The pandemic made it official: Instagram is a necessary tool for restaurants that want to reach customers where they live. The Facebook-owned and SF-based social media network now has more than a billion users, with particularly strong adoption in its hometown. Bay Area restaurants are well past the days of chefs complaining about food going cold while diners snap photos, or about worrying overtweaks to plating to be more social media-genic. These days, Eater SF is seeing many restaurants throw up an Instagram post long before they update their website, Google local listing, or Yelp page. Here’s why.
For restaurants with the most social media savvy, Instagram serves up the promise of reposted, reshared, and “liked” takeout. One prime example is the Farmhouse Kitchen restaurant group, which has had not one but two smash sensations on the platform in the past year. Farmhouse Thai, with 24,000 followers, has sold 65,000 Little Lao takeout sets, a big colorful platter filled with curries, noodles, spring rolls, and samosas, since the beginning of the pandemic. And Son & Garden, its newest restaurant, already with 12,000 followers, followed with an over-the-top tea-party set, filled with finger sandwiches, pastries, tea, and rosebuds. Fifteen hundred of those have sold so far.
Farmhouse Kitchen also has an influencer on payroll: Cynthia Linh, a photographer, blogger, and social media consultant, who has more than 60,000 followers herself. She’s worked with International Smoke, La Mar, and Little Gem, among others, creating “literally everything,” from photos and videos to voiceovers and captions; responding to comments and DMs; reaching out to influencers; and even consulting on plating, encouraging chefs to slide banana leaves under a dish or add flowers for color.
“When quarantine hit, my heart just broke. Restaurants were already struggling to keep their doors open,” Linh says. But “social media has been a game-changer for restaurants during the pandemic, especially the Farmhouse group.”
“[Instagram] is how we get the word out about specials,” Linh says. “We see immediate results after every post.” She attributes the “caught on fire” success of the Little Lao takeout set to the look, taste, and price point — it’s a deal at $59.99, generously feeding two adults with a kiddie meal essentially thrown in for free. Keep in mind, Son & Garden opened in February, right before lockdown, but thanks to one influencer event that Linh hosted, the new restaurant had 5,000 followers before it even began service. So it’s not just sharing these specials with regulars, it’s also attracting new customers.
Linh doesn’t even really believe that people want to go to websites and read menus anymore. “So many eyes are on [Instagram], and you need to be where people’s eyes are …. Instagram makes you more discoverable. If you follow your friend, and they post about their experience, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, did you see so-and-so, she had the most amazing platter, what is it?!’ That’s the style of photography and videos that we create… we want you to stop scrolling, and say, ‘Oh my god, I want that right now.’”
For many pop-ups born out of the pandemic, Instagram isn’t just marketing, it’s actually how they do business. Sunset Squares Pizza is just one example of a pandemic pop-up with an entire business model based on Instagram. It started out as a “mock business,” chef Dennis Lee tells Eater SF. Lee was baking sourdough with his kids at the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, and started selling pizza to friends and neighbors in the Sunset. “It wasn’t that serious to start,” says the chef, who also co-owns the dormant Namu Gaji and active Namu Stonepot restaurants. “Then as it grew, I didn’t want to deal with preconceived notions of me and my brand.”
From March through December, for a good long nine months, he took orders through direct messages on Instagram, first through his personal account, then through a business account. The Sunset Squares Instagram account only has 3,500-some followers, but Lee wasn’t trying to blow it up; he wanted to keep it small and manage the volume. Before the business opened inside the SoMa kitchen initially slated for Namu Gaji, Lee and his kids would respond to DMs, move orders over into a Google spreadsheet, and run pizza delivery in the neighborhood.
Many other pandemic pop-ups are using the social media platform to do food business that way. SF Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho wrote this week about how to dive into “DM food” to get the good cheesecake. New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao just published a story about LA pop-ups serving takeout through the platform. But before anyone calls it a cool indie trend, Lee wants to be clear that Instagram is free, the other options are daunting, and it’s a necessity: “There’s not really much of a choice. The landscape with third-party [platforms], whether it’s storefront like Square, or delivery like DoorDash … it’s been very volatile ,” Lee says. “it’s really difficult for an individual business to navigate those dynamics. That’s why a lot of the pop-ups choose to keep it simple and go through Instagram.”
Still, Instagram is one more thing that overburdened business owners have to manage. Hahdough, the only dedicated German bakery in San Francisco, opened its doors right at the beginning of the pandemic, and immediately, Instagram “was really really key for us,” says Christian MacNevin, husband and partner to baker Ha Do. “We never spent a cent on marketing.”
With Do overwhelmed and baking hundreds of cakes every week, it fell on MacNevin to manage the social account. In early days, Hahdough used Instagram simply to remind people that yes, the bakery was in fact still open and to quickly communicate those ever-changing days and hours, as the city has closed, opened, reclosed, reopened, and continued to switch up the rules for restaurants.
“We also had to do a lot of apologizing early on, and remind people that we’re a small business, and say, ‘Please don’t hate us,’” says MacNevin, describing when the brand-new bakery got slammed with online orders. They posted seasonal specials, updated when they were sold out, and shared cake giveaways when a customer failed to pick up an order. “I would post it, go to walk the dog, and by the time I got half a block, we would have a dozen responses,” MacNiven says. “A big thing for a small business is that long-term engagement. You’ll be someone’s favorite for a couple of months … but you want them to remember you’re around, remember you exist, and keep coming back.”
December was Hahdough’s busiest month ever, a mini stollen blitz — they say that Do baked 82 cakes on Christmas Eve, and 60 cakes the day before that, single-handedly, in “the world’s tiniest kitchen.” Around the same time, they got locked out of their Instagram account.
“To this day, we still have no idea what we did wrong,” says MacNevin. They tried to appeal the lockout twice, following official Instagram links that went nowhere. They created a second account, potentially confusing their customers. Finally, in a very San Francisco conclusion to this sad story, an Instagram executive who happened to be a cake lover reached out and quietly and internally fixed the issue. Now, Hahdough still has two Instagram accounts. They’re hiring a barista, who happens to be an aspiring photographer, to take pretty cake photos and hopefully sort that out.
For mom-and-pop restaurants in areas like Chinatown, there’s a digital divide to bridge. Good Good Eatz is a nonprofit organization born out of the pandemic, one that supports underrepresented food districts, including Oakland Chinatown and the Fruitvale neighborhood, and restaurants within them, such as Huangcheng Noodle House, Green Fish Seafood Market, and El Huarache Azteca. Good Good Eatz sets these small businesses up with Instagram accounts, maybe for the first time ever. “We explain that that is the new business model,” says co-founder Tommy Wong. “It’s less a separate part of the business, and more a very integrated part of their business.”
He says it’s tough, especially when their clients are older, speak English as a second language, or may prefer another platform; he points out that many Cantonese speakers stick to WeChat, the Chinese-based “super app” that combines both social media and mobile payments. When Good Good Eatz sits down with those restaurant owners, “We ask if they have any daughters, sons, nieces, or nephews. That’s honestly one of our first questions. Because it’s hard. You’re running your business, you have to do all these crazy things during the pandemic, and then here we come along, saying here’s another thing you have to learn.”
But whether businesses are trying to update their hours for the thousandth time this year or attempting to get the word out about a fresh and creative new takeout item, at the end of the day, Instagram is where their diners are scrolling, and therefore where restaurants can have anything resembling the conversations that used to happen in the dining room.
“We live in a meme-based society, and that has only been amplified by shelter in place,” says Lee. Instagram was founded in 2010. He opened Namu Gaji in 2012, and considers himself an early adopter, even when other restaurants were complaining about the new platform. “When Instagram first started, just like with Yelp … we realized that was how people made choices about what to eat, and we decided to welcome it.”
And appealing directly to diners, both Linh with Farmhouse and Wong of Good Good Eatz insist that diners have a lot of power to boost their favorite businesses. Wong is actively exploring ways to get diners to use hashtags, to take some of the burden off restaurant owners. “Everybody is an influencer,” says Linh. “If you have a platform, and you have a following, when you post your takeout and tag the restaurant, that’s free marketing. Whether you have 10 followers or 100 followers, you’re helping to get the word out.”