TikTokers come to the rescue of Vancouver restaurants

Food joints join forces with content creators to boost restaurant sales during COVID-19

December 2nd 2020
Sophia Hu at Kosoo Restaurant's new menu launch, featuring tteokbokki hotpot, a mix of Korean dumplings, noodles, rice cakes, fish cakes, eggs, vegetables and squid, as well as gimbap. Photo by Johnathan Tam, provided by Sophia Hu

Food blogger Rebecca Coleman has seen a sharp uptick in the number of restaurant businesses approaching her over the last month, and she says it’s all because of TikTok.

“These restaurants that are reaching out to me, they have websites, they have Instagram, but very few of them have TikTok,” Coleman says.

TikTok is still a new enough social media platform that businesses haven’t yet fully embraced it, she says, but influencers have.

“And they’re taking full advantage of that,” says Coleman, who is an Instagram and TikTok food blogger and a full-time instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, where she teaches social media marketing for business.

The pandemic led to the shutdown of businesses as well as widespread layoffs affecting the food and beverage industry as a whole. According to a Restaurants Canada survey, Canada’s April food service sales were the lowest in more than two decades.

However, when restaurants reopened for business, owners began to turn to influencers to help attract new customers both for in-house and takeout dining.

“I think that the potential is limitless,” says Sophia Hu, a Vancouver digital creator who goes by the username sopheats on TikTok and Instagram and has more than 21,000 followers combined.

Digital creator Sophia Hu at Rice Burger Vancouver trying the restaurant's Asian-inspired burgers, which feature buns made of rice, along with kimchi fries, jumbo tempura and fully loaded rice bowls. Photo by Johnathan Tam, provided by Sophia Hu

“As more restaurants see the power, the impact and the reach of social media as a new way, new-age marketing, they're going to be using food bloggers and content creators all the time.”

Hu says restaurants will favour influencer marketing over conventional methods because it’s more personable, engaging and authentic.

“We are real people and we actually love food. We go to the restaurants and we try it. I engage (with) my audience like they're my friends. And I'm just sharing genuinely what I love,” she says.

Self-heating ramen bowls are available for takeout at Poke Bar Canada and heat up with steam over seven to 10 minutes, warming the contents inside the bowl. Photo by Sophia Hu
A sashimi platter from Japanese restaurant Kanae Yakiniku, whose menu includes yakiniku (grilled meat), premium quality sashimi and sushi. Photo by Sophia Hu

Content creator Ceci, who has around 10,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram and goes by the username purplechives, says restaurants in Vancouver have adapted well to this style of marketing.

After the initial lockdown was lifted and restaurants shifted to a takeout program, she saw they needed help with promotion.

Restaurants tried to lure influencers by sending them food packages to taste and review, she explains.

“I think the ones that were able to cultivate a good relationship with influencers have been able to do quite well,” she says.

In provinces like B.C., where restaurants remain open to in-house dining, restaurateurs have invited influencers and food bloggers to visit, which sends a message they are open for business and operating safely.

Influencer marketing is also a relatively low-cost option for business owners with funding constraints. While many food bloggers don’t get paid for their promotions and reviews, they do get to taste the food for free and make content for their audience.

For Coleman, who goes by the username findbex on TikTok, it is also an opportunity to build her brand.

Promotional videos are an opportunity for content creators to raise awareness around issues and businesses they want to support, she says.

To keep her reviews fair, Ceci is upfront with restaurants when they invite her in to talk about their food.

“I'm going to write what I think about your food. If I don't like it, I just post about it,” she says. “But I do usually give them feedback, first, if it's really bad.”

The special Bánh Mì Trio from the Banh Mi Tres Bon restaurant contains three mini sandwiches: jambon, poulet and xíu mại, all of which feature French baguettes with house-made egg sauce, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeños, Sriracha and cilantro. Photo shot by Sophia Hu

Although all three content creators began their journey on Instagram, their audiences are now shifting to TikTok.

“There’s a place for everything on TikTok,” says Coleman, who has almost 40,000 followers on TikTok and around 4,300 on Instagram.

What has made the platform so popular in the past few months? Both Coleman and Ceci attribute TikTok’s wider reach to its share feature.

“If I'm on TikTok, and I see a video, and I like that, I can share that video to my Instagram Stories effortlessly,” Coleman says.

The application allows users, including restaurants, to send videos across platforms such as Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, email, Snapchat and Messenger. It also allows them to save the video and react to it by making duets.

Hu transitioned to TikTok when she realized she could repurpose content she had already secured for her Instagram and use it to engage in a different way.

“It's fast and it's also casual,” she says, adding that unlike Instagram, TikTok does not require high-definition photos or footage.