For most small business owners, it all starts with an idea. That was the case for Mark Armantrout. Three years ago, he joined with his friend, Paul Fehribach, to open a restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. That restaurant, called Big Jones, would serve sustainable, organic, and local farm ingredients, through a menu focused on coastal Southern cooking.

Like any big city, Chicago is filled with many restaurants, of all sizes. So it’s a testament to Mark and Paul’s hard work (and good food) that today, Big Jones is going strong, attracting diners from the north side of Chicago and the north shore suburbs. We caught up with Mark to discuss how Big Jones has been able to connect with these customers and to spread the word to even more diners.

When did you open Big Jones?
Paul and I opened Big Jones, our first restaurant, in 2008. Paul had a long history in the restaurant industry, but this was the first restaurant we opened and owned. He is our executive chef.

How many employees do you have now?

As a small business, what advantage do you have over your larger competitors?
We’re able to establish a closer relationship with our customers because our emails and social media connections are coming directly from the owners, rather than from someone in a big PR department.

How have you been able to build relationships with customers?
We decided soon after opening that we wanted to be able to tell our story, in our words, without a filter. We went looking for a low-cost method for keeping in touch with our customers so we could inform them about specials, events, and menu changes particularly since we change our dining and cocktail menus on a regular basis. Email marketing was the solution we chose.

You now have a very impressive email marketing list. What methods do you use to keep it strong?
Our primary method for building our email list has been a simple “VIP” card that we have in the pocket of our check presenter, which guests can fill out after their meal. We have also collected some email addresses through a sign-up form on our web site, using the easy-to-use HTML code available from Constant Contact’s web site.

You also have a solid presence on Facebook. What’s the benefit to being active on this social media network?
Facebook is a great avenue for sharing pictures of new menu items, specials, and events. Also, whenever we post a new item on our blog, we share it with all the fans on our Facebook Page. Facebook is a good interactive medium for communicating with our customers. A few months ago we ran a ‘contest’ with our Facebook Page fans to highlight a new dessert item. We invited our fans to try to guess the flavors in it and offered a chef’s prize to the first person who guessed it correctly. In one evening on Facebook we had dozens of our customers actively engaged with us in a fun interaction and got lots of attention for the new dessert!

How do you integrate your social media activity with your use of Constant Contact?
We are very active users of Twitter (@bigjones) and Facebook, and have an active blog on our website. All of our Constant Contact emails have links to our Twitter, Facebook, and blog channels. Constant Contact’s click-through data lets us see how many people visit these channels as a result of our emails. I’m sure there’s more we could be doing — there is always something new to learn about social media.

Come back tomorrow to learn about another small business that’s making a big impact!