How Sacramento social media food influencers whet the city’s appetite for food and restaurant trends.
In an otherwise dim corner of Fahrenheit 250 BBQ, a large spotlight tilts toward an empty table. Servers arrive with sandwiches, nachos and fried green tomatoes, and the evening’s guests follow. They swarm the table armed with iPhones and professional cameras, searching for prime angles. One stands up on a cushy booth for an aerial shot.
“Don’t judge me,” she says, looking around to no one in particular.
For the most part, these people are social media influencers. Some live in the world of Snapchat, but most wield their power on Instagram. In simple terms, they post photos of meals—some of which are received for free, some not—for their hundreds or often thousands of followers seeking inspiration for their next meal. Fahrenheit 250 wants to be that next meal.
Lorenzo Garcia waits for the crowd to die down before beginning his own photo shoot. He waves his hand in front of his iPhone, testing for shadow, and pivots three plates around so they line up just so: burger on the right, burger on the left, burger on the right. By the end of the night, he says he’ll take a few hundred photos but only post two. A shot of smoked ribs will be “liked” by 133 people.
He and his sister Diana Garcia run the @sacfoodandbooze Instagram account, which has more than 6,000 followers.
“I didn’t expect too much from it and it grew so much,” Diana says. “It’s overwhelming at some points.”
Lorenzo is the photographer and marketing wiz, posting and engaging with others to gain as many followers as possible. Diana is the researcher, keeping up with restaurant news to figure out where they should eat next. They joined forces as an excuse to get together and spread their love for local food. The account was born in February 2015. A year later, it finally reached 1,000 followers and grew rapidly from there. In the process, they not only became closer as siblings but turned into recognizable local food people themselves.
Last spring, the Garcias began receiving invitations to events. Would they like to join a media preview party for the new Temple Coffee? Would they like to sample some new menu items at Kupros Craft House? Would they like to try the mobile goods at Off the Grid?
Of course, of course, of course.
Ali Zamanian started his @sacfoodie account, which is inching toward 5,000 followers, roughly three years ago. Back then, Instagram wasn’t really as popular. The king was Foursquare, which is now all but dead. Zamanian didn’t mean to become such a fixture in the restaurant community—he just loves going out to eat. He’s dining out two or three times a day, and his feed looks like an aspirational bucket list of must-eat Sacramento dishes: the Farm Plate at Localis, beef stew at Magpie Cafe, sashimi at Kru.
“A lot of people think I’m a food reviewer or in the food industry,” he says. “So, I get a lot of messages like, ’Hey, come in, we’ll give you all the food you want for free.’”
Zamanian almost always declines. He doesn’t want to be told what to eat or what to photograph. He says it would ruin the fun. But he knows what could happen if he took advantage of these offers; he follows this influencer trend flourishing on a national level.
“More and more restaurants are starting to hire PR people,” he says—and those public relations experts know social media is the way to tap into the coveted millennial market.
According to articles in Bon Appetit Magazine, Bloomberg and others, social media influencers in big cities like New York and Chicago not only rack up hundreds of thousands of followers, but they basically live off of their Instagram accounts. As professional influencers, they might eat all of their meals for free or even get paid enough to avoid needing a conventional job.
Zamanian has attended events where everything is choreographed: the table, the arrangement of plates, the lighting. He acknowledges that these meals aren’t about the food—even if the Instagrammer is expected to gush about a dish’s deliciousness online later.
“You’re not eating that food for an hour,” he says. “It’s ice cold.”
But the reliance on influencers is relatively new in Sacramento. Even those behind the biggest accounts—like the Garcias—aren’t totally sure how the system works.
“People don’t always say photos, but you know,” Lorenzo says of those who invite them to events.
“Sometimes it’s vague for what they want,” Diana adds. “One photo? Three photos? Four photos?”
Beyond events, influencers are starting to earn a seat at the industry table. One restaurant invited the Garcias to take advantage of its restaurant industry discount. A festival with a cooking competition invited them to be expert judges.
Victoria Vlahos, media relations director for Insight Public Relations, has organized four social media influencer events within the past year. She says they’ve proven to be successful on a grassroots level, creating buzz about clients like El Rey, Kasbah and Fahrenheit 250. Insight doesn’t dabble in paying influencers for posts—Vlahos tries to make the experience as organic as possible, though she does encourage the use of specific hashtags and sharing photography with restaurants. The other method is starting to look more and more obvious to consumers.
“You can tell when X company paid X influencer to share on their page,” she says, sitting in Fahrenheit 250’s rustic space while Instagrammers feast on complementary pulled pork tacos and sliders. “This isn’t paid for—this is a trade.”
Influencers know some of their followers eat at certain restaurants and order certain things based on their posts. While Zamanian only posts what he actually likes—and what looks aesthetically pleasing, and ideally what was shot with good lighting—the Garcias are more prone to ethical dilemmas. What if they’re fed something gross?
Luckily, that hasn’t really happened yet.
“When people give us things, they try to give us their best,” Lorenzo says. Plus, there are always multiple dishes to try, and he’s always enjoyed at least one of them.
And the influencer phenomenon might be influencing dining in less obvious ways.
“I think a lot of restaurants are changing their plating, their lighting,” Zamanian says. “They notice the first thing people do is take their phone out of their pocket and take a photo of what they’re eating.”