With slim margins and constantly shifting trends, the restaurant industry can be a tough business. Chefs and owners have to find innovative ways to invite diners.
For chef Carlos Gaytán, thoughtful social media content is one way he’s brought in more business while educating curious diners about the flavors of his home country at his restaurant Tzuco, where Gaytán immerses diners in memories of his childhood in Huitzuco, Guerrero.
“Every time that I’m here, it feels like I’m home,” Gaytán said. “Being a kid and working in the field, helping the family to grow, I learned so much about growing my own vegetables and sacrificing an animal when I was a kid, and preparing meals with my mom. When I’m cooking, I’m cooking food that comes from my heart, it comes from my soul.”
Though Chicago has been home to Mexican immigrants for decades, the city’s restaurants haven’t always reflected the vast diversity of Mexico’s regional cuisines. Gaytán said when he arrived in Chicago in 1991, the city had plenty of taquerias but not much in the way of Mexican fine dining.
“When I came here, I was very disappointed by the Mexican cuisine; it was not really well represented,” Gaytán said.
At Mexique, Gaytán’s first restaurant in Chicago, he introduced diners to a new way of tasting Mexico. Gaytán went on to become the first Mexican chef to earn a Michelin star — but he said before receiving that honor, getting people in the door was an uphill battle.
“Everything was a challenge,” Gaytán said. “People, they didn’t know what Mexican cuisine was back then, fine dining Mexican cuisine. It took a lot just to convince people to stay and eat and educate people about the cuisine that we have.”
When he opened Tzuco in 2019 as a seasoned restauranteur, Gaytán said one lesson he brought with him from his days at Mexique was making the most of social media to showcase his dishes and approach to the cuisine.
“Social media has done so much to bring business,” Gaytán said. “It’s not easy. It takes time, and sometimes it feels like it takes another job just to do it, just keep up with. For example, I’m going to start bringing back my peach dessert that is very popular in summertime over here. So I (posted it on Instagram) yesterday, and I have so many people like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make a reservation for Friday. We wanted to try the peach last year and we couldn’t get it.’ Now it’s time for them to get it.”
Through a partnership with American Express’ Shop Small Accelerator, Gaytán is giving advice about using social media to people new to the restaurant industry.
“I learned the hard way; I made a lot of mistakes,” Gaytán said. “You have to learn so many things — how to grow, how to bring people to your restaurants. I think a lot of small businesses now, they’re looking to us and see what we did right. They took us as an example and they want to learn from us, and so this way they can be successful in the same way, and we’re here to share, because we want everyone to be successful, especially small businesses.”