The role of the influencer will never be the same, and no one’s really sure what comes next.

By Jenny Dorsey
Updated July 14, 2020
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Yeji Kim

“We weren’t receiving a ton of media attention from the big outlets,” said chef Jaime Young, co-owner and executive chef of Sunday in Brooklyn. “But we needed to get the word out as soon as possible. We didn’t have a lot of money. What other option besides influencers did we have?” 

Young is recounting the precarious first few months of the restaurant’s opening in 2016. “The election had just happened. Brooklyn was devastated,” he said, “No one wanted to come to eat. Our entire month of November was a wash, we almost had to close.” 

Desperate to generate revenue, he and his partners decided to open with a brunch menu six weeks earlier than scheduled—and to invite the neighborhood’s influencers to help spread the word. “I didn’t know much about influencers, or about avocado toast or grain bowls, but I learned,” said Young with a wry laugh. “We managed to get some ‘big shot’ brunch influencers in, like Brunch Boys. Once he posted a few videos there was a line out the door.”

Restaurant influencers, or people who primarily post about restaurants and also earn income through paid promotions on social media, have long been a source of contention in the industry’s ecosystem. Historically, the lure of using influencers for restaurants lay in their inexpensive price point (usually in the form of a free meal), especially when compared to the more traditional route of hiring a PR firm and pitching digital or print food media. But now, even those costs are taking a toll on struggling restaurants.

“The bigger conversation we need to be having is how information is spread,” said Young. “Information is priceless. Right now it’s old-school media or influencers, there’s nothing in between… and when it comes to food media, if you’re not in the clique, you don’t get in. If that wasn’t the game we had to play, we wouldn’t have to be DMing influencers.”

In light of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, much of the underlying issues around access and privilege in the world of food media and influencers have been unmasked. “Pre-COVID, it was a complex conversation about who gets the microphone. The people getting the shine were those who had the money,” said Nicole Taylor, food writer and former Executive Food Editor at Thrillist. Those in the spotlight were also consistently white, as evidenced by the recent upheaval at Bon Appétit, where current and former staffers reported their suggestions for diversity in coverage and screen time repeatedly squashed.

Now, with the reality of money—specifically, the comparatively low revenues for the foreseeable future—alongside a rallying call for better representation across the industry, influencers are also being scrutinized in new ways.

“Restaurants can’t survive comp-ing out so many people,” says Ben Hon, a NYC-based influencer who runs Stuff Ben Eats. He’s particularly cognizant of small mom-and-pop shops, like those concentrated in New York’s Chinatown, that don’t have the budget or the savvy needed to build an influencer network. “We have a responsibility to help, to be proactive.” To do so, Hon has been shooting storefronts of still-open places and offering free advice where able. “Things must change…and we [as influencers] need to change our mindsets, to show our support by paying.”

It also begs the question of who gets to continue being an influencer. A large majority of influencers are white, and have enough disposable income (and time) to post multiple times a day on Instagram to keep up with the platform’s algorithms. But now that many have lost their influencer-related income (typically in the form of campaigns with large brands, or with organizations like tourism boards), a rebalancing based on skills and resilience is taking place. For Kasim Hardaway, a Kansas City-based influencer who lost the entirety of his influencer paycheck at the onslaught of COVID-19, it’s been an important time to focus on other business streams, such as helping launch new restaurants with social media management and custom content creation.

Yeji Kim

“The influencer as we know it is dead,” Taylor said, plainly. “Restaurant influencers will have to reinvent themselves.” The influencers I interviewed agreed wholeheartedly. “Posts can’t just be a music lyric,” Hon continued. “It should say something about the food, the chef, the restaurant… show that [the influencer] really understands and supports that place.” 

“Right now, it’s easy to see who is trying to exploit the situation, and there will be a weeding out of the excess,” said Jean Lee, a NYC-based influencer who runs Jeanius Eats and specializes in the fine dining world. “That’s a good thing. Personal relationships are the ones that will survive.” 

This new urgency for deeper meaning also necessitates a more strategic eye when it comes to audience engagement. “The first week [of shelter-in-place] I received over 100 messages from restaurants asking me to help promote them. I started posting 40+

Stories a day…and quickly I saw that my audience was getting exhausted,” said Hardaway. “I ended up taking two weeks off to figure out more focused engagements, like Takeout Tuesdays… and Quarantine Recipe Challenges.” 

Similarly, Shannon Migita, a publicist specializing in influencers, anticipates restaurants will be investing more time to find the right partners, especially “people with more skill sets, such as video… who are really able to tell the restaurant’s story. You don’t get that with just a picture on Instagram.”

Influencers being the stop-gap to a hole left by traditional media has also birthed its own set of challenges that still need reconciling. Namely, the question of “authenticity” that they actually liked the foods they post about and don’t explicitly mark as sponsored. “Sometimes you can’t tell if the post is paid or not,” said Taylor, “The truth is, when you get freebies, it’s a conflict of interest even if you loved [the meal]. You just don’t know what is real anymore.”

Now that transparency and honesty have, at last, become the most important threads holding together the world of restaurants, influencers, food media, and consumers, preserving those relationships take more than a quick hashtag like #ad. Taylor references Angela Davis of TheKitchenista as someone who stood out on her feed for speaking truthfully about the new world she was adjusting to. “She put up something that said, ‘I’m going to be honest, I lost my job, it’s awkward, but I need money so you’re going to see sponsored content,’” she said. “It puts some human-ness behind it.” 

Hardaway said he hopes this time will reshape the relationship between influencer and restaurant for the better. “Influencers need to be more sensitive to how fragile restaurants are, especially the ones that aren’t as popular. We need more well-rooted, consistent relationships, where restaurants can genuinely say what they can provide, and influencers respond with what we can provide.”

Preserving a sense of community is also becoming far more significant than before. Consumers are taking the time to look beyond the veneer of pretty food to see what role a restaurant has played in the neighborhood, while restaurants are simultaneously considering what influencers are putting the weight of their platform towards. “We’re focusing on investing in our local community,” said Young, “and at the same time, we’re looking at the people who have 100K, 500K followers—how are they using their word to take care of restaurants? Are they posting about the relief bill, asking Congress to re-evaluate the PPP?” Lee agreed, “Restaurants are looking at [influencers] and asking, did we do something to support them? Did we share their GoFundMe?”

Without formal oversight, it’s difficult to tell if the influencer space will truly become more equitable post-COVID-19. But it is changing. “Food media is in the middle of evolving,” Taylor said. “People want the real stories, beyond just the chef or who fronted the money. Who was the person cooking on the line through COVID-19? People will be asking, ‘how authentic is this?’”

The responsibility of access is being re-evaluated across the industry. How should traditional media choose who to highlight, and who to write those stories? How do influencers more consciously diversify the kinds of places they frequent, knowing those from BIPOC may be harder to find if they aren’t in the limelight? Is there a world where PR can be an equalizer, and not an exaggerator of ongoing inequality?

Ultimately, chef Young stands by the need for a new platform of information, equipping restaurants to access its consumers without the hurdle of gatekeepers, be it editors or influencers. “Otherwise,” he said, “there will be nothing different.”