$10,000 for a single post on Instagram? How people who talk about food can make or break a restaurant.
Joel Gonzalez had been working at his family’s restaurant for more than 20 years, and he had never seen anything like it. Around 6 p.m. on March 25, 2021, he looked up and saw a line going out the door of Mariscos Corona, the restaurant he and his sister run in Van Nuys. For the next two hours, the siblings did their best to handle the rush of customers who wanted the restaurant’s signature dishes, like aguachile-stuffed avocados and surf-and-turf burritos.
Gonzalez says, “Oh my God, we were so busy until it was time to close.” “We’d never seen such a long line out the door before.”
The next day, which was a Friday, there was another line, and customers kept coming all weekend. The Instagram account for the restaurant got 5,000 new followers. Gonzalez ran out of avocados, so his fridge was empty in the end. He was closed on Monday.
When Gonzalez’s crush started, he didn’t know that Ashley Rodriguez, 29, a food influencer also known on social media as @firstdateguide, had posted a 42-second TikTok video of his soon-to-be-popular dishes earlier that day.
Viewers saw avocados full of citrus-soaked seafood and a huge grilled burrito filled with shrimp, carne asada, and French fries. At one point, Rodriguez poured a whole cup of red salsa on the burrito, took a big bite, and nodded enthusiastically, just like a trusted friend who tells you about a new restaurant you have to try.
The video got more than 200,000 views in the first 24 hours, and it reached 1 million views in a week.
Gonzalez says that one of the people who came to the restaurant on the first day told him that he had seen it on @firstdateguide. “We put it all together then.”
This is what the “food influencer effect” is or can be. If the right influencer posts a video of your food and it goes viral, you might get more social followers and see your sales go up.
It’s a phenomenon that’s changing the way restaurants work by giving people with cellphones and a love of food more power than traditional media. And these days, sometimes what looks like a spontaneous way to show how much you like a restaurant is actually a well-planned, calculated business deal.
At Mariscos Corona, that’s exactly what happened. Gonzalez had hired Rodriguez to promote his restaurant, but he didn’t know when her video would be posted.
A few weeks before the surge, Gonzalez sent Rodriguez a direct message (DM) on Instagram asking her to try his food. Rodriguez said that her rates can be anywhere from $1,500 to more than $10,000, depending on how many people follow her and where a business wants to be featured. Gonzalez agreed to pay Rodriguez $1,500 for one video that Rodriguez posted to TikTok and, later, Instagram. Gonzalez says that he spent an extra $40 on food for her.
“It was worth it,” he says, “if I could tell any other restaurant owner.”
There are many different types of food influencers: There are home cooks who post how-to videos of dishes, mukbangers who livestream themselves eating, newbies looking for free food, marketing professionals with restaurant clients, gourmets who review food in their cars, and food lovers who just like to share what they’re eating. Some influencers are represented by agents and make money through deals with brands and restaurants. Some people do it to get free stuff and perks. Most of the restaurants they work with won’t be on a critic’s list of the best places to eat.
Rodriguez and Paul Castro, who is 28 and Hugh Harper, who is 39, are both influential people. Together, they started the L.A. branch of JMPForce, a marketing company based in Las Vegas. They work with about 20 restaurants in the area, taking care of their social media and making content for them. Even though the three of them post photos and videos that have nothing to do with work, Rodriguez thinks that about 60% of the restaurants that appear on her channels are clients.
If Rodriguez and the other members of JMPForce had their way, they wouldn’t be called influencers.
“I always say “food blogger” instead of “food influencer” because it makes me feel better,” Rodriguez says while sitting at a table at Craft by Smoke and Fire, a restaurant client in Arcadia. She was there to make a movie with her boyfriend, Castro.
Castro adds, “There are too many influential people trying to take advantage, so I don’t want to be tied to them.”
This year, a food influencer from Los Angeles and Corner 17, a Chinese restaurant in St. Louis, got into a fight. When the owner of Corner 17, Xin Wei, posted screenshots of the fight on Instagram, the story went viral. The influencer asked the restaurant for $100 to pay for the food he wanted to show in a video, but the restaurant said no.
Antonio Malik, who is known online as @antonio eats la, went there anyway and told his hundreds of thousands of followers about it in an Instagram story. He liked the service, but he didn’t like the food: “Those are the worst dumplings I’ve ever had!”
Wei replied in an Instagram post, “An intentionally bad write-up from an influencer with a lot of followers because we wouldn’t work with them is unprofessional, and acting in such a hostile way can destroy their businesses.” I want to speak up because this media influencer made us feel like we were in danger.”
The situation made people wonder about the morality of “collaborations,” which is the term for trading free food or other items for social media content. Rodriguez and Castro say that it’s common for new influencers to ask for free food from restaurants that aren’t trying to get social media attention.
Chef and owner of the temporarily closed San Francisco restaurant Nari and Kin Khao, Pim Techamuanvivit, says she gets at least a couple of Instagram messages a week from influencers asking for free meals.
“They kind of code it and say, ‘We’d like to work together,'” she says, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to work together on anything.” “What it means is, ‘I don’t want to pay for my food.'”
There are rules for influencers set up by the Federal Trade Commission, but the process is still mostly self-regulated. The FTC website has a document called “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers.” In it, there are clear instructions for when and how social media users should talk about their relationship with a brand partner. If you are related to, work for, or have a personal connection to a brand, you must say so. Money, free or cheap products, and other perks are all part of a financial relationship.
“If a significant portion of a food influencer’s audience doesn’t expect the influencer to be paid or given free food and would give the influencer’s endorsement less weight if they knew about the incentives that the influencer received, then the incentives should be disclosed,” an FTC spokesperson told The Times in an email.
But the half-dozen food experts we talked to for this story all agreed that people don’t care if the food is free and probably assume it is.
Nkechi Ahaiwe, who is 32 years old, has more than 63,000 Instagram followers and goes by the name @eatwhateveryouwant. Ahaiwe says she pays for all her food unless a restaurant invites her to eat for free. She used to be a beauty blogger and worked for Enterprise Car Rental.
“If a restaurant tells me I need to say something was free, I’ll do it,” she says. “But if they don’t, I won’t, because I’ve seen that when I say sponsored, paid, or gifted, my reach goes down.”
Do Ahaiwe and Rodriguez worry that getting free meals from a restaurant might make it hard for them to post about the place? What if the food doesn’t taste good to them?
Ahaiwe says that she checks out Yelp reviews, which are also made by users, before going to a restaurant.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I couldn’t find anything I liked, but I know it will happen someday. I would have to apologize and just tell them that this won’t work.”
Rodriguez says that she doesn’t review anything. “I just tell people what they can order and try to bring things to their attention.”
In her voice-over on TikTok, Rodriguez says, “This is Corona Mariscos in Van Nuys, California.” “Trust me, aguachiles is much better than ceviche…. Well, if you like things to be spicy…. Oh, did I mention that two siblings have been running this place since 1999? The quality of their father’s recipes hasn’t changed at all.”
Even though Rodriguez and Ahaiwe won’t say bad things about a restaurant’s food, many influential people will. At least 1.6 million Instagram posts and 13.4 billion TikTok videos use the hashtag #foodreview. Some traditional publicists and restaurant owners don’t talk about influencers because they don’t want to upset them. These people get dozens of requests from influencers for free food and restaurant tables.
Techamuanvivit says, “Restaurants have very small profit margins, and we have to pay for payroll, insurance, and all these other things. You want us to pay for your Instagram story content?” It doesn’t make sense.”
Last summer, a musician with a major label and more than 1 million Instagram followers reached out to Isaias Hernandez, the chef and owner of Craft by Smoke and Fire, through Instagram. The famous person, who Hernandez won’t name because he’s afraid of retaliation, asked the Downey chef if he would be willing to feed 100 people at his house that night. The famous person told the restaurant owner that he would trade the food for a social media post or an Instagram story.
Hernandez and his partner made barbecue that cost more than $400. They brought the food to the celebrity’s house by hand and included some T-shirts in different sizes for guests. When the celebrity got there, someone from his group took the food and merchandise. Hernandez never got to meet the famous person or hear a thank you. There was no post on Instagram.
“I sent him a message later asking if he liked the food, but he didn’t answer,” says Hernandez. He chose to pay the price himself and keep quiet.
Techamuanvivit says that since she has several Michelin stars and a busy restaurant, she can speak up for restaurants that can’t.
“I’m sure some of these influencers we told to leave have written something bad on Yelp or Google reviews, but I don’t really care,” she says, adding, “I don’t blame the restaurants that work with them.” People do what they must to stay alive.”
Once upon a time, the restaurant critic, a long-standing figure in traditional media, had the power to make or break a restaurant. At many publications, taking freebies is still a reason to get fired. (Bill Addison, who reviews restaurants for the Los Angeles Times, does so anonymously, and the paper pays for his meals.)
When Yelp was started almost 20 years ago, it opened the door for more people to join the community and gave their opinions. Today’s food influencers share posts that sometimes make it feel like the people who made them are sitting across the table from you.
Even though he has a lot of experience, Hernandez, for the most part, is not only in favor of food influencers, but he has also built them into the marketing plans for his restaurant.
In March 2020, when he was getting ready to open a restaurant in La Habra, California, he hired Rodriguez, Castro, and Harper. The influencers come up with plans and host events for Hernandez’s restaurants. They also attend quarterly meetings and give feedback on everything from the food to the atmosphere.
Harper thought the grilled cheese sandwich that Hernandez made was too dry, so he added barbecue sauce to it. Rodriguez’s idea for a short rib sandwich with the bone still in it led to a 15% rise in sales the week it was added.
“In general,” says Hernandez, “people think of social influencers as snake-oil salesmen from the past,” but “social media marketing is probably our strongest pillar in terms of sales growth.”
Kristin Diehl, a marketing professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, says that influencers are a part of marketing that falls under the larger umbrella of communications.
She knows that influencers with a lot of followers can have a big effect on brands, but she says that when it comes to restaurants, micro-influencers, or people with between 10,000 and 50,000 followers and a lot of engagement, tend to have the most power.
She says, “These micro-influencers work well and are useful in the restaurant business, which is more localized.”
Ahaiwe is a micro-influencer who does it full-time. She has a full business plan and a media kit that explains how much she charges. She makes sure that her pitches are right for each company, and she says that her rates depend more on how much work it will take to make something look good than on how many followers she has.
“A shoot can easily cost $825 if I have to go out of my way to do it. “If the brand wants me to smile with the food in the photo,” she says, “that will make it $1,000 because I have to find someone to take photos with me.”
Ahaiwe drives around with trays, silverware, clothes, and other props in her car, ready to style food or other products for photo shoots. She plans out her posts on social media months in advance.
Ahaiwe went to Hollywood Burger in West Hollywood one afternoon not long ago to take some photos and make some videos. In addition to the milkshake and burger she ordered, the director of operations, Kevin Shea, brought out a tray of chicken wings, which were about to be added to the menu and he wanted to get people excited about.
Ahaiwe, in turn, carefully set up her photos by lining up the chicken wings, dipping some of them in sauces, and taking selfies with the chicken.
Shea said that when Ahaiwe finally posts her photos on Instagram, he expected the restaurant to get more followers and get more people to interact with it right away.
She is not the only person Shea works with who has a lot of power. “We get DMs from influencers three or four times a week saying, ‘Hey, can we “collab” and give you food?’ and we say, ‘No problem.'”
Hernandez says that $1 out of every $5 made at his restaurants goes to marketing, which includes the fee and free food given to influencers.
“I’ll never understand TikTok, but as a business owner, you should do your research and find someone who does,” says Hernandez. “But social marketing is just a way to get people in the door. You still have to convince them to come back.”