Black Tap and the Experience Illusion

"Black Tap and the Experience Illusion"

So aside from the film industry, I am in the business of creating positive guest experiences through hospitable Storytelling. At the Biltmore Hotel in Miami, Florida, we create experiences that are so impactful, the guest is compelled to share their story with someone else via word of mouth or social media. Retrieving these positive stories is only possible through our commitment to serve with deep empathy and passion. The Biltmore has an outstanding product that demands outstanding service, else that product would be devalued. The stories we create are only as good as our service. If a guest reads a great story about our Fontana restaurant, decides to try it out, but receives terrible service, the experience is disparaged. Experts say we are living in an "Experience Economy", where experiences outweigh mere services and goods; but after what I witnessed last weekend, I believe we are moving towards a "Social-Experience Economy", where the digital experience is more profound than the live one. However, does this make the experience worth paying for?

Black Tap
Last weekend I was in New York City with my family. My sister had been psyched to try this place called Black Tap Craft Burgers and Shakes (+Black Tapever since she started following them on Instagram and saw them on Buzzfeed. They had been posting pictures of their food for a while and have become known for their gourmet burgers and decorative milk shakes. Even the Weeknd showed up... but not during our weekend. Sorry. His name... I had to.

The Weeknd enjoying his Cookie Shake +Black Tap 
Their social marketing campaign proved successful the moment we arrived. If we wanted a much-desired seat in this SOHO sweet spot, we'd have to wait in a two-and-a-half hour line just to get in. Two-and-a-half-hours, folks. As my wife's students would ask #isthisreallife?

Five of us, plus my two-year-old daughter, committed to this line. Anyone who attempts this with a two-year-old should check themselves into a mental hospital. Luckily, we have the coolest daughter on the planet and she held up for that long. So many times we contemplated just skipping the line, but something about the experience compelled us to stay (blame those Instagram filters). We wanted to try those decorative milkshakes, we stared at and discussed Black Tap's social media pages) and the closer we were the more the anticipation grew. (My wife would like me to point out that she was highly-absolutely-positively against this line from the beginning and even suggested other restaurants.) But the rest of us knew that the great reviews, the amazing pictures, and the long lines couldn't be wrong about this place.

Finally our time came, just under the two hour mark (how cool were we)! We were escorted into the pub and seated at the bar. They had hooks for our bags and outlets to charge our phones. There was a full bar with local craft beers. Amazing right? With our stomachs grumbling, our two-year-old breathing a sigh of relief to finally get to color, and our phones plugged in to ensure enough battery life to socially document every detail, we perused the menu and prepared to order. With all of the hype about this place we assumed the service was going to be top notch, but to our surprise, the service was mediocre and disorganized. It took us another 15 minutes just to order after waiting so long. My wife asked the waitress if she liked a certain burger and she just shook her head and said in a non-caring voice, "I don't know, I haven't had it." It was clear that, in order to keep up with the high demand, the company sacrificed service, the most important part of the experience. 

All the food needed to be ordered at the same time (drink, apps, meal, and shake) so the server would only need to touch the table once in order to move on to the next batch of suckers-- I mean customers. In my case this meant that they brought out my beer, appetizer, entree, and gourmet shake all at the same time. You had guests having to choose to enjoy their delicious craft beer or eat their meal, or dive into their milkshake before it all melted away because of the restaurant's lack of organization. I mean, it was all over the place. When my wife caught sight of the on-coming milkshake (which was making its way to us before our burger salads), she quickly asked our waitress if the milkshake could wait. After all, if a toddler catches sight of a gigantic ice-cream sculpture oozing with chocolate chips, how much of her dinner do you think she'll have? That's right: none. Plus add that to the tantrum thrown when said mountain of ice-cream is placed before her and we enforce that she should finish her meat patty. Yeah, as my wife would say, "hell no." Luckily, the young woman making the shakes caught sight of our anxious faces and held off on the shake (she later confided in us that she did this because she, too, is a parent).  

Finally, the big moment came: Black Tap Shake Time. After the ooh's and aah's of our dessert's entrance, I quickly realized the shake was mostly whipped cream and chocolate syrup. The straw was too short to start drinking it because the whipped cream was overflowing. I tried taking a sip at first and got smothered by the white foam. I started digging through this sugary mountain just so I could taste the shake. It had an ice cream sandwich stuck on the glass which was nice to toss in the shake, but then I lost all of the whipped cream in the after splash. The chocolate chip cookie was good... my daughter certainly liked it... but was it worth the two-hour wait and bad service? Besides, trying to drink this thing was ridiculous and we could have saved two hours by just ordering the shake to go and avoiding the $15 worth of  decorative glass.

The burgers were good, but not worth the wait. The space was poorly utilized as most of their downstairs tables were open (possible hype-tactic?). The company clearly did not know how to function with large volumes. The experience was downgraded to meet the high demand rather than upgraded to keep customers coming back.

So many people were snapping photos of their food and posting them online, including my party. I asked my brother about his experience and he said that his burger was delicious, but he would never come back. This was a one time thing. He tried to justify the bad service however, saying that my expectations were too high for just a bar. Maybe he is right but in my experience, it's the service that changes the game from "one-time-thing" to loyal customer. 

It's amazing how much money people spend on the illusion of an experience. They see others post photos of these shakes and make the decision that they are worth standing in line for because participating in the online experience with others is attractive. To my disappointment, they were just shakes. In the experience economy, the consumer's experience is all that matters. Within the social-experience economy, however, it is about the illusion, something that acts as a social media status changer. The illusion experience makes the food taste better because your mind believes it has to be this good. The experience of posting it online and sharing it with celebrities like the Weeknd is what satisfies the consumer more than the actual product and service does. And to contribute to the social-experience economy, I've had more satisfaction writing this blog than actually eating at Black Tap. They got me. The big question is what will happen to the service industry if consumers only care about the illusion more than the live experience? Will the stories about the illusion become more impactful than the stories of genuine service? Instagram and Snapchat may have proven they have.

In case I wasn't clear, Black Tap is not worth the wait... but if you wanna chance it and participate in the social-experience it provides then be sure to grab a slice of pizza while you are in line and remember to not bring a toddler!

P.S. Miami Locals will enjoy Spring Chicken much more than Black Tap with no wait, tastier food, and decent shakes! 
If you are a carnivore and are looking for a good burger joint, check out my buddies blog!

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