AWS for Industries

Executive Conversations: David Rev Ciancio, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Handcraft Burgers and Brew

David “Rev” Ciancio, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Handcraft Burgers and Brew, located at 110 W 40th St, New York, NY 10018 joins Steven M. Elinson, AWS’ Head of Worldwide Restaurants and Food Services, for a broad-ranging discussion about his industry experience, continuous reinvention, and the upcoming launch of his latest restaurant concept. True to its name, Handcraft Burgers and Brew, opened November 30th, offering chef-driven burgers alongside a curated selection of micro-brew beer. Designed during the pandemic, the restaurant incorporates learnings and innovation to ensure a resilient operation.

Similar to large enterprise customers, such as McDonald’s and Deliveroo, no detail was left to chance. This unique interview offers a different perspective on how an owner/operator keenly selects technology to ensure the best customer experience in conjunction with an efficient operation.

This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity, and capacity for innovation. The AWS Travel & Hospitality resources page is filled with strategic observations, hints and tips, and it provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, thereby potentially serving as a useful resource for travel and hospitality companies addressing both current challenges and those yet to come.

Steven M. Elinson (SME): You have had a long career in the Restaurant industry and have experienced it from so many different perspectives. Can you please tell me more about your journey in the restaurant industry and the new Handcraft Burgers and Brew?

David “Rev” Ciancio (DRC): I always like to remind people that I’m a failed New York City bar owner. First, I was in the music industry working in artist management and V.I.P. ticketing. I woke up one day and I was like, I am done with musicians, and the experience was making me lose my love for music. I thought about the state of the music industry at the time, and, unlike an album, decided that you can’t download a cheeseburger or a bourbon. Also, unlike an album, if you really like it, you’ll buy it again and again. Over time, I realized that I have a skillset of being able to harness the internet for brand building, which is what I was doing for bands. I began helping independent restaurateurs, and I felt like it was really fun getting customers to like a cheeseburger on Twitter. So, I ended my music business and bought a bar in the East Village of New York City with some colleagues. Fast forward six years, and we lost the bar – sold it at a massive loss. I tell people I got my street MBA, in the fashion that some people pay the same price to get an accredited MBA. As we lost the bar, I received phone calls from other restaurant owners and operators asking me to help them with Yelp, Facebook, and in building email lists. In the moment, I realized I’m good at hospitality marketing, so I dedicated my career to it ever since. I’ve worked for a ground beef manufacturer that sold to restaurants, a couple of tech companies that sold solutions to restaurants, but I’ve always been on the side of, how can I help a restaurant to make more money? How can I help them with marketing for guest Handcraft Burgers and Brewsacquisition and guest retention? Handcraft Burgers & Brews came about as a result of all of this. For the last two years, I was assisting a team that owns Gastropubs. They called me and said, “We want to bring you in to oversee marketing, and give you a piece of the business.” I love hamburgers, and I am excited to flex my muscles and help create what I’m calling “digital hospitality”.

SME: How did the pandemic, and the innovations that you witnessed being born of it, evolve your vision of the customer experience that you desire to provide for your guests?

DRC: We’re going to surround the guest with digital hospitality. This is what I observed companies like Amazon, Uber, and the Hotel brands doing well during the pandemic. They each incorporated aspects of the customers’ digital journey into the overall experience. For me, as we’re opening our new restaurant, I don’t think that hospitality is something that just happens on premises. Hospitality also happens in a bag. It happens when you purchase through a 3rd-party delivery provider, when you leave a review on a website, or when you receive a text from a restaurant. I think the only part of the customer journey that actually happens IRL (in real life) is the eating – the rest of the journey at this point is all digital. When I tell somebody about a restaurant, what’s the first thing they do? They search online for it, look for reviews, view the hours of operation, seek out pictures, observe if the owner of the business replies to social media posts. I believe there are at least 10-15 digital touchpoints that happen before a guest has the dining experience. So, in designing our restaurant, we are taking a high-touch experience, and placing it into a Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) with a digital experience. We left out the traditional counter. You heard that right, there’s no counter. You do not walk up to somebody in our restaurant and place an order. You can use your phone or one of the three kiosks we have. We have a greeter who welcomes guests. They act as the air traffic controller directing guests and delivery providers to pick up orders, and in helping guests through the ordering process if they would like. The experience is almost entirely digital. The only offline part is actually eating the food. Thirty minutes later, you’ll get a text message from us asking how it was, and then a day later you’ll get a follow up email.

SME: I’m sure that during the visioning process, everyone around you offered “expert” advice. Where/who did you turn to when you needed trusted guidance? And what   advice really stood out to you that you would like to share?

DRC: There are a lot of really great hospitality tech solutions available in the market, such as Bbot, Bikky, Spendgo, Targetable, and Toast, to name a few. They know what they’re doing, they invented these great solutions, and I’m recommending them to my hospitality consulting clients as well. When I talk to someone like Abhinav Kapur, the founder of Bikky, and he tells me what he can do for guest retention, I’m like, that’s amazing, how can I play with this tool? I think restaurant operators look at technology and they go, I don’t have the budget for that, or I don’t want to do that, or that doesn’t fit my service model. I find it to be a very closed-minded, old-school way of thinking.

When somebody comes to me with a piece of technology or thought leadership, I don’t immediately dismiss it. I have the mindset of, okay, let me think about what I would do with this, and how this can help me. I look to the thought leaders and the founders of these really innovative hospitality marketing technologies. These are two words, “hospitality” and “marketing”, which haven’t gone very well together for a very long time. These leaders tell me they have built their platforms atop AWS, which not only makes it easy to exchange my data, but also ensures that their platforms are secure and elastic. This lets them charge me fair rates for the service I consume, and it provides me the knowledge that they can grow and expand as my business does. I love that there are people out there who are like this – those are the people you should listen to.

SME: The industry has become fragmented with food service choices (grocery, meal replacement, convenience stores, etc.) and channels (social, streaming, traditional, direct, etc.). How do you, as an experienced marketer, connect to the ideal consumer in the right channel, at the right time, and with the right message?

DRC: I believe that in 2021 and beyond there are really only four main channels for acquisition, and you have to be positioned to take advantage of them: 1) 3rd-party delivery services, such as GrubHub and Doordash. 2) Word of mouth – guests leaving reviews and the restaurant replying to them, and social media that you reply to, like, and re-share. 3) Search – people search for “food near me.” 66% of searches are unbranded. That means that people do not search for the name of the restaurant – they search for what they’re hungry for. So, you have to be optimized for local search. 4) Digital Advertising – you must be where the guest’s eyeballs are. It is economical and easy to target. Now, I’ve spent time and money on acquisition, and the final focus is on retention. As referenced above, I’m for any technology that lets a restaurant stay in communication with their guest, whether it’s replying on social, replying to reviews, sending them emails and text messages, or using a loyalty program or app. Anything that gets a guest into my universe so I can communicate with them.

SME: I’m fortunate to work globally, across all sub-segments of the industry, and with operators of all sizes. The large enterprise brands tell me that they don’t understand how small owner/operators navigate the technology required for a restaurant. How does your view differ from that of the large brands?

DRC: I think the franchise organizations can learn a lot from the independent owner operators. The massive brands have these huge marketing budgets that the Independents don’t have. But the Independents have agility – the ability to turn their ship on a dime that the massive organizations don’t. So, it’s fun to watch those two things play out. I think technology has made it so that you don’t need a massive budget. You definitely need a budget, but you don’t need a massive one.

SME: With your creative mind, I’m curious to learn what you think the industry will look like 18 months from now?

DRC: My hope for the restaurant business 18 months from now is that it has really embraced digital hospitality. That we no longer think of hospitality as something that only happens on premises. I’m hoping that the entire business embraces practicing digital hospitality before and after a guest dines with them.

SME: If you can separate yourself from your three businesses for a minute…Is there a dining destination somewhere in the world you have yet to visit that you can’t wait to get too – and why?

DRC: So, I do keep a restaurant bucket list. And there’s a place called the Meers Store & Restaurant, in Meers Oklahoma. I am a big fan of George Motz, who has a movie and a book called “Hamburger America.” He is like the Indiana Jones of hamburgers, and he finds all these crazy old school hamburger joints. He tells the story of the Meersburger. The cows are raised on a pasture behind the restaurant, then served fresh on a silver aluminum tray. It’s three hours from the nearest town. These are the kinds of journeys, destinations, and experiences I am after.

See more Executive Conversations and industry insights on the AWS Travel & Hospitality Blog.

David “Rev” Ciancio - headshotDavid “Rev” Ciancio serves as Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Handcraft Burgers and Brew. A serial entrepreneur and workaholic, he also serves as the Head of Revenue market for Branded Strategic Hospitality, and is the Founder and marketing consultant for Yeah! Management, a firm that he founded in 2010. He holds a Bachelor’s in Communications, Media Studies, Telecommunications and Sociology from Michigan State University.

Steven M. Elinson

Steven M. Elinson

Steven M. Elinson is the head of worldwide restaurants and food service, the global industry practice for Amazon Web Services (AWS), with a charter to support customers as they accelerate cloud adoption. As a trusted adviser, Steven uses his broad knowledge and 32 years of experience to drive guest experiences and to increase operational efficiency.