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The Schoolhouse Restaurant's Email Snafu: How One Mistake Created a Social Network in Less Than an Hour

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Small business owners, take note: If you've ever sent out a blind email blitz announcing something--a new service, a special event--and have been on the receiving end of notes from infuriated recipients who believe that they've received your email by mistake and feel that their privacy has been violated, it may just work out in your favor.

The Schoolhouse Restaurant in Cannondale, Connecticut is one of those sweet, bucolic little places that serves local, seasonal food prepared by its light-handed and talented chef/owner, Tim LaBant. Not inexpensive by any means, the place is generally filled with locals celebrating a special occasion, and in the summer, the well-heeled crowd spills out onto a patio overlooking the Norwalk River and sips rose.

It's all very lovely and civilized.

But yesterday afternoon, those well-heeled and civilized patrons of The Schoolhouse were irate: the restaurant had sent out an email blast to its client list, announcing a special Father's Day brunch. It was a harmless, innocuous note:

Please join us at the Schoolhouse Restaurant in Cannondale for brunch on Father's Day, Sunday, June 20th. Out patio will be open, weather permitting. We will be open from 9:00AM to 3:00PM. Brunch is priced at $35.00 per adult and $25.00 for children. Reservations can be made by calling 1-203-834-9816, or via OpenTable.com . Have a great Father's Day weekend.

Seconds later, one recipient sent a short reply:

Kindly remove me from your mailing list.

A few moments later, another recipient sent a similar note:

Kindly remove me from your mailing list as well.

Seconds after that, another patron sent this note:

If you want to be removed from this mailing list, please contact Tim LaBant directly instead of cc'ing everyone on this note.

But then she went on,

Tim - You always have the freshest, best ingredients, and incredibly innovative combinations. Keep me ON the mailing list!! Thanks!

Of course, her reply went out to everyone on the original list, all hell broke loose, and people started to shout at each other in a decidedly Facebookian manner.

One furious recipient didn't know who or what The Schoolhouse was, and she wanted her name removed from the list. The only problem, of course, was that she, too, hit REPLY ALL. Another recipient was waiting for email information regarding a funeral, and was spitting mad. Within minutes, other recipients began to chatter back and forth, with each other, with requests:

"This is a riot! Please KEEP ME on the list!"

and

"Lighten up! Accidents happen, no one was hurt take a breath, delete the emails and go one with your day!"

Every shrieker was countered by another highly amused recipient who, it seemed, was goaded on by the ridiculous ravings of what had become an angry e-mob. If you read the entire email string, you'd swear it was the commentary following an Ann Coulter column.

But somewhere along the line, the screeching shifted:

My phone is buzzing every 2 seconds. Never heard of the restaurant but thanks to all these email echanges I think I'll try it.

and

This is hysterical... Tim, thanks for the day's entertainment in starting this "chain letter," and keep on cooking!! See you at your great restaurant soon!

and

Let's turn this into our own social network! Anyone who replied all, saw the humor and occassionally had a good laugh gets to join....We can even have a reunion at the restaurant every June 2nd.

and

Okay, now I'm in if it includes dinner at the restaurant....

and

Tim's food is delicious! And it seems that he is also an internet marketing genius who created his own social network..."

Tim LaBant sent out a note of profound apology; but by the time the exchange was over, hundreds of people had learned that a small restaurant in a small town in southwestern Connecticut had legions of dedicated fans, and that those fans were banding together to not only protect the establishment's good name and reputation, but also to give it one very loud shout-out. One result was likely a clogged reservations line; another was a bunch of like-minded strangers coming together in defense of a community business, and they now want to have dinner together.

So what is the crux, then, of viral networking? Does it always have to be planned, and mapped? Is its success based purely on human nature? Does it assume that, thrown together into a (metaphysical, digital) ring, people will fight it out to the finish to make a point that They're Right and the others are Wrong, and that if if the battle occurs at the right place and the right time, it's invaluable?

Who knows. All I do know is that had Tim LaBant planned and hired out the sort of marketing blitz that resulted in dozens of new customers coming to his restaurant, it would have cost him a small fortune.

Email mistakes do happen; in this case, it was worth its weight in gold.