23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

Opinion | Social Media Influencers Are Holding Restaurants Hostage

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A social media influencer walks into a bar ….

No, wait. This isn’t a joke. This is a 21st-century shakedown.

Here is how it works: An influencer walks into a restaurant to collect an evening’s worth of free food and drink, having promised to create social media content extolling the restaurant’s virtues. The influencer then orders far more than the agreed amount and walks away from the check for the balance or fails to tip or fails to post or all of the above. And the owners are left feeling conned.

The swap of food for eyeballs is nothing new in our digital age; businesses can fail from a lack of exposure. But the entitled disregard — with emboldened influencers making outsize demands but not always fulfilling their end of the bargain — is a more recent phenomenon. They have come to realize that they have all the power, as defined by the number of followers they have on TikTok or YouTube or Instagram. It’s an influence seller’s market, defined by whatever the traffic will bear.

In a business without boundaries, anything goes. Brian Bornemann, the chef and a co-owner of the restaurants Crudo e Nudo and Isla in Santa Monica, Calif., said that while there are reliable influencers, the “lower echelons” see a free meal as a way to build their personal brands. And the most entrepreneurial influencers, whether they have sophisticated skills or merely a prospector’s zeal, offer an ascending roster of fee-based services. Exposure packages can cost upwards of $1,000 for a prescribed number of Instagram stories, posts and a professionally made video, sometimes with performance bonuses tied to views.

Influencer content is lifestyle advertising, selling a quick, aspirational message that has more in common with a fashion ad than with reality. Visit this restaurant, a post implies, and your life will be as much fun as mine. Status is defined by popularity rather than by expertise or by character, and credible, food-savvy comments can get lost in the increasing din.

The opportunists — who give new meaning to the term “grab and go” — aren’t good for restaurants, which are trying to get back on their feet after the pandemic. They aren’t good for the rest of us, either, because they make the already dubious content flooding our feeds even more suspect. The more we rely on influencer posts, the more our critical faculties shrink, because often there’s no depth, no context, no reporting, nothing beyond the surface image of fun, and we can’t tell whom to trust.

Over time, this kind of fast-twitch media habit can make it harder for us to downshift into a more considered view of the landscape. We develop new processing habits; we skim and move on. The balance tips, and not for the better — unless you’re in the business of self-promotion, in which case these are boom times.

Traditional restaurant reporting comes in two basic flavors, celebratory and, more recently, investigative, but I think both approaches have in common a love of the subject — of the role restaurants play in our communities and of the people who work in them. When influencers take advantage of restaurants, there’s no love to be found. They’re in the business of exploitation.

Journalists and influencers are not the same species, but we intersect at one point on the graph — we provide information — making it easy to get us mixed up. Welcoming influencers into your dining room can seem easier, at first glance, because they’re looking for good news: All you have to do is feed and water them, and with luck, they go away to post nice photos along with a little copy.

That initial ease comes at a price. Fear and imagination are a potent mix, and wary restaurateurs worry about retaliation if food influencers don’t get what they want: criticism of food that they might have said tasted better if it had been free, complaints about nonexistent bad service or a bottle of wine that the group drained dry before judging it to be off.

Or they can stiff a restaurant. I hear first-tier influencers sharpening their cutlery to defend their honor, but numerous restaurateurs tell me that dealing with the second tier is a constant challenge.

I don’t know what the future holds for restaurants, because there are no rules to this game, and deciding not to play is less and less an option. Influencers add another cost to an already volatile and low-margin business, but they aren’t going away any time soon, and the serious ones drive traffic. With regulators largely sitting on the sidelines, victimized restaurateurs are left to look for ways to keep from being duped again.

Mr. Bornemann tells influencers he hasn’t worked with to come in on their own dime, once, before he’ll do business. “If they balk,” he said, “they’re bogus.”

Owners can take on the additional job of trying to verify influencer numbers because there are many ways to artificially boost follower counts. If influencers reach out to say they enjoyed a meal at a restaurant and would be happy to return and post in exchange for a freebie, owners can ask for the date of the initial visit to see if there’s a credit card charge on file or check the menu to see if the items the influencers loved were offered on the night in question.

Some restaurants reject all requests below a minimum follower threshold, and some simply refuse to engage. But it takes nerve to opt out.

That’s the underlying problem, whoever the influencer is. Restaurant customers can be fickle, and influencers tell them where to go next. Owners nod wearily when someone mentions the latest influencer scam even as they book a comped table for four, motivated by a pervasive fear of being eclipsed by the place down the block whose new cocktails are showing up everywhere.

But I see a bright future for influencers, even the ones who exploit their position of power in exchange for free goods. If they go to law school, they can aspire to a gig on the Supreme Court, where their actions would qualify, to some justices, as very small potatoes indeed.

Karen Stabiner is a journalist and author whose most recent book is “Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream.”

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