The power of Instagram is a double-edged sword
Chef Jason Hall has mixed feelings about “influencers," the somewhat controversial group of people who have thousands more Instagram followers than you. Formerly of Craft and Gotham Bar & Grill, the chef recently opened the millennial-minded seafood brasserie legasea in Times Square’s Moxy Hotel, and already he’s accommodated a vegan Instagram personage who was less than gracious (and played into pernicious influencer stereotypes.)
“His guests didn’t eat anything, so they ended up ordering off the menu and taking Instagram photos of stuff that’s not even on the menu, like steamed spinach and grilled fish,” Hall says. “Somebody needs to be a manager of influencers. We shut his whole program down.”
As social media attention and good-old-fashioned word of mouth can make or break a restaurant, Hall feels that “any happy customer is an influencer,” no matter their follower count. Oh, and Rihanna; she’s an influencer, too. Legasea’s first event was a party for Fenty Puma, and Hall says that Rihanna, who apparently was just as nice and funny as she is in our dreams, went back to the kitchen and ordered a cheeseburger and fries. Barring magical run-ins with Rihanna, though, chefs often struggle to find the balance in accommodating social media influencers, some of whom approach restaurants with a sense of entitlement.
“We regularly host influencers from the food and lifestyle space, and the vast majority of times it's been great,” says Jeremy Lieberman of The Lure Group (which includes Clinton Hall, SLATE and Food Lab.) “Every once in a while, you'll come across an influencer or two who don't tip or make insane demands because they have this ‘power,’ or so they think. Needless to say, they aren't invited back.”
Hannah Schneider, who is a restaurant owner and owner of a PR firm, Hannah Schneider Creative, works closely with influencers. Years ago, Schneider discovered the value in offering a meal in exchange for a post on Instagram. Increasingly, people have begun to take advantage of these kinds of partnerships.
“We had guests come in and rack up a $300 tab and then post a terrible quality photo a month later,” she says. “I literally once had a girl ask me to bring in white linens for her photos and to get her favorite brand of vodka because that's all she drank. I am happy to say we deleted her immediately from our media list.”
As a publicist, Schneider says her first priority is shining the best light on her clients, as well as protecting them, so now she has a legal process in place: every influencer she works with signs a contract prior to a media visit, stating that they will post within 14 days, tag the client appropriately and check-in.
“It's easy; they sign up through our website and get entered into a database, so each of our clients who chose to host influencers have options,” she says. “We never pay for a post, and for that some people don't sign up, which is fine by me.”
Another complication of the influencer-restaurant complex? Fake influencers.
“If you have 200,000 followers and you get 3 to 5 comments on each post, you've bought fake followers, which means you aren't of value in terms of return on investment for the restaurant,” adds Schneider.
At legasea, Hall respects the power of social media. The low-key glam, brasserie-inspired space, which Hall admits is “very Instagrammable,” was designed by David Rockwell, and the lighting is universally flattering. Influencers, and social media in general, have allowed chefs to access demographics they wouldn't normally be able to using more “traditional” media, like articles in food publications or paid advertisements.
“Social media gets younger demographics in our restaurants because they saw it somewhere, and they would not have tried it otherwise,” he says. “It makes us more accessible, which is good for our business.”
That being said, influencers—even those outside of the food space—can offer chefs inspiration, too. That’s right. Chefs spend hours tapping through Instagram stories just like us.
“I find lifestyle influencers have more of an impact on my cooking than ‘foodie influencers,’" says chef Nick Korbee of Egg Shop. “I love looking at Insta stories and posts from people with keen aesthetic vision capturing beautiful spaces, destinations and events. It’s romantic in a way that can inspire me to cook food in the style of that environment, vibe or culture. While I realize these posts are usually disguised advertisements, I don't mind it from the people who I like and follow.”