How Toast’s Human Interest-Focused Podcast Builds Community
Addiction. Unconventional parenthood. Harassment. If I told you I’ve recently been listening to a podcast that covered these issues, who would you think produced it? A self-help guru or institution, perhaps? Maybe a counselor or therapy collective?
What about a company that makes restaurant POS (industry lingo for “point of sale”) systems? Probably not your first guess. But these are, in fact, some of the themes explored in The Garnish, Toast’s charmingly-titled podcast. The Garnish, hosted by Dahlia Snaiderman, dives into the ways in which challenges like these affect the restaurant industry through a series of interviews featuring personal stories and solutions. It’s a podcast for restaurant people (whether they use Toast software or not), by a company run by restaurant people.
A podcast for the people, by the people
I used to be a restaurant person myself, in fact. I spent three and a half years during and after college as a host and server at a few local haunts — most notably Westville, located on Avenue A and 11th street in Manhattan’s East Village (the original location is in the West Village. I promise the name makes sense, though I got that question more than “Are your fries gluten free?”). Let it be known that toward the end of my time there, the company did in fact switch from our outdated POS system to Toast, and it was a hit with the staff.
I love restaurant people. I think they’re some of the most passionate, hardest-working, and kindest people on the planet. I firmly believe that everyone should work in a restaurant at least once in their life to gain a better sense of the patience, empathy, and pure stamina that comes with having to stand on your feet for eight-hour shifts. And if there’s one thing I remember most fondly about slinging market plates and mint lemonades at the ‘Ville, it was the beauty and strength of that late-night-staff-meal-dive-bar-after-work community.
All of this is what made The Garnish so appealing to me. In making The Garnish, Toast is strengthening its commitment to the restaurant community.
“I think when I listen to a podcast myself, it does feel like you’re friends with the people after a while, which is silly,” says Dahlia. “But it’s very true, and I think brands want to seem human more than anything lately. Millennials especially are able to see through a lot of [marketing tactics].” Dahlia explains that with The Garnish, Toast is attempting to “provide something of value to a community, and we’re spending all this time building this show just to highlight issues in the restaurant industry that don’t get talked about that much, and actually might be useful to people. It just feels like a strong connection.”
Through The Garnish, Toast is able to connect with the humans who compose its customer base…on a human level. Though The Garnish has nothing to do with restaurant technology or POS terminals specifically, it does address issues that matter to its customer base. By creating something of value for its specific audience, Toast draws that audience in — and makes them more likely to become brand advocates.
Like restaurant work, podcasting isn’t easy
Okay, so I’ll admit I’m a bit of a (read: total, hopeless) romantic, and I tend to sentimentalize and nostalgicize (let’s just agree to agree that that’s a word) pretty much all aspects of my life, including my time as a restaurant employee. That nostalgicization (really appreciate your staying with me here) does come from a modicum of truth — it has to! I met some of the best people I’ve ever known in restaurant work, and there is something lightly magical about existing on a work schedule that’s opposite to the rest of the world. I got a ton of writing and creating done in the mid-morning/early-afternoon hours before my shifts.
But the industry is also grueling. In Manhattan, at least, the trains don’t work their best on a restaurant staff schedule. Staff members are often subject to the occasional harsh tempers and company politics of higher-ups. A mistakenly punched-in order can feel like a life-or-death crisis, getting shift coverage when you’re sick can be difficult as all hell (plus, it means no tips: your main source of income), and if a customer treats you unkindly (or, if you’re a woman, creepily), there’s often very little you can say or do to stand up for yourself.
These were, at least, some of my experiences, and The Garnish dives into a whole host of others, such as the prevalence of alcoholism in the industry, and the ongoing debate of whether it’s better to include service in the bill or for servers to work for tips.
Just as the restaurant industry comes with its share of rough blows, so does podcasting — especially for a company trying to create a meaningful, poignant series in a rapidly saturating medium.
“Narrative podcasts take five times longer to produce, if not more,” explains Dahlia. “My goal at the beginning, in April when we launched, was to do two episodes a month: one interview-based episode, and one narrative-type episode.”
“For example, we have one about being a parent in the restaurant industry, and I interviewed five different people for it and then [figured] we’d work it together with narration. When I made that original plan, [I] was not taking into account that it takes so much more work if you’re stringing together multiple interviews and recording and writing narration and scripts. There’s just so much more to it.”
Part of that “much more” is the dreaded analysis of metrics. Unlike getting the recipe right with your tablespoons and measuring cups (let me have that one bad restaurant pun, please), it’s a lot harder to know what to pay attention to in podcasting.
“Downloads are a bad metric,” Dahlia pointed out. “Many of us [podcasters] know this already. I learned that in the process of making the show for Toast, because if people don’t change the setting on their Apple podcast app that auto-downloads any episode of a podcast they’re subscribed to, I have no idea if they even listened. That’s one of the big limitations of downloads. They also grow slowly, and it’s extremely hard to move the needle, and that’s fine but hard to measure. I didn’t really realize how big of a challenge that would be for a branded show [like The Garnish] because you want to be able to show ROI as soon as possible. The big benefit that I have is that my team and my managers understand that it’s a long game and that the numbers increase slowly.”
The right metrics to analyze a community
If downloads are a bad metric, what does Dahlia focus on when analyzing the success of the show? Where should you look to see how your audience is or isn’t growing?
“We focus largely on email,” she says. “When I came on, we [already] had a podcast newsletter with 300 subscribers, and I’ve been focusing a ton of my energy into growing that list of early fans and engaging them more. That way I can find out a little more about what people like and actually engage with people instead of just being like, ‘I hope we get more downloads.’”
On top of all of that, it’s all well and good to have a beautiful idea for a podcast, but what if your ideal audience, the members of the community you’re hoping to help foster, don’t have time to listen?
“Our biggest challenge is that restaurant people are extremely busy,” Dahlia told me. “And so that was actually part of why we do the podcast, it’s that we want to fit into their daily life in a way that makes sense for them, and if it means that we can be with them on their way to work or even during work. If you’re chopping onions you don’t need to be doing anything other than chopping onions. So you could definitely listen to this podcast. It’s just a matter of reaching [those people].”
So how do you make sure the right people listen to your show and are given the opportunity to connect with the community you’re building?
Some of it comes from luck — the algorithms that point your target audience toward your podcast just as they’re searching for something new to listen to, for example. But more often than not, you need to go about audience-building old-fashioned way: by reaching out to prospective listeners.
In the digital age, that means you might need to post on social media, direct message prospects you’ve met before, or send an e-mail or two. And in the meantime, keep creating.
Embracing Your Niche
What Dahlia finds very valuable (and what is so valuable) about a podcast like The Garnish is its uniqueness. If restaurant workers are looking to listen to a show that caters to their experiences, challenges, and needs, they won’t have to sift through the tons of industry-related shows like some of us (ahem, marketers). But once you find that unique sweet spot, you still have the work of making sure your show is exciting and engaging.
“I think that people are realizing that, especially for a branded show, it just has to be really, really interesting,” Dahlia reminded me. “And that sounds obvious, but I don’t know that it is actually. I also feel like everyone is sort of moving in the direction of cutting down the length of their episodes. Because there are really specific situations in which a really long podcast can work. A lot of those are comedy podcasts or things like that that keep me company on a plane ride, you know? But a podcast where I want to learn something — I think getting right to the point is something that people are realizing is helpful.”
And ultimately, remember why you’re creating a show in the first place. You can’t expect your show to be an immediate marketing miracle. But if you’re making the show to explore a bigger theme, relay a bigger message, or share stories that need to be told, you’re on the right track to connecting with an audience that needs to hear what you have to say.
“Podcasts don’t initially drive huge audiences to your network. It’s a brand awareness thing but individual podcasts don’t have gigantic listenership, especially new ones, especially small ones, especially branded ones, at first,” Dahlia said. “But the thing that they do is they make the people who do listen feel stronger connections with you, and that’s sort of what we’re hoping for.”