When Houlihan’s launched its “small plates” menu in September 2009, what was supposed to be a hip selling point — tapas-style American classics at recession-friendly prices — turned out relatively tasteless. Customers complained that the white-bean hummus and pita was “thick and spongy,” the flatbread pizza unpalatably “chewy.” Some were even left hungry because seemingly “inattentive” and “distracted” servers thought all of the appetizers were supposed to be delivered together in one batch like a traditional three-course meal, instead of trickling out of the kitchen as they were ordered.
But these reviews weren’t your typical Internet-fueled vitriol. Houlihan’s had courted it. Last summer, it created its own social-networking site, HQ, an invite-only “brand community” of 10,500 “Houlifans” to serve as a virtual comment card. Customers appended that a-little-too-cute prefix to all things Houli-, and they’ve helped the formerly stodgy Irish pub rebrand itself as a contemporary suburban lounge-style hangout.