In the time before COVID-19 ripped across the world, social media influencers were a small but notorious staple of the hospitality industry, with a reputation for always being on the hunt for opportunities to “collaborate” with hotels and restaurants: Many regularly asked for free meals in exchange for posts on Instagram or other social media channels, though pitches often went the other way too, with some restaurants offering to host influencers, hoping that the resulting Instagram photos would appeal to thousands of potential new customers.
In the past week, state and local governments have mandated strict “safe at home” or shelter-in-place orders, allowing only “essential” businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies to stay open. Restaurants are still considered “essential,” though they must close dining rooms and can only offer takeout and/or delivery. Now that closures, layoffs, and uncertainty abound for restaurants, restaurateurs report that influencers have, for the most part, stopped asking for free food in exchange for coverage. But not everyone has received the memo. In Los Angeles, some influencers are continuing to request “collaborations” with restaurants that are struggling to even stay open.
In one instance, a musician with over 2 million followers on Instagram asked Wanderlust Creamery for freebies: “can we do in exchange [sic] for story post and i can tell ppl to head over and get some pints? (insert high-five emoji).” In another, Joy Limanon, a publicist for Felix in Venice, says a blogger and influencer with over 56,000 followers on Instagram asked if they could “come by and review your food and place,” ending the email with, “Of course, after all this Covid-19 ends!”
While it seems ridiculous that restaurants would hand out free food to influencers at a time when the situation for the industry is absolutely dire, right now many restaurants are looking for any way to promote their pivots to takeout and delivery in the hopes of staying alive until they can fully reopen. With so few local food media outlets, social media is the next best alternative. The minor cost of delivering a meal to an influencer might pay off with thousands of engaged followers looking for a recommendation.
Earlier this week, Wanderlust Creamery co-owner Adrienne Nicole Borlongan had communicated through the shop’s social media channels that it was looking to liquidate as many ice cream pints as possible in the event of a total lockdown in LA — prompting the freebie-seeking musician to pipe up. Borlongan is no stranger to collaborations with influencers, saying she’s usually more than willing to accept this sort of exchange; a scoop of ice cream is a relatively low price for a successful promotion, and Borlongan believes that most of her target demographic is reached via social media. But this week, Borlongan thinks the offer was more than a little tone deaf, considering the situation for restaurants in Los Angeles. “It was a little clueless on [their] part,” she says.
Borlongan says several influencers she’s worked with in the past have expressed their support of Wanderlust Creamery on their channels, however, even if they’re not buying any ice cream. “I do appreciate it, but right now I can’t afford to give up even the cost of a single scoop of ice cream,” she says, as sales have dipped 50 percent in the past week, even with the shift to delivery and takeout.
Sisters Jocelyn and Justine Wong, who run the popular LA-based Instagram account Hangry Diary, think the role for influencers right now is to help local restaurants amplify their message to diners who are already hesitant about spending any extra money or leaving their homes. The Wongs run Hangry Diary as a hobby outside of their full-time jobs, but have been continuing to receive requests to let their followers know that restaurants are open and offering curbside or delivery service.
“We’ve been sharing as many restaurants right now and we’ve seen growing viewership on our Instagram stories,” say the Wong sisters, who focus on restaurants, especially ones in the San Gabriel Valley, that don’t have a social media presence. A number of SGV restaurants have delivered free meals to them for posts, and the Wongs usually take photos of the delivered food in their home to share on Instagram. In one recent story, the Wongs showed a photo of Duck House in Monterey Park, which is offering free delivery of its roast Peking duck with a minimum $25 order. “Restaurants appreciate offers to promote them in our stories. It’s the fastest way for people to see what restaurants are serving right now.”
Other food influencers know how sensitive it is when many restaurants are on teetering on the edge of failure already. Stephanie Garofano, who runs the Dining Dolls on Instagram with her sister Lula Ferrell, says never asks for free food unless it is expressly offered by the restaurant. “I do this because I love it, not for the free meals,” Garofano says.
Garofano’s full-time job is social media marketing for restaurants around LA, but has lost that income as restaurants look for ways to slash their expenses. In recent days, she’s offered pro bono social media help to restaurants looking to promote their takeout and delivery menus. “I still want to help without getting paid. We’re all in this together. I want a thriving dining culture,” she says. Garofano thinks efforts like reposting her favorite restaurant’s Instagram posts on the Dining Dolls will help bring awareness to diners. “I think it really makes a difference,” says Garofano. “People are online, and people need to eat. Most people can’t cook.”
In response to the freebie request at Felix, Limanon gently wrote back to the blogger and influencer that the timing of the request was less than ideal. Perhaps before the COVID-19 pandemic, Limanon would usually entertain requests like this after careful evaluation. “Working with influencers can be really symbiotic,” she says, though recently the move from influencers has been going in another direction: “What we’ve seen from those influencers who we respect is that they are flipping the script. Some have proactively reached out to see how they can support, or have been very vocal and active, in sharing news and solutions that can help. They are part of the community, and it shows.”