There were several flavors of croissants on the menu at Union Fare Bakery in New York City, but the “Birthday Cake Croissant,” loaded with a sweet pink ooze and Funfetti, was the one that ultimately drew long lines. The success took a month or two, but that’s when executive chef (and former Food Network Star finalist) Yvan Lemoine knew that his relationship with local creative agency Front of House had paid off.
“We reached out to them at the beginning [of the bakery] so we could really start spreading the gospel of Union Fare,” Lemoine says. “I think it’s worth every penny.”
New York City’s Front of House is a creative marketing agency that specializes in developing social media content for restaurants, including recipe development, Instagrammable photos, and exclusive events designed to get their clients’ names out there on social networks. Food photographer and restaurant marketer Dillon Burke teamed up with partner Adam Fulton to create the business in 2016.
“In the beginning, [our clients were] restaurants that were already open and looking to make a shift,” Burke says. “It’s now changed a bit, and people are coming to us earlier — prior to opening — and saying, ‘Hey, where do I put this?’ ‘Hey, how do I do this?’ ‘What’s gonna give me that Instagrammable moment?’”
It’s a modern-day take on some of the concepts Burke’s father, chef and restaurateur David Burke, incorporated into his own whimsical creations. According to Burke, restaurants want to know where they should put a pineapple, what types of cocktails they should serve, and what recipe elements would look the best. For some clients, the goal is to go viral, or at least make an impression on social media: Front of House’s well-maintained network of young influencers, and its ability to tap into that network quickly, was one reason Union Fare reached out to the agency.
“They read to a younger audience and they read to a lot more millennials,” Lemoine says, adding that the result is an “explosive” response from the group. “[Front of House] really builds that demand, and then they reach out to the right people. And that takes off.”
This budding segment of social media marketing is disrupting the ways restaurants traditionally promote themselves. “Whereas the New York Times used to be the epicenter of all things food review,” Burke says, “now websites have popped up and influencers have popped up and the guarded entry of content creation has become much more easygoing.”
Part of Front of House’s job is keeping the influencers with whom it builds relationships happy, often by offering them everything from special access to the restaurant’s best tables for taking photos. “The way we’ve created these relationships with influencers is that we were early to the game and we were always: ‘Hey, how do we improve this?’” Burke says.
Scott Nghiem, who opened Afters Ice Cream parlors in California with his partner Andy Nguyen in 2014, noticed the growing demand for these kinds of middlemen. When the chain’s Milky Bun ice cream sandwich went viral, restaurant owners started probing Nghiem for his secrets.
“So many people were approaching us asking, ‘How did you guys do this? Is there a specific thing I could do to increase my chances of becoming viral?’” Nghiem says. So he started Squad Goals in 2016 with other entrepreneurs who have gone viral, including Jed Cartojano, co-owner of California-based The Loop: Handcrafted Churros. Their list of clients has included Mr. Holmes Bakehouse — the purveyors of the viral cruffin (half croissant, half muffin), for which Squad Goals has organized multiple openings and social posts.
But is paying for a chance to go viral “cheating?” Chefs like Lemoine contend that hiring professionals gives restaurants a competitive edge, and is therefore becoming industry standard. “It’s part of doing business in New York City,” Lemoine says. “In today’s day and age, you have to be able to reach the audiences that you need to survive. We have to use the tools that we have at our disposal.”
The trend is a quiet takeover. Many of these marketing agencies keep a low profile, and are generally discoverable by word of mouth. Websites for Squad Goals and Zuckerman’s Food and City are still in development, yet their creators boast strong client bases. Not surprisingly, the agencies also declined to disclose the financial terms behind any of their arrangements. But it isn’t stopping them from maintaining their robust personal network of influencers, which is arguably the secret sauce to their businesses.
The rise of influencers
Influencers are known for having an above-average number of followers on social media platforms like Instagram. Instagram started in 2010 as a mobile app allowing users to instantly share pictures and videos; it’s become one of the leading social apps, with more than 800 million monthly users. Not surprisingly, it’s also the weapon of choice for restaurant lovers dying to share their culinary adventures with their friends. With Instagrammability at the core of many social media marketing services, one of the most important steps to making things go viral is getting those things in front of the right Instagram influencers.
Gavin Booth and Karen Reinsberg, a couple from Austin, Texas, have a steady revenue stream thanks to their Instagram account and blog. They started using Instagram as a hobby, but after amassing thousands of followers, they suddenly found themselves in high demand.
“The next thing we knew we were getting invited to a lot of opportunities to dine at new restaurants or great restaurants,” Reinsberg says. Though most of their Instagram posts are ordinary snapshots of their lives — sent to 32,000 followers — sometimes they accept payments to promote products or restaurants, or receive in-kind compensations, like a free meal.
“Any time we’re paid for content, which is mainly our recipes, you’ll see #ad or #sponsored. Any time we’re paid, we’re very clear about that,” Reinsberg says, adding that they notice many influencers don’t divulge this information.
Those who don’t disclose are breaking the law. Responding to the increase in sponsored posts on Instagram, the Federal Trade Commission recently targeted Instagram influencers with information about how the law requires them to abide by endorsement guidelines, including “conspicuously disclosing their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media.” Instagrammers are thus required to reveal their sponsors using hashtags and links. “The FTC rules are really clear,” Booth says. “We’re not about going against FTC rules.”
Doing so could not only hurt credibility, but put a dent in the lucrative business. Most influencers are tight-lipped about the exact amount they’re paid for a post, often due to contract agreements. But several sources speaking on background confirm they can make anywhere from $50 to $1,500 in cash for each Instagram post. Larger companies and chains pay even more.
“I don’t know if we can share an exact number,” Reinsberg says, “but I will tell you it pays our mortgage every month.”
Influencers are in such high demand that a growing middle market of agencies pitch them to clients. Booth and Reinsberg are members of Foodie Tribe, an influencer agency that focuses specifically on connecting brands — including national chains like Red Lobster and McDonald’s — with food influencers.
Katy Coffield started the company in 2015 and claims a base of more than 1,000 influencers whom she selected personally. She says corporate and restaurant clients aren’t always looking to go viral, but instead turn to influencers — whose audiences are members of targeted demographics — as an extension to bigger marketing campaigns. The companies decide how they may compensate the influencers (either with a comped meal, discount, samples, cash, or nothing at all). The influencers, in turn, decide whether to try the product. Coffield says more and more influencers are realizing the value in their posts and are expecting companies to offer them money.
“Once you get [an influencer with] over 20,000 followers, they’re gonna start charging [companies] for the content because they know their worth,” Coffield says. “There are some clients that understand the influencer world and totally agree with the fact they’ll need to pay, say, $200 to $300 for a post. Then there are other people that don’t, so it really depends on the client.” For her part, Coffield charges the brands for access to the right influencers for the brands’ campaigns. The more influencers they want to reach, the more she can earn.