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Social Media: Seeing Stars

Chopping block
Illustration by Brent Holmes

For many restaurants, the rise of social media influencers on Yelp, Instagram, and other platforms cuts both ways

Let’s pull back the veil on a phenomenon that happens almost every night in Las Vegas: the media event. It’s when a new Strip restaurant invites dining critics to a free dinner to sample the menu. Or a hot mixology bar hosts lifestyle journalists as it unveils its seasonal cocktails. The media event occurs in all facets of Vegas entertainment — dining, shows, nightlife, attractions, amenities. It’s part interview, part press junket, part party, and it always attracts a mix of journalists, bloggers, and, yeah, a few hacks.

In recent years, a new species has appeared at the table, reaching for that freshly delivered plate of roasted duck bruschetta — but not before snapping a few fussy smartphone pics: the social media influencer. It could be a well-known Instagrammer, an Elite Yelper, a Twitter personality, or a popular YouTuber. In any case, their follower base hypothetically makes them influential — that is, a useful marketing channel — and they’ve rapidly changed how Vegas’ PR and marketing machinery does business. For example, MGM Resorts International has a social media center with a VP of Social Strategy dedicated to the care and feeding of influencers. So far this year, MGM has hosted more than 120 social media influencers, who’ve published 1,500 pieces of MGM-related content. The resort giant receives about 500 influencer requests a month for access to amenities, and uses machine learning-enabled software to screen out fakes and flakes. You might follow a few influencers on your various feeds (and you may not even know it).

Surely this creature that thrives on attention must have been genetically engineered for Las Vegas, a city that relies on attention. But what if you’re not a multibillion-dollar corporation, but instead the harried chef-owner of a local restaurant? The tsunami of Yelpers, YouTubers, and Instagrammers knocking on your door elicits a different response. In an era when attention is monetized and even weaponized, some restaurant owners are suspicious of this new form of an old currency.

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For instance, James Trees, owner of Esther’s Kitchen Downtown and Ada’s in Tivoli Village, says he popped a bottle of champagne with his staff over their first one-star Yelp review, from “some New Yorker who had no idea what he was talking about.” The New Yorker got off lucky. Trees wrote this to another Yelper who posted a one-star review on July 31 because she couldn’t add a third person to her reservation: “You say ‘figure it out’ but really you are so rude and inconsiderate you can’t give us any heads up you are adding people to your party before you show up?”

Trees says, “If it’s a legitimate complaint, then we are 100 percent okay with saying, ‘What can we do better?’ But if they are rude back and just abhorrent, am I supposed to take it on the chin? No. Social media is a great place for owners to clap back.”  

As for Instagram influencers, Trees channels their requests through his PR guy, but he can’t completely avoid them. “Most of the time, they want free dinner, or they’re trying to host a large party. ‘It’s my anniversary, I have 40,000 followers, can you hook us up?’ No! Outright no, 100 percent. Because I know our restaurant is producing great food, charging a more than reasonable price, and at the end of the day, restaurants run on slim margins. If I’m giving that away, what’s the point?” His snarky replies to Yelpers and Instagrammers, which he sometimes shares on Facebook, are more than mere dismissal: He tries to bring attention to the realities of running a small business.

Others dispense with subtlety. Here’s one of the responses of Branden Powers, managing partner of Golden Tiki and Evel Pie, to a Yelper who wrote “the pizza sucks” and Evel Knievel “would piss on the floor of this place.” Powers replied: “Go f!ck yourself! We’re partners with Evel’s family, and we’ve won 2nd Best Pizza in the World at the International Pizza Expo. You won a gold medal in being a giant pu$$y.”

If you catch a note of nearly nihilistic frustration with social media there, that’s not accidental. “Haters are like crickets. They’ll chirp, chirp, chirp until you walk by, and then they’re silent,” Powers says. “They’re keyboard gangsters, and I’m tired of taking it.” Sure, Powers engages in good faith with reviewers who have legitimate issues, but he takes out the knives when it gets personal. “If you post something hurtful and mean, if you try to hurt my employees, I’ll respond. A lot of small business owners pour their entire lives, and their life savings, into their businesses.” Powers says he’s working on an anti-social media manifesto he plans to publish as a book. 

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Are you detecting a theme of class tension? It’s plausible that our collective mind — coddled by food porn winking at us from every social feed and web page these days — has been hypnotized into forgetting that chefs, cooks, and servers work to create the restaurant experience. Eric Gladstone, a Vegas restaurant PR veteran, has an intriguing theory at the local level. “Because of their huge marketing budgets, it’s easy for Strip resorts to invite influencers in.” And lavishing food and drink on influencers has created a spoiled Frankenstein’s monster. “Influencers can start to think that restaurants are magic,” says Gladstone. “Restaurants aren’t magic. There’s only so much free food you can give away.”

And small restaurants certainly don’t have the luxury of algorithmic vetting software to weed out frauds and freeloaders. John Arena, co-founder of Metro Pizza, gets the soft shakedown at least once a month. “We had one self-proclaimed influencer with a party of six demand free food in exchange for receiving favorable exposure,” he says. Arena says he politely turned them down. “It’s a new form of pay-to-play, and they’re not embarrassed about it, they’re not hesitant about it.” But he doesn’t write influencers off entirely. He’s worked with them when their posts involve more than just nice pictures. “It’s usually a prearranged tasting, and it’s more about creating a dialogue about the food.” Even James Trees of Esther’s has acknowledged their utility, once comping a foodie Instagrammer known for great photos. “That felt like a good trade for me,” Trees says.

The social rules and ethics around technology are always two steps behind the technology itself. Influencers — earnest ones who are trying to make careers out of the practice — are still figuring it out themselves. Lindsay Stewart, an Instagram influencer who posts as @thelasvegasfoodie, says she’s aware of the bad rap the growing influencer industry can get for all its lore of entitlement and shakedowns. “Unfortunately, there are people who are fake, who try to set up influencer accounts (to get access). For somebody like myself who does this as a career, I’d never put anybody on blast (for not supplying free food).” With 182,000 followers, she recently marked two years as a full-time influencer; she was a cocktail server before that. Today, restaurants pay her and ply her with free meals to promote them on her feed (though it’s hard to tell what’s paid promotion and what’s personal enthusiasm). Philip Tzeng, who posts to his 51,000 followers as @lasvegasfill and is also an Elite Yelper, considers his influencer work digital marketing — but marketing hopefully elevated by his credibility and authenticity as a foodie at heart.

“I only post if I genuinely like it,” he says. “I’ve declined paid opportunities from bigger brands, from fast food, because the food sucks.” Tzeng went full-time as an influencer in July; now he runs 10 restaurant accounts in addition to his own. His biggest coup: Getting local pizza joint Amano a segment on Access Hollywood for its “Fat Baby” sandwich. “For a mom-and-pop shop that doesn’t have the finances for that level of exposure,” he says, “it changed their lives.”

As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.