How social media influencers bring business to Phoenix area restaurants

Meet Kay Tam and Melissa Anaya – they're food influencers in Phoenix – and are better known as @azfoodguy and @eatdrinkaz.

They review food around Arizona, reaching a combined audience of almost 400,000 followers on social media.


"Sometimes I get invited to restaurants," Tam says. "A lot of times it just depends on what I want to eat or if there's something new that comes out, and I think, ‘This is really interesting, this is really creative, I've got to go cover it.'"

Tam first focused on TikTok, documenting restaurants like Texas BBQ House in south Phoenix.

It's no secret that the restaurant industry was crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas BBQ House owner Mike Pitt had to find a way to get customers back in after shutting his doors for three months. That's when he messaged Tam and asked him to come in for a free meal.

"We had 800 followers. Probably within a week we had over 1,000. Then in the last year and a half, we’re up to 2,700 I believe," Pitt says.

The Texas native grew up in the era of pagers, so TikTok and Instagram influencers are an entirely new concept, but he knew in order to get new customers, he had to do something differently.

Tam's videos hit a million views, with an average reach of 30,000 per video.

"Even if 300 people came in, 1%, that's enough to make a difference for a restaurant," Tam said.  

And it certainly did.

Pitt says they're still getting 10 to 20 new customers a day, and now, he says they go live on their own TikTok account showcasing what's cooking in the kitchen.

Numbers don't lie

Albert Hernandez, a restaurateur in Scottsdale, swears by the impact online.

"When I first started being a chef 15 years ago, it was all about the clipboard, and maybe you look for an ad somewhere, but now social media can double and triple your business," Hernandez said.

He opened Don Cafe a few months into 2022 and hopes it'll see the growth in sales that his Arcadia restaurant did after a visit from a food influencer.

Numbers that just don't lie.

"I'm talking about literally 33,000 to 66,000," Hernandez said. "I saw that increase in one month, and continued to see the same increase every month afterward."

He says influencers try the food, and if they like it, share it with their followers. That leaves him to do what he does best – cook.

"The biggest challenge here is just getting people through the door. We're so confident in our food, that that's not what really worries us. Our biggest worry is letting people know we're here," Hernandez said.


So, why did people turn to social media apps for food recommendations? Anaya says it's because people want to visualize.

She often searches for the flashiest content, like a tomahawk steak getting set on fire at Chico Malo in downtown Phoenix.

"I go to the back of the kitchen, I record the wow factors, the meat being thrown on, the sizzle, smoke, and then their presentation to me was off the charts," she said.

That very video went viral, getting over 200,000 views.

Executive chef Ivan Gonzalez says it had a direct impact.

"Five years ago when we first opened, we started doing tomahawks. We sell a tomahawk a month. With the new tomahawk that we have and the help from social media, we do it every day, multiple, like 10 a day," Gonzalez says.

At $140 bucks a pop, the increase in revenue and customers was easily quantifiable.

"I've had restaurants that say, 'Please let me know before you drop because we don't have enough staff to keep up,'" Anaya said.

Consistent content is key, she says, but most restaurants just don't have the time to maintain their own accounts, so they pay influencers in money, or in this case, free food.

"They started banking on these TikTokers and influencers that have thousands of followers. They only need to bring us in once, and it's going to flood their restaurants," Anaya said.

They're called influencers for a reason. They've figured out what to post when to post and on which platform. They're engaging with different demographics at every turn.

"Definitely younger on TikTok. My Instagram has been around for a lot longer, 3.5 years. I'm probably 25-45. I don't have the young, and I don't have the super old," Anaya said.

Restaurants designed to be on social media

Now, we see an entirely new business model emerge.

Wine Girl Scottsdale gives 360-degree views of social media-friendly locations. It was designed that way.

"When people have somewhere they want to take a picture, they'll post it. A cute one on their Instagram, and then other people will see it and want to come get the same picture," says Amy Johnston, owner of Wine Girl Scottsdale.

Johnston and her husband knew a light, bright aesthetic would encourage people to take photos and post them. Social media has become their new "word of mouth" and it's working.

They just broke ground on a new Wine Girl – this time in Napa Valley, California's wine country.

"We've never paid for marketing once," she said.

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