Even though Phil Battista began his real estate career at age 40, he started out doing things old school, hitting the pavement, distributing flyers and taking out newspaper ads. He then noticed he was being undercut by part-time agents and DIY real estate services.
Now a top producer for RE/MAX Real Estate Services for 15 years, he knew he had to switch gears, so he turned to his son to help him with his social media presence. But while his competitors simply put home tours on YouTube, Battista used his Italian heritage and status as a self-confessed foodie to start his own cooking show.
Cooking with Your Agent gets at least 9,000 views per episode on Facebook and now his name is sizzling among the biggest agents in the city, his potential clients thirsty for his attention. Below he discusses his social media secrets, his favourite foods, and the chefs and restaurants that inspire him.
How did you get into real estate in the first place?
About 15 years ago, I worked for the City of Toronto. I had a really good job there as a surveyor, but it was tough. It was a union job and I didn't really like the atmosphere and the whole prospect of working in a job like that for the rest of my life. A good friend of mine, Andrew Williams — a high roller in the industry — said, ‘You'd make a great realtor, why don't you try it out?’ So I did. He mentored me, I got my license about a year and a half later and I started when I was 40 years old.
What attracts you to the business and what keeps you in it?
I always loved real estate. My family was in the investment business and basically bought and sold real estate. I like the business because it gives you some autonomy, you can work on your own and I like the fact that there was no limit as to how much money you can make.
Where we sit now, the real estate industry is changing. What are you seeing now in terms of issues and innovations that will have a major impact on the future of the industry?
I can tell you right now that the innovation part is social media and the new ways of contacting people and reach potential clients. That all has to do with branding and farming and treating this business as a professional business. The bad part of this is there's 55,000 agents in an industry inundated with real estate agents who don't get it. They just don't get that it's a business. They don't get that it isn't just a part-time thing. They say, ‘I work as a hairdresser, I work at Loew’s, now I'm retired and maybe I'll sell my cousin, or my uncle, or my friend, a home’. They don't understand the good groundwork that goes into being a professional.
Don't get me wrong, some part-time people are good. Then you have the other part of the industry, which is the discount part of the industry — the commission cutting. Now people have a lot to choose from, which is good. Competition is pretty fierce, but that's the downside. I remember 14 or 15 years ago when I was listing I wasn't competing against my commission, I was competing against high producers. I was competing against a better personality, what your services were like and it wasn't the fact that this guy in the street is only charging $1,000. Now I have to explain what that means, so that aspect is the downturn of the industry.
But you have benefitted from the rise of social media in real estate. How did you begin to incorporate social media so heavily into your business and what made you choose a cooking show as a vehicle for reaching out to prospective clients?
Four years ago, my son Sam entered Queen’s University in a commerce program and near the end of his tenure there we spoke. I was really upset at the industry. I was almost at the point where I wanted to get out. The reason why was I was always getting smashed by all these discount agents and my attitude was different. He said, “Dad let's reach out in a different way. Let's use social media avenues and still do your thing: your newspaper ads, your farming all around, your open houses.
I did some blogging on my website. I have 36 blog posts there and I started sending emails to all my contacts and friends. I wrote just on my personal blog and everyone was loving that. I was getting 40 per cent open rates. ‘Dad,’ he goes. ‘This is incredible. Keep on writing one a week.’ Then I said, ‘You know Sam, my dream one day is I've always wanted to cook in somebody's brand new kitchen. The same kitchen of the people I sold the house to and make it like a reality show. You know I'm a good cook.’
‘Dad,’ he says ‘You're an excellent cook.’ I wanted to say, ‘Not only are we going to cook in this kitchen, this house is for sale.’ He says, ‘Why don't we start in your kitchen? You have a beautiful kitchen.’ We did the first episode, he did his magic and I got like 9,000 views on Facebook. All my Facebook friends responded, so now I use the show as a tool for all my clients and my past clients that I'm still there, instead of cold calling them. I'm in contact with them through the cooking show, Cooking with Your Agent. It's not intrusive, I don't tell them I want to sell their house. It's just cooking with your agent and people just love it.
Plus, they're getting something because even if they don't go with you as their agent, they get a recipe out of it, right?
Absolutely … So I'm getting out there and people are starting to say, “I like this guy, he has a good personality, I like what he does and he just happens to sell houses.”
How has it led to more clients? Do you get more clients as a direct result of your cooking show?
It's indirect. People don't sell a house with me because they saw my cooking show, but now my branding has become a lot more intensified. When I send a postcard out or I post a new cooking show, it basically solidifies who I am and it's very easy for me to get the listing. I don't have to prove myself any longer in all aspects. First of all, I'm a top agent, second of all, I'm a pretty nice guy, third of all, I sell a lot of homes, fourth of all, I'm a good cook and a lot of my clients have asked me to come back and cook in their kitchen.
So how did you become such a good cook and when did your interest in food start?
I've been cooking for 25 years now. I've always wanted a small bistro since back in the day. I have a few friends of mine who are master chefs. I'm Italian. My mother and grandmother are all in my palette and my palette comes from my family. My wife is from Acapulco, Mexico. She was never a cook at all, so if I wanted to eat well, I had to cook well.
What are your greatest hits when it comes to food and food culture?
There's one chef I really like from Italy and he's super freaking cool. I don't like to reveal my recipes before the show. Jamie Oliver is really good too in how he cooks. I took a few tips on how to cook a good steak from Gordon Ramsay. There's a bunch of them out there that I like to watch. I like Lidia Bastianich. She's fantastic. I like her style of paisano-type food. Paisano means peasant food …
Right now my favourite restaurant is Terroni. I love what they do with their pizza, I love what they do with their pasta, I love what they do with their hot oils and the cheeses. I love their handcrafted prosciutto, which is beautiful from Italy. It's not cheap, but really, really good. I like Marche once in a while too and I love Marcello's Pizzeria in Vaughan or Fanzorelli's in Brampton. I love pub style food and the fric and frac that goes with it.