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How Instagram influencers are changing the restaurant industry

Young entrepreneurs are getting paid to post about restaurants. And restaurant owners are scrambling to keep up.
Instagram influencer Nia Damalos, Instagram handle @niadamalos, photographs a non alcoholic cocktail as she is pregnant at the VIP preview for the Oxford Exchange's new Champagne Bar on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Oct. 23

Several times a month, Ferrell Alvarez gets the same message.

It’s usually a stranger. It’s usually through Instagram. The person starts by asking the chef if he’s interested in a partnership, or a “collab.” Then they propose a trade: A dinner for two in exchange for an Instagram story, a social media clip that will disappear in 24 hours. An offer to promote his restaurant on their page. A post for a free drink or two.

“It drives me nuts,” said Alvarez, the lauded chef of Seminole Heights restaurant Rooster & the Till. “It’s all 20-year-olds who want to know if they can trade something for food. Most of them don’t even do their homework on you.”

If you’ve eaten out anywhere in the last few years, you’ve probably witnessed a few social media influencers in action, posing in front of flashy wallpaper or angling to get a perfect shot of their cocktail.

Influencers Clay Carlton, Instagram handle @Maxywelll, and Nicholas Trobiano, Instagram handle @nicholastrobiano, take photos of drinks at the VIP preview for the Oxford Exchange's new Champagne Bar on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

From restaurant decor to plating, menu font to advertising, dining and drinking out is increasingly designed to be captured and shared.

At the center are influencers and bloggers, a growing number of entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area who post photographs on social media, often with economic incentives that aren’t always disclosed to the public.

Influencer marketing has grown exponentially in roughly nine years since the advent of Instagram, a photo sharing app now owned by Facebook. The Tampa Bay scene has exploded to include several hundred influencers. They’re not celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé, but they have enough eyes on them to net lucrative deals with national brands. Meanwhile, traditional advertising and public relations agencies scramble to keep up.

Nowhere is this more visible than the food and beverage space, where beautiful photographs of tiered cakes, hamburgers stacked on pizzas and toppling ice cream sundaes are an instant hit with a food-obsessed public. The trend has rippled across the restaurant community, accompanied by a significant amount of blow back from chefs and diners who see the phone-wielding tactics as a disruption.

“People jumping up on their chairs, taking photographs of the food while the food sits there for 20 minutes just so they can get the optimal Instagram shot is something that, especially in my younger years, I would have thrown them out of the restaurant for,” said renowned Florida chef and author Norman Van Aken.

Van Aken, like other chefs, has accepted (if not exactly embraced) that the Instagram diners are here to stay.

And in a world where everything is being shared with millions of potential customers, many restaurateurs aren’t just accepting it. They are sprinting to adapt.

THE VERTICAL PLATE

The last couple of years have seen a huge shift in restaurant design, with firms sharply pivoting from traditional themes to more eye-catching spaces suitable for photos. White table cloths and clean lines are out. Bright spaces, larger-than-life murals, pithy quotes and plenty of neon are in.

Where before a restaurant owner might have just consulted with investors or an architect, creative branding agencies like St. Petersburg’s Wax & Hive now “create the look and feel of the space” with the Instagram set in mind, said owner Jimmy Breen.

Breen’s agency works with several local restaurant groups including Hunger + Thirst, the company behind St. Petersburg’s Florida kitsch-themed No Vacancy and the adult playground Park & Rec, among others. They consult on design, plan promotions, make social media posts, paint murals and develop drink and food specials.

“Once the customer gets their hand on that dish they’re going to look at it, and then they’re going to take a photo of it," Breen said. "It doesn’t belong to you anymore — it belongs to the world that they put it into. And that world? That world shares everything.”

Jeff Gigante of Ciccio Restaurant Group is no stranger to incorporating flashy signage at his restaurants. There’s “you are beautiful” (Green Lemon). There’s "Tacos, yes. You, maybe” (Taco Dirty). There’s "Unattended or noisy children will be fed sugared donuts and given a pet chicken” (Better Byrd).

Gigante is a partner at Grand Theming Studios, where renowned airbrush artist Jason Hulfish creates colorful 3D foam sculptures and murals. If you’ve dined at Gigante’s latest, Forbici, it’s impossible to miss the mural of a woman or the red heart with devil’s horns and fangs, both Hulfish creations.

Executive chef Jason Saldutti of Tampa stands near a mural and dimensional rendition of a heart at Forbici Modern Italian, 1633 W Snow Ave, on Friday, October 4, 2019, in Tampa. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

“You could spend millions of dollars making a restaurant look perfect or you could put up a really cool photo opportunity or art piece that people are going to want to interact with and share," Gigante said.

When Jamaris Glenn and his partners were designing plans for their new Ybor hot spot 7th + Grove, everything was planned with Instagram in mind, from the colorful murals to the lush flower wall with neon lettering spelling out FLOURISH, the restaurant’s motto. But most importantly, the food had to be pretty.

“Some of our dishes are more vertical than horizontal, and there are things that are stacked on top of each other so you can get a bird’s eye view of the dish,” Glenn said.

“All of the owners are pretty much millennials,” said Glenn, 35. “In our generation, a place can’t be boring. From the feel to the vibe to the music to the food — we have to be consistently evolving if we want to survive in this climate.”

THE INFLUENCERS

So, what does it take to become an influencer?

Part of the gig’s allure is that it comes with a fairly low startup cost — all you really need is a phone, though many professional bloggers work with a camera and a laptop.

Getting invited places is the next hurdle. Plenty of restaurants host influencer events as part of their media strategy. And while they usually don’t demand publicity in exchange for attendance, it’s almost always implied.

A recent email invite to Tampa’s Oxford Exchange read as follows: “By accepting invitation to this event, we would love to see 5 Instagram Stories, one post on your feed, and one giveaway.”

Dozens of local influencers attend a VIP preview for the Oxford Exchange's new Champagne Bar on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Jenn Thai, who runs @thisjenngirl, calls her dining content a “passion project.” Her partnerships with beauty products and national brands are where she makes the majority of her influencer-related income.

The 27-year-old social media specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital started blogging for fun while studying communications at the University of South Florida. Fast forward five years and Thai’s account has more than 11,000 followers and she was recently named best local food blogger by Creative Loafing’s Best of the Bay.

Unlike a traditional restaurant critic, influencers rarely give negative feedback since there is often some type of incentive. When Thai dines out, she requests a comped meal for herself and one guest and said she always tips the waitstaff out of her own pocket.

“I’m not a food critic — people know who I am and that I’m coming,” Thai said. “And if I didn’t enjoy my meal? I probably won’t be posting about it.”

Thai’s paid posts mostly come through corporations like Walmart, which recently paid her $350 to dine at Rooster & The Till and re-create a similar dish using ingredients from the superstore.

The average Instagram viewer might not be aware of the relationship. The Federal Trade Commission specifies that influencers and bloggers are required to clearly disclose any relationship they have when promoting products through social media. But even with the recommended hashtags #paid, #ad or #sponsored, influencers frequently come under fire for not disclosing financial gains.

Though many influencers work on a trade, Thai said, some insist on rates as high as $450 per post.

“But there’s no exact formula. The rates are all over the place.”

Kiera Andrews, 26, of @thisbabeeats, focuses on the food scene in Tampa Bay and on her travels. Her rates are loosely based on what many consider the industry standard: $100 per 10,000 followers. For Andrews, who has more than 40,000 followers, that means $400 per static Instagram post for national clients. Those rates fluctuate in the local market where she offers discounted rates.

“It’s very subjective,” Andrews said. “You have to take into consideration travel, how much you’ll have to shoot, the editing that you’ll have to do. I understand that a mom and pop shop in Tampa isn’t going to be able to afford what a Sonic (Drive-In) can afford.”

Those who harass chefs for free food “give a bad rap to influencers as a whole," she said. “I think that’s why some restaurants are probably skeptical about some influencers. A few bad apples can discredit others."

THE INDUSTRY TURNED UPSIDE DOWN

The influencer boom has created a rush of agencies and publicists, many who have turned traditional restaurant advertising practices on their head.

Brittany Ward is CEO and founder of CreateCollabs, an agency that manages influencer campaigns and matches influencers with brands. One of Ward’s clients is the Hall on Franklin in Tampa Heights, where a tour earlier this year included 30 influencers invited to post in exchange for gift cards. Ward estimated they reached roughly 50,000 combined followers.

Still, quantifying the results for influencer campaigns can be a challenge.

An influencer’s reach can be calculated by tracking impressions — roughly the number of times someone’s content is displayed on a screen — and engagement, a trickier metric that divides the number of followers by the number of likes, comments, and in some cases, saves.

“If (an influencer) is publishing content and people are passively scrolling through it, then it’s really not meaningful at all," Ward said. "It might as well be a billboard that you just drive right by.”

Celebrity accounts, so-called “macro-influencers,” might have millions of followers, but they don’t engage very much. When’s the last time Reese Witherspoon messaged you? Micro-influencers, bloggers with anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 followers, have higher engagement. But it’s the nano-influencers — those with roughly 1,000 to 5,000 followers — that hit what Ward calls the “sweet spot.”

“They still have friends, family, real people, acquaintances, networks, people that actually know them,” Ward said. "They have the bandwidth while managing that account to still comment and respond to questions.”

With a limited number of influencers working in town, an echo chamber can start to form.

“There are some real fears about only playing within that one sandbox,” she said. “It drowns out the reality of the genuine reviews."

An influencer takes a photo of a drink at the VIP preview for the Oxford Exchange's new Champagne Bar on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Does any of this actually affect the bottom line? Gigante said it’s hard to quantify, but his advertising costs have been slashed.

“Everything has to be so digitally driven now,” Gigante said. “Of course we could go out and pay for advertising, but that would cost us a fortune. It’s very expensive to try and buy your way into other people’s hearts.”

At Rooster & The Till, Alvarez said the influencer approach doesn’t line up with the restaurant. But at his more casual Seminole Heights spot Nebraska Mini-Mart, a flashier marketing campaign made sense. He’s since hired Breen’s agency.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Alvarez said. "As annoying as it is, it can work. And if you’re not hip to the game, you’re going to get passed up.”



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