February 7, 2023 Featured Spotlight

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

How this smoked meat platform ignites digital business. 

Shawn P. Walchef (@shawnpwalchef) is the founder of Cali BBQ Media, a podcast host, a business coach, and a proud dad. Since opening Cali BBQ in 2008, his family-run restaurant and media company in San Diego has generated more than $30 million in sales. As part of the DRA’s mission to share educational resources and technology solutions for restaurants to thrive in the digital world, Shawn sat down with the DRA to talk about how digital technology fuels his restaurant growth.

As a restaurateur who opened during an economically volatile market, Shawn Walchef learned to use digital tools and big ideas to stay in business. During the pandemic, Shawn developed a scalable plan that is three times more profitable than the traditional full-service restaurant model. Now, Shawn’s Cali BBQ Media team has grown to 45 employees, and he is guiding other restaurant operators and companies to access digital tools and social media strategies that will unlock endless opportunities for them and their brands.

Shawn first entered the restaurant business at the age of thirteen as a dishwasher in the restaurant that he now owns. But getting where he is today wasn’t easy. “I hated the restaurant business,” he admits, “but what I came to understand later in my career was that I love hospitality, I love creating memorable moments through food and beverage, and I love stories.”

Later, when Shawn took over and started managing the business, many skeptics doubted his likelihood of success. He opened a new location in 2008, at the height of the economic recession. “People told us we were crazy when we opened. They told us that we were crazy for doing BBQ. And they told us we were crazy for becoming a media business.” 

But ultimately, Shawn’s restaurant not only survived, but grew thanks to his embrace of “digital hospitality,” or critical investments in virtual customer experience platforms. Now, digital tools are integral to all that they do. Shawn’s tech stack includes tools like Marquii, Ovation, and Toast. Marquii helps Cali BBQ Media with 82 different listing sites––from Yelp to TripAdvisor to Google to Apple Maps––updating listing information to ensure that it is consistent across the web. Ovation helps them with streamlined customer experience via text messaging. Toast enables online ordering, bringing the point of sale directly to consumers’ pockets.

Shawn is also an avid proponent of “digital hospitality,” which is when businesses invest in virtual customer experience platforms. “Just because you’re removing a server, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t hospitality,” he said. In today’s environment, generating omnichannel reach creates real presence and real business. That’s why Shawn argues that “your digital real estate is more important than your location, location, location!” Today, most customers first interface with brands online. “Just Google us,” Shawn continued, “what you find will reveal all you need to know about why we believe in the internet––that’s our village.”

He emphasized that, “Every restaurant needs to be digital first.” Just as we understand at the DRA, digital tools equip owners with powerful resources. Shawn pointed out that “the smartphone is where content, commerce and communication intersect.” But unfortunately, many businesses still do not understand the power of their devices. Shawn’s mobile applications directly support his backend business management by enabling him to: monitor his restaurant remotely, manage the temperature of his smokers, download real time labor reports, view inventory updates, and gather real-time sales data. But it all boils down to this: technology helps Shawn get more BBQ to more people.

Now, Shawn’s mission is to help other small business owners understand the power of digital storytelling since “we are all in the storytelling business.” This means that the better that entrepreneurs are at telling their stories online, the more opportunities that they will have to grow their business. That’s why Shawn hosts two weekly video podcast series––Digital Hospitality and Restaurant Influencers––to spread the reach of his story. And podcasts are just the beginning. Shawn is building a media empire that includes content creation, consulting, and other digital services that help businesses with “smartphone storytelling.” That is, as Shawn puts it––“when we use that thing we all take for granted in our pockets to tell stories across online platforms.” Shawn’s smartphone storytelling strategies have led to Cali BBQ Media being featured on Amazon Prime TV, Bloomberg TV, Entrepreneur, Inc, Eater, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News and many other local and national media outlets. 

Shawn says that the biggest threat that small business owners face today is “nostalgia.” “Business will not go back to the way it was,” he pronounced. If companies just look around, they will see that the internet is everywhere, and in everything that people do. So, why wouldn’t a restaurant integrate online tools for their business? But fortunately, just as the internet is everywhere, incredible digital solutions are everywhere too. Restaurants just need to take advantage.

To restaurants who don’t feel equipped to go digital, Shawn says “Adapting takes courage and nobody wants to be stupid, but technology gives people back what they value most––time.” We asked Shawn what he wished he had known when first starting off with his business. He said, “the leaders behind hospitality tech are accessible. No business is too small or too unique to find a digital solution… You are not alone, but you have to get loud about your problem.” 

Be sure to check out some of the technology solutions included in this article at, and don’t forget to Join Us Today!