Influencers can boost restaurant traffic, but only to a point

· The Pulse

To open a second location of Baekjeong in Edmonton, James Kook's go-to marketing move was to invite five influencers to help spread the word. But he doesn't know if it worked.

"Since opening, it's been pretty busy, but we have no idea if it's related to the influencers," said Kook, senior food and beverage manager for Mirae Investment Inc., which owns and operates the Korean barbecue restaurant and several other restaurants in Alberta and B.C. "Word spreads before the opening and some people already knew about it."

On the other hand, Café Bel-Air co-owner Avinash Soochit knows exactly why reservations went through the roof for high tea at his Mauritian restaurant: a post by Stephanie Truong, aka Ms. Hangry Foodie.

"If I could have a statue of her, I would," laughed Soochit, who explicitly thanks Truong on the restaurant's website.

While some restaurants can draw a straight line from an influencer's post to increased business, the connection is a lot harder to determine for others. But an intentional strategy increases the chances of success, said social media strategist Linda Hoang.

"I think influencers can be super-effective and useful for businesses if done right," said Hoang, an influencer in her own right. "But if they go into it without a plan, they don't know what they're looking for, and it can lead to a bad experience."

Kook estimated that Mirae spent around $1,000 in food costs to host the influencers at Baekjeong's opening in Mayfield Common. He indicated that Mirae chose the influencers based on their follower count, and focused on those who post more frequently about Asian cuisine. He also noted that the influencers were not given any direction or timelines for the content.

"I don't want to get a bad reputation," said Kook. "We are not hiring them. We are just asking them to do us a favour."

Hoang recommends being more strategic. Businesses should be clear about their goals and their content parameters (e.g., an Instagram post as opposed to an Instagram story), and they should ask for analytics, she said.

"Who is the person's audience?" Hoang recommends asking. "Are their followers in Edmonton? Would they be my customers?"

Avinash Soochit smiles as he stands in front of the whimsical decor of Cafe Bel-Air

Café Bel-Air co-owner Avinash Soochit said his business has benefitted from working with influencers. (Sharon Yeo)

If restaurant owners aren't careful, they can be taken advantage of.

"I think a lot of influencers are just trying to get a free meal, and they don't actually care about your business," said Hoang.

On Instagram, secondary engagement is also a good metric to keep in mind, Hoang added. "Almost all of my posts get saved or sent," she said. "If it's interesting for them to send it to someone, it's top of mind."

Truong, who works in marketing full-time, creates content on the side as Ms. Hangry Foodie on Instagram and TikTok. In the past three months, her reels have been saved an average of 264 times each and shared an average of 692 times each.

Truong said her focus is primarily on new businesses, and most of the time, she covers the costs of sampling the food herself. "My goal is brand awareness," said Truong. "I want to spread the word about new places, and I like to be the first to have shared it."

As a result of seeking out new businesses to highlight, Truong rarely returns to a business more than once.

Transparency and disclosure are important to Truong. She clearly states when she has been invited for a meal, as that tends to affect her impression. "If you're getting something for free, you try to put a positive spin on the content," said Truong. "Whenever I'm hosted, it's almost never negative."

Her audience has been known to push back against what they perceive as too much paid work, she shared.

"Back in August, I did three paid partnerships in a few weeks, and my engagement went down and comments about those partnerships came up," said Truong. "My audience got annoyed because they don't follow me for ads. Balance is important."

Truong's followers frequently message her to let her know they've tried a business she has recommended. Less often, she hears directly from the business. "In the few years I've done this, I've only once been invited for dinner by a restaurant owner as a thank-you," said Truong.

A case of influence in action

Café Bel-Air, which opened at the end of 2021, was one business that publicly thanked Truong for her impact. Truong booked and paid for Cafe Bel-Air's high tea like any other customer, then posted about her experience in April 2022. "And the rest is history," said Soochit.

The cafe was besieged by reservation requests immediately after the post, he said. "We started getting so many phone calls and e-mails," said Soochit. "150 reservations! We could not respond to everyone."

The increased interest led Café Bel-Air to develop an online reservation system. "Before Stephanie, people had to call and book," said Soochit. "And we have less wastage of food now because people have to pre-pay for high tea."

Unlike Baekjeong, Café Bel-Air does not proactively approach influencers. "If we focus on social media, we are going to neglect the food and the service," said Soochit.

That said, when Soochit was approached by Lincoln Ho (Yegventuresfood on Instagram and TikTok), he offered him a complimentary meal.

"He said, 'I'd like to showcase Café Bel-Air to Edmontonians,'" said Soochit. "I didn't know Lincoln before. Somebody of this stature coming over, the food is the least I can do as a thank-you. He didn't promise anything, but I knew the aftermath would be a blessing."

Soochit was satisfied with the video Ho produced, re-sharing it on Café Bel-Air's own social media. He believes the exposure did result in some additional customers.

At the end of the day, Soochit recognizes that social media can only go so far. "We strive hard to give good service," said Soochit. "Everybody does food. Why would people come to your shop and spend their hard-earned money?"

Hoang echoed that sentiment. "Influencers might be able to get people through the door, but if your food isn't good, or the service sucks, people aren't going to come back."