton and Nachtigall both remarked that the validation from the lists may give customers that final push to try out their business. Tryst, for instance, has a link to its Edify honour on the home page of its website. "Someone might go and look at our menu on the website but are still undecided," said Eaton. "But when they see that we won the best new restaurant in Edify, they'll decide to check us out."

Hazrah, who has more than a decade of restaurant experience, has herself relied on The Tomato for recommendations. "I always used to pick up a copy to find out about local stores," she said. "I like to go to locally owned restaurants. I invested my money into a place and my focus and my heart is in the business. And people feel it. And I feel the same way when I go to local shops."

Lists open doors and encourage regulars

Hazrah and Eaton noted that their magazine appearances garnered additional attention from fellow chefs and other media outlets. "It does open some doors," said Eaton. "People reached out to me to do other things. Chefs wanted to collaborate, and a Top Chef recruiter called me." Eaton has yet to decide if he will appear on the television program.

Lastly, all three people interviewed cited the compounding effect of regular customers, as they help by spreading the word or personally introducing their friends and family to the business.

"I find that older people like to bring their adult children. Even my kids — we take them to places that they will enjoy," laughed Hazrah.

For Nachtigall, the support from loyal patrons is an emotional one.

"On Mother's Day, I noticed that regulars were bringing their moms into the shop after having brunch in the neighbourhood, pointing out the best stuff to eat to the person they care about," said Nachtigall, tearing up at the memory.

"How do you say to someone that a peanut butter square is important to you? But for the people who have a routine and buy a peanut butter square every week, it's not just that it tastes good. There's so much more to it. So when it comes to explaining the importance of a product at a bakery, it's easier when there's a list. It's a summary point to help share with other people."

Disclosure: Sharon was part of the judging panel for Edify's Best Restaurants list in 2022.