Nick Violas, owner of Nolan’s, a 270-seat, steak-and-seafood restaurant with striking views of Canandaigua Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, was well prepared for his special guests.
He shepherded them to his restaurant’s private room, he introduced them to his executive chef, he handed each the day’s special menu “so they would know how to spell things” and put out a spread of what he said was his “best food.”
His guests, all local “influencers,” folks who have a significant following and clout on social media, happily feasted on fried calamari, coconut-crusted shrimp, certified Angus filet mignon, lobster tails, lobster ravioli and, for dessert, bread pudding, crème brûlée and cheesecake. They also gleefully sipped special cocktails, good wine and cold beer. All the while snapping photos and shooting videos, which they rushed to share with their followers, gushing about the food.
It worked: Their followers were influenced.
In less than a week, Nolan’s had lines out the door, Violas reported.
“We are a popular restaurant,” he said. “But this was a different kind of busy. It was like Walmart on Black Friday.” He added that sales were “way over — more than 25% up.”
Great for Nolan’s. “What I got from that event,” Viloas said, “I’d pay double for.”
And great, too, for the influencers; they got to show their might.
Their followers, too, may have benefited: They may have learned about a new restaurant or had their feelings about a favorite restaurant confirmed.
However, they weren’t in on a little secret: The influencers weren’t there because Nolan’s was better than other restaurants (though the restaurant gets an average 4.5 out of 5 rating on Trip Advisor and 4.7 on Open Table); they were there because they were going to get a free feast.
Quid pro quo.
You give me a free meal and I’ll say nice things about your joint — primarily on Instagram and TikTok. This isn’t an unbiased “review” a term many influencers use for their nearly all-positive, all-effusive declarations). This is a transaction.
A transaction that many chefs and restaurateurs say is the price of doing business today.
“Social media is one of the most important marketing tools for restaurants today,” said Alex Piñeiro, chef and owner of Bodegón, an award-winning Spanish restaurant in Cliffside Park.
Adds Tara Glick, co-owner and pastry chef of modern American gastropub Porter in Weehawken: “In New Jersey, it’s a necessary part of your public relations marketing strategy.”
Not just in New Jersey or, for that matter, the metropolitan area.
What is influencer marketing?
The influencer marketing industry worldwide is expected to grow to a $16.4 billion business this year, according to Influencer Marketing Hub, an online resource for influencers and companies that use them. In the U.S. last year, the industry raked in nearly $10.4 billion, according to market research firm Grand View. And it’s not only cafes and bistros that use influencers to try to improve their bottom line. A surprising and growing number of other industries do — from fashion and beauty to health and fitness to automotive services and real estate agencies.
And why not? Who better to convince you to try the new cocktail at the local gastropub than that hot guy or gal who always seems to be the first to wear flowy culottes, introduced everyone to Dua Lipa, and knew about bixie haircuts before anyone else did? (Bixie: a bob combined with a pixie, if you’re among the few without an Instagram or TikTok account.)
Now that we spend so much of our time on social media rather than actually socializing, influencers have replaced our friends as a source for tips and recommendations. Friends, however, weren’t given free meals in return for passing on those tips and recommendations.
And, in some ways, this is a strategy that big companies have been using for the better part of a century: paying celebrities to endorse their products. Among the many examples: Eva Longoria for L’Oreal; Taylor Swift for Diet Coke; Shaquille O’Neal for Papa John’s.
“People follow other people,” said Paul Turpanjian, owner of Dining Out Jersey, a lifestyle and dining magazine company that also organizes events and provides social media content for businesses. “They are influenced by what other people do. They care if Kim Kardashian seems to think that this is the best ice cream.”
“Influence marketing has been around forever,” said Stacy Smollin Schwartz, a marketing professor at Rutgers Business School. It is, she said, a “very effective tool,” a tool that “social media knocked out of the park.” Last year, 19% of Americans bought something because an influencer recommended it, according to Harvard Business Review. Among those under 25 years old, the number rose to 36%.
And companies, including restaurants, don’t have to shell out a lot of money for an endorsement anymore. Just a free meal or a gift card or perhaps a nominal fee.
Restaurants use influencers to boost business
Just ask Ranbir Bhatia, general manager of Benares, a modern Indian restaurant in Wyckoff.
Bhatia can’t say enough good things about Debra, who has been on Instagram for the past three years under the name WhatsUpWyckoff (Debra declined to give her last name because, she said, “the premise of my account is that I am anonymous”.) “She’s great,” Bhatia said. “She has been helping us a lot.”
In exchange for a gift card of up to $100, Bhatia said, Debra posts photos of Benares dishes on her account. What’s Up Wyckoff has just under 4,200 followers — which in the Instagram world makes her a “nano” influencer, small potatoes compared with a micro-influencer (10,000 to 100,000 followers) and macro-influencer (100,000 to 1 million) — but Bhatia said her posts boost business.
“We ask customers how they heard about us, and a lot of people say they read about us in What’s Up Wyckoff,” he said.
That does not surprise Julianna Monacelli, consumer public relations director for Dixon Schwabl + Co. in Victor, New York. As many in public relations firms do, Monacelli helps her clients find and work with influencers. Indeed, it was Monacelli who came up with the idea of wining and dining influencers at Nolan’s, that restaurant in the Finger Lakes, in exchange for social postings. She declared it “a proven success.”
Working with influencers is “cost-effective,” she said. “It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Sometimes it’s just the cost of food; other times they charge $50 to $500.”
Fine. But why not tell followers this?
“If I go to a restaurant and I don’t pay for the meal, some would consider that a form of payment,” said Rutherford-based influencer David Ciancio, whose Instagram account @revciancio has 100,000 followers. “But I’m not obligated to post anything. If it happens, it happens. The FTC might have their own take.”
Are there government guidelines influencers need to follow?
The Federal Trade Commission has published a set of guidelines on ethical behavior for influencers, but experts note they are vague and, of course, not legal requirements.
Besides, the FTC seems more concerned about influencers endorsing products that can affect health than influencers endorsing a gooey, cheese-y pizza that may affect only your waistline, or a soft leather jacket that may affect only your wallet.
In a famous case where influencers were used to promote “wellness” tea brand Teami’s “detox,” the commission called out influencers for failing to adequately disclose their relationship with the company (in other words, that their endorsements were paid for), but it did not punish them. It did fine the company $1 million for making false health claims.
Whether influencers have the same responsibility as advertisers is a “gray area,” said Patrali Chatterjee, chair of the department of marketing at Feliciano School of Business at Montclair State University. “In contrast to publishing something in a magazine, where it’s clear it’s an ad, online requirements aren’t clear, especially if the transaction does not involve a big amount of money.”
Jamie Knott, chef of fine-dine restaurant Saddle River Inn and the more casual Saddle River Cafe, as well as popular tiki bar Cellar 335 in Jersey City, has no problem with the arrangement.
“Barter has been a form of payment forever and ever. One hand washes the other. It’s fair, very fair,” Knott said, even though he said he doesn’t use influencers, at least not for the inn or cafe. Heck, he’d like to do away with social media altogether.
“I don’t even want a Facebook or Instagram account for the Saddle River Inn,” he said. “I don’t think I need it. We’re full every day. What do I need to post about?” However, Knott does make sure that the Saddle River Inn has a presence on social media. And, like many restaurateurs, he has hired a social media director to take care of all that time-consuming posting. “There’s a lot to do on a day-to-day basis. Social media is a full-time job. It’s constant.”
Do followers care about quid pro quo?
As for the influencers, they say followers don’t care if they get paid or are showered with gifts or other free stuff. Nor, for that matter, do their followers need to know, they insist.
“It’s none of their business,” Heather Ruiz of Wayne, a former teacher who always worked in hospitality “on the side,” said about her followers. Her Instagram account Hotspotsnj, which primarily focuses on North Jersey, has 10,000 followers. Ruiz, like so many influencers, said she doesn’t charge much and is out to help small businesses. “Yes, I get paid, but I’m doing it to help them, and I love it.”
“I don’t think they [my followers] need to know,” agreed influencer Brian Juarbe, a photographer based in Hawthorne, whose Instagram account @myinnerfatkidisout has 33,500 followers. “I think people follow me because they want to see good food, interesting food. I do not think the business part is interesting to them.”
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Nor, some say, is “the business part” helpful for the cause.
Asked why she doesn’t tell followers she gets paid for her posts, one local influencer, who did not want her name used, answered, “It could hurt the businesses.” That is, if followers knew that a post was paid for, the post might not be so credible, and consequently might have less impact.
Are influencers even affecting restaurants? Or are they just a nuisance?
Many restaurants say they’re not even sure influencers actually influence — at least that hasn’t been their experience.
“Most of the chefs I know know that they do not influence anything,” said Dave DiBari, chef and owner of acclaimed Italian restaurants The Cookery and The Parlor, both in Dobbs Ferry, New York. He notes that having a broad following doesn’t mean someone has the right following. “You may have a broad reach, say, 400,000 followers, but they aren’t from our local jurisdiction. More eyes, more clicks, doesn’t do anything for us.”
In fact, DiBari and other chefs say influencers do a big disservice to the industry.
“I’ve played the game. I’ve held the influencer parties,” he said. “I wish I could take it all back. It is an absolute disservice to the restaurant industry. They leverage other people’s businesses to build their own. Their business to me is fake. They are showing filtered cheese pulls while wearing a bikini in the background. It’s mostly a bunch of teenagers with lattes and phones.”
Chris Cannon, owner of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, a stunning four-restaurant compound in Morristown, is no fan, either.
“It’s kind of bribery, organized blackmail, saying in essence, ‘If you don’t give me a free dinner, I’ll say bad things about you,’ ” Cannon said. “Everyone is trying to live off the restaurant business, without providing any real product.”
Alex Piñeiro of Bodegón is equally dismissive of influencers.
“Every day, I get called by influencers, saying, ‘Let’s collaborate,’ ” he said.
Collaborate? “It’s always ‘We want free food,’ ” he said. “I get it: They want free food for pictures.” (For the record, most quality newspapers, including this one, have a policy that reporters and critics should not accept freebies, though extra desserts and such do sometimes arrive.)
Piñeiro exchanged free food for photos — once. His public relations firm arranged to have Brian Juarbe of myinnerfatkid come in and dine gratis with a friend.
“It was a waste of time,” Piñeiro said.
And a waste of money.
It may not seem like a lot of money — some croquetas, some steak, flan (“All our big hits”), a few cocktails. But Piñeiro, like so many other restaurateurs, says when your profit margins are marginal (on average restaurants’ profits are from 3% to 5%), every penny counts. Not to mention the seat the influencer occupied, which could have been taken up by a paying customer.
Piñeiro estimates that a real diner would have had to shell out around $250 for the meal he served Juarbe and his dining companion for free. “I would rather have the money,” he said.
Will influencer marketing become old and stale?
One New Jersey restaurateur, who did not want her name used, has other issues with influencers.
“They are changing the dining landscape,” she said.
To get followers to stop and look at a post among the hundreds upon hundreds that bombard them daily, photos and videos must be arresting.
“Food,” she said, “becomes performance art. It’s over-the-top, really disgusting, calorie-laden dishes that often a very skinny girl is eating. There are these Bloody Marys with so many garnishes on them that they’re more than a meal. Influencers are now determining the trends. No one is posting a picture of a beautifully cooked half chicken. It’s all visual. It’s all crazy.”
Crazy, perhaps. But it can’t be ignored.
“We have a habit in marketing of finding something that works and then overdoing it,” said Schwartz, the marketing professor at Rutgers Business School.
She noted that she had 400 students in an undergraduate class recently in which she took a poll: How many of you, she asked, are brand ambassadors, an influencer for a particular brand? The answer? Twenty-five percent.
“Influencer marketing is so pervasive,” she said. But she predicts, “It will get old soon. It will become less effective.”
And it will influence our own judgment.
“Over time,” she said, “influencer marketing is going to clutter our experience so much that we won’t trust anything on social media as being authentic.”
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.