Why people crave an authentic historical experience in restaurants

History Smiths

If you’re like me, you are sick to death of the “malling,” “chain storing,” and homogenization of America. Especially when I visit a historic town, I want to soak in the whole experience. I want a hotel, B&B, and restaurants that embrace their local history. I want a charming downtown that gives me a real sense of place, historic sites and museums to visit, preserved places to walk — and all of it easy to find through signs, a brochure, and friendly people. What I do not want is to visit a historic town whose businesses are out of touch with their local history. I don’t get it. If someone has gone to the trouble of opening a business in a historic town, why ignore it? I think about the Union Oyster House, located in one of Boston’s most historical neighborhoods, which is the ultimate historical dining experience. Everything about the place — from the historical building, to the placemats, menu, and interior design — screams “Boston history.” It’s a joy! They have clearly thought through every customer “touch point” and made sure their customers “touch” Boston history. They are also in touch with and proud of their own history as America’s oldest restaurant. So they take full advantage of both — their own history, and Boston history. Brilliant!

Why would you eat at a national chain restaurant in Boston when you can have this kind of authentic experience?

Conversely, I happen to live in another screamingly historical town — Salem, Massachusetts — and I eat out a fair amount. As a historian, I notice when restaurants embrace our local history and when they don’t. As a marketer, I don’t get it when they don’t. As a cultural tourism professional, I really don’t get it when they don’t! I can think of one restaurant in particular that is located on Salem’s historic waterfront. This place has the best food and service in town and a fabulous location, but they could be situated in any port town on either coast. There is nothing about their branding, marketing materials, interior design, or other “touch points” that tells customers they are in Salem. What a waste! Thousands of people visit Salem each year because of its history. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 is one draw, Salem’s history as a maritime powerhouse in the eighteenth century is the other. (True story: At one time, Salem merchants financed 10% of the entire national budget!) No, not every restaurant should turn into a witch-themed place, but if I owned a restaurant on Salem’s waterfront I would sure as heck incorporate Salem’s maritime history into my corporate culture.

I would do a “history audit” of my restaurant, looking at branding, marketing, interior design, and customer touch points to identify places where I could incorporate maritime history.

I would work with a local historian who could give me authentic information (as a restaurateur, I would admit that this is not my area of expertise). I would host or sponsor talks and book signings on maritime history in my function room. I would seek out opportunities to sponsor maritime history events. For example, a few years ago in Salem we held a huge community celebration on the 200th anniversary of native son Nathaniel Bowditch’s book The American Practical Navigator. Even today, every Navy and Coast Guard vessel carries this book, which transformed maritime navigation. For the event, we had Navy and Coast Guard vessels and officials, political dignitaries, talks, displays, a student essay contest — you name it. We had dozens of businesses and community groups involved in planning the event, AND we marketed the heck out of it. Thousands and thousands of people attended the event or saw our marketing materials. What a perfect opportunity for a Salem waterfront restaurant, which specializes in seafood, to jump on board and for pretty short money derive enormous community good will, meaning, residential customers, and gain national exposure to still more potential customers.

There are so many ways restaurants can embrace their local history, and I am 100% convinced that their bottom line is positively affected when they do. Ask the Union Oyster House!