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This Fishbowl Offers Market Exposure

Company markets customer loyalty for restaurants.

Ever wonder what happened to those business cards that were thrown into a large round glass bowl at the local restaurant? Was it just a gimmick to make customers feel important?

In many cases they ended up in the trash. Not because the restaurant wasn't interested in its customers, but rather because the task of sorting and developing an information database from those cards proved to be overwhelming.

That was before Scott Shaw and his Fishbowl concept entered the picture.

Headquartered at 1127 King St., Fishbowl characterizes itself as "a full-service eMarketing company that specializes in building guest loyalty for chain restaurants." Its clientele stretch from the Washington region to the southwestern United States.

"We took the concept of the business card fishbowl and we turbo-charged it," the company's founder and creative thinker, Scott Shaw, explained. "We empty out the fishbowls at various restaurant chains every week and put that information into a database."

Shaw struck upon the concept from his own experience in the restaurant business. As the chief operating officer and partner at the Austin Grill, Shaw tried to find a person or company that would build a database for him from the cards collected at his establishment.

"I tried to outsource this activity but couldn't find anyone to do it. That's when it dawned on me — this would be a good little business," he said.

In March 2000, this restaurateur, with 16 years of professional experience ranging from Amy's Ice Creams in Austin, Texas, to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, to the Austin Grill, entered the next generation loyalty marketing world.

"What makes Fishbowl different is that we concentrate on restaurants. We work with 65 chains, approximately 1,500 restaurants, and two million of their customers," Shaw said. "We just rolled out our new proposal at the National Restaurant Association convention to serve independent restaurants."

Fishbowl's proprietary technology platform consists of a sophisticated e-mail engine with analytical tools that allow for the delivery of large-scale electronic marking campaigns, according to its literature. Shaw likens it to a house with three floors.

"There is the program that identifies specialty dates in a customer's life such as a birthday or anniversary. Then there's the monthly communication with customers telling about special dishes or events at the restaurant. And finally, local store marketing — getting the word out," he said.

FISHBOWL'S TWO primary products are "Guest Loyalty" and "eMail Messaging." The first sends e-mails to an eatery's list members on those special occasions. It is proactive and designed to build what its name states, guest loyalty.

E-mail messaging creates customized and reusable ePostcard and eNewsletter templates that make up the establishment's message bank. These can be quickly updated with news, offers and events and broadcast to all or a portion of a restaurant's list.

Fishbowl's menu of services encompasses the following:

* E-marketing strategy and program development,

* List building and data entry,

* Database development and hosting,

* Message development and scheduling,

* E-mail broadcasting, and

* Program tracking and reporting.

One service exclusively offered by Fishbowl, according to Shaw, is a "coupon security program. It prevents the fraudulent use of coupons distributed by the restaurant for promotional purposes. No other organization has perfected this."

Shaw insists, "People will react favorably to a good program." The proof of that statement is found in the fact that in just over three years, Fishbowl has grown to a firm of 17 employees based here and in Florida. And it has been retained by restaurants ranging from multi-unit, quick-service types to casual and fine dining establishments.

RECENTLY JOINING the firm as vice president of national accounts is Karen Willison, winner of the 2003 Marketing Strategist of the Year Award by Restaurant Business and the 1992 Woman of Distinction Award by the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice. Prior to joining Fishbowl, Willison was president of LSM Solutions Network, a restaurant marketing consulting firm.

"E-mail marketing is one of the fastest growing Internet and marketing applications today, and Fishbowl is a market leader," she said. "Its customer-friendly delivery combined with its flexible platform makes Fishbowl Guest Loyalty an ideal solution for restaurants looking for a simple, cost-effective branding and customer relationship development tool."

That analysis was borne out by some of Fishbowl's clients. Julie Kastrati, marketing manager, The Palm Restaurant in the District of Columbia, noted, "Fishbowl's services are the optimal approach for us. It is less expensive, flexible, and full service, so we don't require additional staff to manage it."

On the national scale, Neil Culbertson, vice president, marketing, Red Robin International, a casual dining chain specializing in "gourmet burgers," attests that Fishbowl "is a fast and efficient way to communicate with our guests on an ongoing basis. It allows us to interact with them more often and in a more personalized fashion. They're an integral part of our overall marketing mix."

As Shaw put it, "We help restaurants cost-effectively identify their best customers, communicate with them regularly, and motivate them to come back more often. Our programs build guest loyalty and, therefore, generate incremental revenue."

That incremental revenue is well-founded in Shaw's own personal experience. "I have actually been in the restaurant business all my life," he said. "When I was in high school in Miami, I had a hot dog stand. Then in college I switched over to a popcorn stand."

In Austin, Texas, he co-founded Amy's Ice Cream with Amy Miller and Rob Wilder. The latter then co-founded the Austin Grill restaurants with Shaw. That brought him to Alexandria in the early 1990s.

"I met my wife here at Alexandria's July 5 party at Jones Point Park," he said. He and Camille now have two girls, 3 and 6.

Not one to let any of life's experiences go to waste, Shaw has also authored a book titled "Let's Elope." Now in its second printing by Random House Publishers, it covers the gamut of why to elope, how to elope, and the costs of eloping.

Shaw also attributes his success to an investor network in Alexandria that supports promising enterprises. "It sure helped us weather the dot-com storm," he said. "We are profitable. That's why we are alive."