200-seat cake and café eatery thrives on word-of-mouth

Potter burst into our meeting babbling: “Hey… they were all dressed like Greek goddesses and they’ve never advertised!” He had our attention and not long after the three of us decided to make a surreptitious visit.

Melissa (Greek for honey pot) thrives in the middle of suburbia and the first thing that strikes you is that it’s big.

We see a contemporary style black, yellow and orange establishment in a large car park that’s overflowing with cars. The building stands out because it is set back from the road on a large treed block, a business sweet spot surrounded by houses.

The Melissa Cakes Café Bar is the story of a successful second generation growing Greek family business which, including franchises formerly managed by the family, employs more than 200.

The place Potter discovered is the biggest venture and the biggest risk for owners George and Effie Katsakis with their previous cake and coffee shops seating 40 and then 80.

The new restaurant seats 200 and at a time when social media is reshaping business and challenging retailers a success story that does not advertise or have a web presence intrigued us.

Could old word-of-mouth grapevines still trump social media marketing?

The restaurant began to take shape in George’s mind four years ago, sparked by the sight of vacant premises, the remnants of a failed food outlet, while driving home.

A pastry chef by training, George took out a loan, signed the lease then sketched and project managed a massive redesign of the building.

As they headed towards opening day the couple worried about paying their home mortgage.

Against George’s wishes Effie quit her office management job to help run the new restaurant and during the opening week they ran a couple of ads in the local Greek newspaper – a detail that Potter overlooked.

Within days because of the Melissa reputation in the Greek community it was packed out. From day one the cars attracted the attention of hundreds of people who drove past and the quality of the food and service guaranteed repeat business. Four years later parked cars remains their best and only advert.

As we returned to our office, Megan, not overly impressed by Potter’s discovery, mentioned that Melissa rated just 62% on Urban Spoon with lots of negative reviews.

Potter shot back that Urban Spoon could well be called Demented Prune and recounted dozens of disappointments among his friends who ate at places with high Spoon ratings.

Anyone at all can heap bouquets and briquettes, likes and dislikes on the Spoon, including competitors with a take-no-enemies mentality. George and Effie were sure local competitors had attacked Melissa via the Spoon.

Old and new grapevines make good wine but will the new high-tech vines snare, entangle and strangle the old ones? We concluded that the answer depends on whether your shopfront is bricks or clicks or both.

Melissa’s success shows that word of mouth still works for quality bricks and that very happy customers are the best advertisements – just likes, tweets and other clicks are the natural word of mouth for companies with virtual shopfronts.

And despite vast differences of speed, scale and impact similarities remain between old and new grapevines – they both emanate from customers and sometimes competitors, they influence your reputation and can be difficult to control.

They require proactive strategies that start with satisfaction dipsticks that you can control. An iPad next to your cash register!

Unlike word of mouth, social media requires proactive tracking, twittering and blogging. Without those your customers can end up shaping your reputation online faster than the speed of sound (1,236 kilometres per hour, if you’re wondering).)

With proactive strategies savvy businesses can still, as has been done for decades, turn bad customer experiences into marketing magic.


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