CHICAGO — When Tony Bosco saw mostly negative reviews about the restaurant Wow Bao, he tweeted: "Going to 'business' dinner (at)Wow Bao. Can any1 tell me if it's going to suck as much reviews suggest."
And almost immediately he got a response from an unexpected source — BaoMouth, the official Twitter feed of Wow Bao, an upscale fast food place in Chicago. The restaurant offered him a coupon to find out for himself, on the house.
Wow Bao sent Bosco two $15 gift cards via an iPhone app, and Bosco went the next night, posting pictures of the food on Twitter.
"I would say it made it a little more exciting," said Bosco, 34. "That immediate interaction."
Conversations about food that once only happened between friends are now public thanks to the Internet. And the microblogging site Twitter has only sped up the conversation. Whether it's reviews before the meal or the service afterward, opinions are voiced freely — and restaurants are taking notice.
Many eateries have been tweeting about specials or other events for a while. But recently restaurants — locals and chains — have started Twitter conversations with customers. Chains like Chipotle and Pei Wei even have full-time social media employees.
Previously corporate-sounding restaurant Twitter feeds now are filled with streams of replies directly to diners, in some cases performing nearly instantaneous customer service.
Geoff Alexander, managing partner of Wow Bao, explained his company's Twitter commitment like this: If somebody has 1,000 followers and writes a negative tweet about Wow Bao, then 1,000 people could think the restaurant is bad. But if Wow Bao publicly responds to that tweet, 1,000 people may see the issue is being handled.
"We created this entity to talk to people," Alexander said. "BaoMouth can do whatever it takes to enhance the guest's experience."
Chipotle, based in Denver, Colo., also has responded to customer problems through Twitter, even though the chain has about 1,000 locations across 50 cities. Their entire feed, ChipotleTweets, is a list of answers to consumer questions and responses to problems.
Dennis Yslas tweeted in a Fort Worth, Texas, Chipotle about a lack of corn tortillas. Less than 2 minutes later, the company replied to Yslas, a 47-year-old actor. The corporate office called the local manager about the tortilla situation even before Yslas had left the restaurant, Yslas said.
"I was kind of frustrated that they didn't have them," said Yslas. "But Chipotle was totally, totally ready to cover me."
Chris Arnold, one of the several people who tweet for Chipotle, said the volume of tweets is the greatest challenge for such a big chain. Not only do they have an employee dedicated to social media, a slew of customer service representatives also tweet and use Facebook part-time.
"It's time and resources very well spent," Arnold said. "You can either pretend that (the conversation) isn't happening or decide not to be part of it. To us, it just really makes sense to use those as tools."
Graham Elliot, a judge on Fox's reality television competition "MasterChef" and owner of the Graham Elliot restaurant in Chicago, is known to — in his words — "publicly humiliate" customers who complain about the restaurant online.
But if he thinks the complaint is genuine, Elliot said he will send a private message or call to invite the customer to try the restaurant again.
"It's great to have this wall torn down," Elliot said. "Most of the time, people just want to be heard."
Elliot writes all of the GrahamElliot tweets himself. Like other restaurants, Elliot wants his Twitter voice to be in line with the brand, which in his case means "an individualistic approach to cooking," he said.
So he frequently tweets his opinions about topics other than his restaurant or cooking, from current events to fantasy football picks. Elliot even uses Twitter to let his followers make decisions about the music the restaurant plays.
"It's the democratization of fine dining," he said.