Canlis blazes a social media path, but who can follow?

If anyone is still arguing that social media is just for food trucks, not high-end restaurants, please point them in the direction of Canlis Restaurant.

The poshest restaurant in Seattle is arguably the most creative in their social campaigns. Forget Groupons or half-price wine – Canlis transfixed the city last fall with their elaborate scavenger hunt executed on Facebook and Twitter for 50 menus with 1950s prices. The elaborate promotion was to celebrate their 60th anniversary. Daily social media updates offered obscure clues to hiding places around Seattle, sparking a mad dash from the fooderati whenever a new clue was released.

Aside from the resulting – and plentiful – media coverage, it energized a customer base that previously may not have considered Canlis other than a once-a-year dining destination. I was thisclose to securing one of the hidden menus myself, and despite my disappointment at missing out, I was struck by the demographic range of menu-hunters. From baby-faced hipsters to smartphone-wielding retirees, the Seattle food community was galvanized by the inventive campaign.

And now brothers Mark and Brian Canlis are back again, this time to promote their head chef Jason Franey’s nomination for FOOD & WINE’s People’s Best New Chef Northwest. The annual awards include a fan vote for the first time this year, and the brothers hit the campaign trail. This time around, they posed in iconic Seattle locations, including atop the Space Needle, wearing “Vote for Jason” sandwich boards, and then posted the ridiculous photos on Facebook and Twitter. It wouldn’t be a Canlis joint without a code-cracking component, so in each image was hidden a Morse code clue that ultimately pointed to free dinner at a pop-up restaurant from Franey. It’s no wonder one local writer dubbed the campaign "Best Use of Social Networking by a Restaurant EVER."

Once upon a time, new or small restaurants were the social media early adopters precisely because it was perceived as a cheap, easy way to get the word out. But the big guys seem to be upping the ante. As Seattlest editor Allecia pointed out, “I certainly applaud Canlis for its creativity…but most restaurants don't have the luxury of putting so much time and money into a campaign like this.”

Does this mean that as restaurants (and their marketing and PR teams) become more social media savvy, those without the marketing resources of Canlis will again be at a disadvantage? I’d like to think that any innovative campaign with enough energy behind it will be successful, even if it’s not in Canlis’ bombastic style. What do you think?