Before Bonnie Tsang bites into her butternut squash toast at Blacktop Coffee in downtown L.A.’s Arts District, she takes out her iPhone. The toast — a thick slice of ciabatta piled high with squash puree, caramelized onions, arugula and balsamic reduction — looks like an intricate art project.
She fusses a bit with the composition, testing different angles and gently brushing the arugula leaves aside until they fall just so. This process has become a daily ritual for Tsang, an editorial and commercial photographer whose stylized photos of food have garnered her nearly 65,000 followers on Instagram.
“Nowadays, it’s about sharing,” Tsang says, “and sharing what we eat is free marketing for restaurants.”
Though some restaurateurs don't see social sharing as "free marketing," posts by prominent Instagrammers have become prized commodities in the restaurant world, where one snapshot from the right user can attract significant interactions — and build a deeper bond between a restaurant and its fans.
“There’s no question that referrals and social buzz is a far more important and organic source of marketing than waiting for the big review,” says restaurateur Bill Chait of Sprout Restaurant Group, which operates big-name L.A. restaurants including Bestia, Redbird and Republique. To that end, Chait’s restaurants have formed relationships with popular social media personalities, including Tsang.
"The thing that makes it compelling is really having it be authentic and having it being driven from inside the restaurant, because that’s how we notice [what] customers respond to," says Ronit Menashe, Sprout's vice president of marketing and strategy.
Tsang is part of a select group of Los Angeles-based social-network influencers who have earned something of celebrity status in the local food scene. Her presence on Instagram has led her to some of the city’s most notable chefs and tastemakers, including Chait and Menashe. Menashe recently invited Tsang to conduct an Instagram takeover at Bestia, the group’s wildly popular Italian restaurant downtown.
While capturing her whimsical shots of sea urchin spaghetti and bittersweet chocolate tart, Tsang received a complimentary meal, a controversial practice in professional food criticism (though not in social marketing).
“We really loved Bonnie and we liked her style of photography and we thought that it would be a great opportunity for customers to see Bestia through her eyes,” Menashe says.
“If you have a large audience on Instagram, the buzz from a post will be the awareness factor of an establishment,” explains Matthew Le Veque, a professor of public relations at the University of Southern California. “From a restaurant’s perspective, there’s value in having people aware.”
Emily Schuman, author of the fashion and lifestyle blog Cupcakes and Cashmere, receives dozens of emails a week from restaurants eager to host her. She says she must be selective about which businesses she collaborates with, as authenticity is key to connecting with her audience.
“Everything that I put on either my blog or on social media are things that I love and am looking to share with others,” Schuman says.
Schuman started a series where she profiles her favorite restaurants throughout Los Angeles. Her blog, which receives approximately six million page views per month, and her Instagram, which has 260,000 followers, have heralded establishments including Go Get Em Tiger, Joan’s on Third and Superba Food + Bread. She has shared recipes and tips from exclusive interviews with chefs. And the Portland-based ice cream shop, Salt & Straw, even designed a special flavor in Schuman’s honor.
Chait can attest to the potency of this brand of marketing. When he first began his career, restaurants used direct mail as their primary source of attracting customers.
“We would typically mail anywhere from 500,000 to one million menus a quarter, and we focused on the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant, because that was your target market,” Chait says. “Obviously with social media, by definition, you are talking to people who are not geographically concentrated.”
As the practice of marketing restaurants on Instagram has grown, authenticity and transparency have become major issues for social-network influencers and their followers.
In the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Endorsement Guides, paid posts on social media are equivalent to traditional advertisements.
Under FTC rules, Instagrammers must disclose to audiences when they are being compensated to promote establishments and products. This can be done as simply as using the hashtag “#sponsored” or noting a post is sponsored, which Schuman does on her blog. Despite this formal protocol, however, some users have become wary of Instagram’s reliability as a recommendation source.
“There are people who make their entire living off social media who aren’t necessarily trusted voices on food,” says Krista Simmons, a food and travel reporter living in Los Angeles. “I sometimes worry about the consumer.”
Simmons argues that critical food writing and reviews from professional restaurant critics have become more relevant than ever. She herself uses Instagram as a tool to educate people about traditional cuisine from global cultures.
“I try to use my skills as a writer on Instagram,” Simmons says. “I hope that people will realize that this girl actually knows what she’s talking about.”
As the role of digital influencers continues to evolve, Chait emphasizes that restaurants must embrace new modes of communication if they are to stay competitive.
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“We are seeing what I think is the beginning of a real, significant shift that will take place in the next four to five years with digital media,” Chait says. “This, in my opinion, is the early part of the cycle.”
Correction: This post has been amended to reflect that Sprout Restaurant Group does not regularly give social media personalities complimentary meals, and to clarify the nature of Sprout's relationship with prominent Instagrammers.