12 November 2010

Canlis Clues: The Menu Scavenger Hunt that Has Seattle in a Tizzy

I've only been to Canlis once. I grew up in Seattle, hearing about the legendary, low-slung restaurant overlooking Lake Union.

In the 80s, Canlis was untouchable: a luxurious place reserved for the uber-wealthy who dripped in diamonds. In the 90s, Canlis' excess seemed outrageous in the era of dirty combat boots and flannel. By the early aughts, I downright dismissed the notion of ever wanting to dine at Canlis. After all, it was a place for grandparents and outdated, out-of-town tourists.

But for some nagging reason, my curiosity was piqued. I'd driven over the Highway 99 bridge all these years, looking at Canlis, wondering what it was like inside. I'd entered the foodie scene in Seattle -- and, for some reason, its community was still talking about the staid restaurant. And well-timed Tweets from the restaurants' marketing team -- beautiful photographs of colorful, artful, modern dishes -- helped me realize my impression of Canlis may have been wrong.

So after 33 years, I finally asked to go to Canlis for my birthday last December. I figured I'd be let down. And, truthfully, I was.

Don't get me wrong -- the service, Canlis' hallmark -- was impeccable. The dining room was pretty, if as predictable.

But my expectations were simply so high.

I wished we'd been seated at a window table.

When I ordered a cocktail off the featured-drinks menu, the waiter explained that they were out of one of the ingredients. Isn't Canlis' staff supposed to scramble into its helicopter and hustle to locate items on guests' request list? I wished that they'd gone out of their way to fix this.

We both ordered fish entree; when they arrived, my salmon was tasty but the garnish -- a pea-sized dollop of potatoes -- made me chuckle. Honestly, I wished we had gone to Duke's Chowder House.

It was a nice treat -- a chance to finally witness what all the fuss was about. But, I didn't expect to be back.

So here we are, nearly a year later, and all I can think about is Canlis. Why? Because they're in the middle of one of the best marketing campaigns I've ever seen.

A few weeks ago, Canlis' third-generation of family ownership -- brothers Mark and Brian -- began a city-wide scavenger hunt that has me aflutter.

Each day, the restaurant posts a cryptic clue on the restaurant's Facebook page and Twitter feeds. The clue leads the finder to a spot somewhere in the city that hides a menu from 1950. The finder of the menu can then dine at Canlis for 1950's prices.

Why does the campaign work?

The chase: The contest plays on our culture's obsession with winning. It's why eBay is so wildly successful -- have you ever entered a bidding war on an item you don't even really want? You just wanted to win. On Wednesday, convinced I had solved the Canlis riddle, I drove in an adrenaline frenzy toward Greenlake, visibly shaking as I hunted the trees for the clue (I was wrong). As I write this post, I'm constantly flipping back to Canlis' Facebook page -- refreshing it constantly -- to see if they've posted today's clue. I just want one of those menus!

The price: We all love a good deal -- especially in a recession. I haven't yet seen a copy of Canlis' 1950 pricelist, but given our country's skyrocketing inflation rates, I'm sure it's a doozy. I imagine dining for a fraction of the cost. It's a smart move for Canlis, too: new customers get to sample Canlis' fare at an incredibly low price; they're bound to be wowed -- and return to pay full price. Thus Canlis establishes a new generation of customers.

The audience: By tapping in to social media -- the campaign is entirely run on Facebook and Twitter -- Canlis reaches out to a new target audience.  One that's young and hip. No longer is this your grandparents' restaurant.
The connection to the city: Canlis has done an impeccable job of positioning itself as impossibly local. Each clue ties in to a Seattle-area landmark, historical site, or beloved secret spot. Clues have been hidden at the Fremont Troll, Memorial Stadium, and the Arboretum, and local personalities including Starbucks' Howard Schultz and the Seattle Sounders' Sigi Schmid are getting in on the game.  By aligning themselves with the city, Canlis is (re)establishing itself as a hallmark of Seattle.

The community: When a new clue appears, the Canlis Facebook page's wall explodes with comments. It's fun to be on the hunt, working together to solve the clue. I love the threaded conversations -- friends exchanging theories and sending out a representative on the chase.

The fun: Canlis' campaign is a great escape from the daily doldrums. Every day around lunchtime, I open my Twitter feeds and Canlis' facebook page and wait. Refresh, refresh, refresh. Then scramble! Stop in the  middle of a project, grab the keys, and go! We joke, but I truly wonder how workers' productivity is impacted by this campaign? 

Excuse me, I've got to run. Canlis is about to post its next clue...


  1. We were taken to Canlis for special occasions beginning in the 60's (Dad & Peter Canlis had met and become friends in Hawaii years earlier). I've watched the place change over time, the kimono clad women are long gone, as are the complimentary after dinner cigarettes. The kitchen has pushed outward from a more simple menu of simply, but perfectly grilled steaks and seafood. Our tastes have changed and Canlis has evolved along with the rest of us. One thing that they have always strived for though, is a memorable experience built upon exquisite service and food that is always cooked and presented perfectly- right down to their famous ("you can eat all of me") baked potato. Peter is long gone, but he would be proud of the respectful treatment of his legacy.

  2. I've never dined there, but always wondered about it. Your points regarding the scavenger hunt are so spot on - brilliant marketing! Hope you find the 1950's menu!

  3. I'd say you have a lot of guts publishing a link to a mediocre review about Canlis on their Facebook page...

  4. as a follow up to my early (anonymous) post, I'd like to add; one night while dining at Canlis, we noticed Scoop Jackson at a nearby table. The Canlis staff continued to provide excellent service, providing equal attention to every patron. No extra fuss for Scoop, no less fuss over anyone else. What a class act!