Big Papa's BBQ uses Facebook and Twitter to sell ribs

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If a truck pulling a large barbecue smoker pulls up next to you on the street, you might be in for some free food. As part of its new social media campaign, Big Papa's BBQ will be sending a mobile emissary to several locations around town, where it will dish out complimentary ribs and beans.

Of course, if you followed Big Papa's on Twitter or "liked" it on Facebook, you would already know the exact spot to go for free grub.

The barbecue joint that won our Best of Denver 2005 award for ribs is trying to strengthen its brand with the help of Xylem, a local social-media expert.

The campaign got its start when Scott Snyder, chief strategy officer at Xylem, gave a presentation to a panel of Denver businesspeople outlining how corporate America is using social media. Amy Cosper, editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Magazine, approached Snyder with the idea of using a local business as a case study to improve business through social media -- with a budget of exactly zero.

"The whole idea was that everyone is talking about likes and friends, but the question is, 'Is social media selling anything?'" asks Snyder. "We're out to show we can make social media work in terms of creating a brand experience and, more important, driving consumers to act on their relationship with that brand."

For Big Papa's Xylum came up with a four-part plan to see if Twitter (@BigPapa'sBBQ) and Facebook can sell more ribs. The campaign launched last Wednesday, when Frank Alfonso, aka Big Papa, tweeted that he and his $25,000 smoker full of ribs would soon be in front of the Westword offices (the location was obviously chosen for the extreme density of high-class individuals in the area).

Snyder says you can expect a few more of these pop-ups around town over the next couple of months. To prove that its ribs are still the best, Big Papa's will also give free samples to anyone who shows up at one of its three locations and proclaims that they're there for the "Baby Back Throwdown."

The first forty barbecue lovers who sign up for the restaurant's e-mail list will be invited to attend a barbecue and New Belgium beer dinner, where they can talk barbecue with Big Papa himself. The final part of the social media blitz is a drawing for a dinner and Q&A session hosted by Alfonso. You can also enter to win on Big Papa's Facebook page.

Like many others, Alfonso came to Colorado back in 1983 to be a ski bum for one year -- and never left. He'd grown up on Southern barbecue in Florida and after working in restaurants for years, decided to start one of his own with his friend, entrepreneur Bill Cossoff.

"Growing up in Florida, barbecue is in your DNA," explains Alfonso. "We thought barbecue was very under-served in Denver."

The two traveled the country researching the best barbecue recipes and searching for the ideal location for their first restaurant. They settled on 6265 East Evans Avenue, just off the corner of Evans and Monaco. Locations at 12652 West Ken Caryl Avenue in Littleton and 5151 South Federal Boulevard in Littleton soon followed.

Before its social-media makeover, the restaurant had only a website and a rudimentary Facebook page. This campaign will last sixty days, with Xylum in the driver's seat for the first thirty -- sending out tweets, updating the Facebook page, etc. -- and then on the 31st day, the bosses at Big Papa's will take the reins.

"It's a whole new language for us," admits Cossoff. "We're a little anxious, but excited about it. The way you really learn something is when you have to do it, and we want to learn as much as we can in the first thirty days. The key will be on the 61st day, when we're supposed to be in charge of it. And I think we can do it."

Entrepreneur Magazine will chronicle the progress and the project even has its own Twitter hash-tag (#socialsauce).

"We're helping Big Papa's, and the readers of the magazine can follow along and take it back to their business," says Snyder. "But the local story is Big Papa's, a great barbecue place that people don't know is around. They have three locations, but if you listen to social media, it doesn't come up."

The second pop-up at the University of Denver's hockey game on Saturday drew a good crowd, with plenty lured to the truck by the Facebook and Twitter blasts.

"Our goal is to expose our brand to a whole new demo and connect with the foodie community," says Cossoff. "I think there are a lot of foodies out there who want to know more about barbecue. As a business, we want to see it affect our top line and see some new people come through the door. We're going to be popping up all over town, so keep an eye out for us."

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