In the restaurant business, peer reviews help thousands of potential customers decide which establishments to visit. The rise of apps such as Foursquare have contributed to this shift of importance away from professional critics and toward collective reviews from average customers. By putting the power to review directly in the palm of one’s hand, there’s little barrier to sharing one’s opinion in real-time.

For some restaurants, Foursquare is an integral part of their campaign to attract new customers and to interact with visitors. Now that Foursquare has given users a way to search for specific menu items nearby, customers will be relying even more on reviews to find the best of what they’re craving.

For example, if you’re craving miso soup, you simply type that into the search bar at the top of the Foursquare app. From there, you’ll get a list of nearby restaurants featuring that menu item, with snippets of reviews and a map showing you where they’re located. The app will also tell you if you’ve visited any of those restaurants before, or if any of your friends have. It’s a quick way to scroll through ranked results to find the best miso soup within walking distance.

As more people start using this feature, it will become increasingly important to restaurants to position themselves as well-ranked and reviewed. We chatted with Carma PR Account Director Tyger Danger and Social Media Manager Max Chernoff, who are part of the team that manages social media for the Miami-based Big Time Restaurant Group. They talked about how Foursquare fits into their larger social media strategy, and how they’re getting the restaurants they represent ready to rise to the top of Foursquare’s menu search results.

Use Foursquare as a Springboard

While there are several check-in services on the market today, Foursquare is one of the most ubiquitous. There are many factors motivating this, from the quest for Mayorship, to check-in specials, to simply keeping a record of where you’ve been, and when. Another thing many users do is broadcast their whereabouts to friends and followers by connecting Foursquare to Twitter and Facebook accounts. It’s when they push updates to these other social networks, Chernoff says, that restaurants get a chance to jump in and interact.

When a visitor to a Big Time Restaurant location checks in on Foursquare and pushes that update out on Twitter, the Carma PR team tracks that post. They also note whether the person posted a photo or tagged friends in the tweet. Chernoff says they respond to every such tweet with a personalized response, going beyond simply thanking the individual for visiting.

“People don’t spend as much time, at least in our experience, inside the Foursquare app, perhaps they’re just checking in,” he says. With Twitter, they can create conversation rather than simply observing that individual’s activity. “Then we’re able to get in front of a larger, immediate audience, which is something that we really focus on as a Restaurant Group.”

Keep Content Fresh

Now that users have the ability to search for specific menu items, seasonal ingredients and trends will become more important to specialty food purveyors. In-the-know foodies like to keep up with hot trends (cronut, anyone?) and season-specific ingredients. Reflecting such items in your restaurant’s menu — if they’re on brand, of course, can help you show up in Foursquare’s search results.

Chernoff says the Big Time Restaurant’s social media team focuses on different seasonal offerings, switching the focus each month. Sometimes, they highlight wines of the month, while other times they focus on the freshness of their produce. In doing so, they not only keep potential customers abreast of updates to their menu, they also contribute to their own SEO rankings related to those terms.

“Each one of our platforms has a holistic, high-level strategy to it that ultimately is pushing us to have high SEO,” says Danger. “Every time that we push something out there, it’s just adding to the Web, which pushes us up on the search results ratings.”

Optimize Your Menu for Search

According to Chernoff and Danger, the Big Time Restaurant’s social team is already working on making it easier for customers to find their menu items, such as their ever-popular guacamole and specialty charcuterie. Even though searchable menus are a relatively new feature, this group recognizes the power of search. It wants to make it easier for people to find details about their menu through their smartphones, without having to put in extra effort.

Other restaurants that want to follow in Big Time Restaurant’s proactive footsteps would do well to follow a few simple rules. First, use terms in your menu that will be easy for people to search. If you have a special named after your owner (“Annie’s Pasta”), make sure to describe it with words that people are likely to search for, like the type of pasta or sauce it has.

Next, encourage visitors to review your restaurant and items. The higher you rank, the higher you’ll appear in search results. Finally, coordinate your other social media postings to highlight your best, current offerings. That way, when users search for specific dishes and see your restaurant name in the list, they’ll already know that yours is one of the best dishes available.

Have you had success with Foursquare’s searchable menus? Share your experiences in the comments.

[Image credit: zoetnetAndrew Magill, cookbookman17, Matthew Rutledge]