Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen — How Restaurants will Covidform

When I moved to Seattle in 2006 to work at Microsoft Research, I was a stranger in a strange land. I knew nothing about the city (except what I had picked up from episodes of Frasier and Grey’s Anatomy). One of my first questions to my new team was “what’s the best restaurant in Seattle?” The unanimous answer was … “Canlis.”

What was interesting about the recommendation is that what everyone cited as “evidence of excellence” was not the food (which is amazing) or the wine list (which is award-winning and world-class) or the servers (who are legendary for remembering patrons’ names and the vintage of wine you had on your last visit). What everyone cited was the famous Canlis valet parking, where customers don’t get a ticket or number, but their cars always appear out front just as they are ready to leave.


Since then, I have been to Canlis many, many times with some incredible memories on both the business and personal front. It is truly one of the world’s great restaurants, and it sits inside an iconic mid-century modern building built in the 1950s to the specifications of Peter Canlis, the founder of Canlis. Today, the restaurant is run by the same family, led by Mark and Brian Canlis.

What is interesting about Canlis is that yes, the food is great. The wine list is extensive. The servers are attentive. But it’s the whole package that is magical. What Canlis has managed to do year after year, season after season, is master the art of hospitality. In fact, they were just named a 2020 James Beard award finalist for “Outstanding Hospitality.” And that’s why everyone always talked about the valet parking — it is a distinctive differentiator which is also hard evidence of the Canlis commitment to hospitality.

Fast forward to 2020. The Canlis core business was deeply impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. They could have closed. They could have waited it out. But they didn’t.

Canlis deeply understands that they are in the hospitality business, not the food business. So, they began to offer hospitality in a #PandemicTimes context. I talked to Mark Canlis earlier this week, and he said, “The mission statement of Canlis is to inspire people to turn toward each other. As an industry, we are resourceful, innovative and scrappy — we can simultaneously fix the bathroom, put out a fire, and create a beautiful dining experience — this is an exercise in creativity.”

What did that mean? It meant online Canlis Bingo nights, frequented by thousands of people. It meant Canlis Burger drive-through service, which created the only traffic jams in a pandemic Seattle. It meant farm-to-table ingredients in “Community Support Agriculture Boxes,” which enabled Canlis to share the ingredients that make their food so special with everyone. It meant live streaming of their piano from the dining room. And it meant bottle service from their storied cellar with the following call-to-action: “quarantined pre-prohibitionists, bartenders, and delivery drivers of the world unite! We’ll get through this, and raise a glass to the loved ones willing to live with us 24/7.”

Here’s why this has worked, and how it could work for you.

The genius of owners Brian and Mark Canlis is that they moved their analog experience — world-famous hospitality — to digital. And in the process they leveraged social media for massive amplification. Not by cranking out posts, but by making their product so innovative that other people HAD to talk about it. They then used their owned channels to amplify the words of others. They’re literally the talk of the town, and beyond. The buzz is so intense it hurts your ears. And even though I now live in New York City, I can’t wait to go back to Canlis, and I’m enjoying the live piano on YouTube with remarkable fondness as I write this.

They’re not simply packaging food for delivery which, let’s face it, grocery stores already do. Instead, they’ve completely re-imagined how to deliver hospitality outside of the dining room.

Marketers have long talked about digital transformation. The current pandemic has massively accelerated the digitization process, with years of transformation occurring in a matter of months. In particular, as we see in the case of Canlis, an all-consuming embrace of modern channels, including social media, messaging apps, review sites, blogs, and forums. If there was ever any doubt, it’s now clear that these modern channels are now the most strategic communication channels on the planet.

Now, instead of catering to a few hundred diners an evening, Canlis is engaging with thousands of people every day. Which raises an important question: how do they continue these conversations at scale, while still staying true to their core values? How do they create the “my car is magically waiting for me at the valet” experience for thousands of people? That’s where customer experience management comes in.

Modern customer experience platforms can provide a personal 1:1 experience, at scale. It’s what Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, calls “mass 1:1.” A unified customer experience, across multiple channels and touchpoints, can replicate the world-class hospitality that was previously reserved for an impeccably manicured maître d’. Customer experience is the new marketing. And therein lies the business case — Canlis is extending its brand and leveraging its equity from hundreds to thousands of people. CXM will help them maintain their existing brand standard.

Mark says, “We’re in a fortunate, privileged position to have what we have — we feel so thankful,” and in reference to the pandemic, “we’ve been given a gift of stillness, a gift of time, a gift of pause.” But most importantly, Mark understands that he has a sacred mission: “I’m getting addicted to seeing all the faces of the people and all the neighborhoods — I’m falling in love with the common sense of delivering a dinner in a box.”

I’ll always remember my in-person experiences at Canlis. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll enjoy some version of them again in the future. But whether that happens or not, the personalized, near-magical hospitality will continue.

Mark Canlis is excited about the future: “Is Canlis doing Canlis? You damn well bet it is!”

I’ll raise a glass to that.