Influencers: Parasites or restaurants’ best friends?

Influencers, content creators, lifestyle curators, whatever their latest word to go by is – aren’t they all just self-absorbed narcissists and attention-seekers, parasites looking to fund their expensive tastes with freebies?

The self-proclaimed influencers who demand free food and drinks in exchange for a post or a comment, expect VIP treatment, event invites and “gifts” – with veiled threats of negative reviews if they don’t get – are the bane of the restaurant industry, a bad joke that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Any chef, restaurant owner or PR in the hospitality business can tell you about outrageous offers and approaches, outlandish laugh-inducing requests, and the fear of what will happen if they say “no”.

It’s often just blackmail, plain and simple.

And in the current global crisis facing restaurants and the food business, it’s more than just a bad joke, it’s nauseating.

Offering the dubious benefit of “exposure” to a chef in exchange for a free dinner is insulting at the best of times – but in a time when that restaurant has barely survived having its doors shut for months, had to lay off staff, is struggling to pay the rent and the gas bill, then it’s just shameful.

We all know the power of word-of-mouth marketing and, of course, there are a handful of truly influential influencers who can improve that for a restaurant, people with a passion and knowledge of restaurants and food, have genuine followers in your target audience, come with a media kit detailing their demographics and past successes, discuss how they can add value to your brand. Plus, their payment terms are clear.

In other words, they’re professional and credible, and some are highly respected in the world of digital and influencer marketing.

But in a game with zero entry barriers, they ‘re overshadowed by the vast majority with their fake and bought followers, their engagement pods, zero experience or expertise, those just out to get free stuff or make a buck.

These are the frauds, charlatans and freeloaders of the restaurant industry. Smug, entitled, self-important airheads who think having a few thousand “followers” makes them and their opinion matter and gives them some right to payment, be it cash or in kind, from the restaurant they’re “reviewing”.

One can’t even really equate them with the old-school, true restaurant critic. They guard their anonymity and independence, book under pseudonyms if they have to, come unannounced (in disguise if need be) AND they pay for their meal. (This is a totally different business model – the cost of the meal is reimbursed and paid for by the publication for which they ‘write’). An entirely different breed.

The true critic or reviewer knows about food and the restaurant industry, they do their research on the chef and the restaurant, they are interested in being impartial and honest, they give a right of reply and are valued for their independence and integrity.

A negative review from a respected critic is welcome, it’s an impetus to do better, to fix the flaws highlighted.

A negative review from a self-styled influencer who’s really just hitting back for not getting a comped meal is an unnecessary, unwelcome irritation.

Face it – any review that’s been paid for, whether in money or in a free meal or drinks on-the-house, is hardly going to be objective.

Objective is what prospective customers are looking for, especially those out for more than a pretty plate or stunning backdrop wall. These are the ones who are more likely to become loyal customers if you wow them and treat them right, and will spread the word – THAT’s the word-of-mouth marketing you actually want.

What none of us want is the look-at-me types just looking for selfie-able “statement walls”, clambering over other diners to get their perfect shot, and taking 20 minutes to photograph their food before even touching it.

The joke is that great restaurants don’t need a two-bit influencer – not when the chef has more followers (real ones!) on his own Instagram account, and an assortment of celebrities and elite folk who are willing to pay to dine there. Why would you be giving out free food then?

And in a time when the restaurant business globally is on its knees, anyone who is calling up restaurants looking for a free meal should hang their heads in shame.