The COVID-19 pandemic has left local foodie influencers floundering.
Where do they go now? And what do they post on their food blogs and social media pages?
“It really stopped cold,” said Foodie Fo Sho founder Shoshana Leon, who has covered Scottsdale restaurants openings, events and news on her blog and Facebook and Instagram pages since 2018.
“The challenge now is that there are no more food events,” said Scottsdale resident and founder of AZ Food Guy, Kay Tea.
“Prior to COVID, there were festivals, parties, influencer meetups like every week, so it was very easy to have a lot of content,” Tea continued. “But now, I can’t prepare as much content in advance because content is in short supply.”
But neither food influencer has stopped posting content to their social media pages – and, in Tea’s case, exponentially growing a following.
Tea, who launched AZ Food Guy on Instagram in April 2019, exploded on TikTok, where he’s amassed more than 40,000 followers in five months.
Tea also continues to increase his Instagram following, which has grown to more than 14,000 followers in just over a year.
Calling foodie influencers “conduits into the community,” Tea said, “they remind people of what is out there and they create excitement as well.”
“During the pandemic, people just want to stay home and shut the world out,” he added. “The influencers are there to get the message through. I think in the future, restaurants and influencers will work together more cohesively.”
Tea noted that restaurants that have fared better in the pandemic are those that have an established social media presence.
Leon echoes Tea’s sentiments, adding that influencers are helping to educate their followers, especially those not comfortable dining out, on how restaurants have taken action and what the dining experience is actually like.
“There’s an audience looking for this type of information,” Leon said. “[We’re] letting them know that, yes, events are coming back and ... reassuring people that, yes, I went to this place and it was a good experience.”
For restaurants, like the Instagram-friendly brunch haven Hash Kitchen, which has two Scottsdale locations, influencers are a key player to growing their business.
“The food influencers and foodies have organically helped Hash Kitchen grow from one location to five locations throughout Scottsdale and Phoenix with another location underway coming to Peoria,” said Hash Kitchen co-founder and executive chef Joey Maggiore. “Each time they share their Hash Kitchen experiences, they are tapping into new customers.”
Social media played an important role in Hash Kitchen’s identity and ensuing success.
Maggiore said he created the menus with Instagram in mind: Not only did each dish and each cocktail have to taste great, they also had to look good enough for each guest to take that obligatory brunch photo.
“Our Bloody Marys are the most Instagrammable and dominate social media feeds,” he said. “We have over 70 toppings to choose from, and it’s very exciting for each guest to put together their own Bloody Mary for their photo-worthy brunch spreads.”
Maggiore said the Hash team has collaborated with both local and national foodie influencers.
The local influencers, he said, have helped drive local traffic or introduced the restaurant to residents who live outside Scottsdale.
While “social media giants, like Foodbeast, have covered Hash Kitchen’s food and beverage program and expanded our reach around the world,” Maggiore said. “We have new guests that visit from different parts of the country who have seen those national social media features.”
“A lot of restaurants are starting to realize the value of influencers in the community,” Tea added. “It is simply not enough to just maintain a good social media account but to really excel at social media presence.”
Tea posts to Instagram three times a day and has ramped up content now that he also has TikTok to manage.
“On TikTok, it is a little more difficult to produce a video every day, so I try to post five to seven times per week,” he said.
Instead of dining in, Tea ordered takeout and even began taking photos in his at-home photo studio.
Eventually, he and Leon made their way back to dining rooms.
“I have my P100 respirator mask and splash goggles, so I feel safe going back out. Of course, I usually go when it is less busy, so I don’t have to interact with a crowd,” Tea said.
Now, Tea and Leon’s respective calendars are filling back up with food events.
Earlier this month, Leon attended an intimate Arizona Restaurant Week preview with about 20 other food bloggers – “and all in a very socially distanced way,” she said.
“It wasn’t the way as it used to be,” Leon continued. “We wear a mask, we sit distanced, and they try to be very careful about it. But I do feel like things are coming back.”
Leon also observed, “As Arizona numbers have gone down, I’ve seen more people out and about in restaurants, which makes me very happy.”
“I think as you get back to life, restaurants become a part of that,” Leon added.
Hash Kitchen has also seen an increase in diners, who continue to take advantage of the Bloody Mary bar, which has undergone one noticeable transformation.
“We altered our Bloody Mary bar with clear, protective dividers to keep customers safe, and they have a dedicated Bloody Mary attendant wearing protective gear who customizes their cocktails for them,” Maggiore said.
Even with the ramp-up in events, Tea predicts takeout has – and will continue to be – king.
“Eventually, people will go back. As of now, I think delivery and takeout has been the norm,” he said. “From what I hear at various restaurants, even though dine in has increased, the amount of takeout and delivery has been consistent. Hopefully, in the end, that means they increased their customer base.”
Editor's note: This story originally included information about Hash Kitchen's Hash at Night event, which was supposed to launch on Oct. 2. Since the story was published, however, Hash Kitchen postponed the date for the event due to staffing issues, a representative for the restaurant told the Progress.