One day in April Duncan Welgemoed, chef and part owner of Africola, was checking his emails when he saw a request from a contestant on the Australian reality TV cooking show My Kitchen Rules. She wanted to dine for free in his restaurant. In return she would post some stories on Instagram, giving him exposure.
Africola didn’t need the exposure. It’s one of Australia’s hottest restaurants. Celebrities such as Katy Perry dine there when in Adelaide and pay for their food. And anyway Welgemoed had a direct line to the MKR hosts. Plus his own Instagram account had far more followers than the influencer.
His response to the request, posted to his Instagram stories, went viral: “How about you do the right thing and pay for your meal, like everyone else, you do not generate any hype or actual dollars for any business you post about. The ATO [Australian tax office], suppliers nor staff care about exposure. If katy perry can pay for a meal in my restaurant, so can you. Good luck with your depressing demo at Marion shopping centre.”
Welgemoed told Guardian Australia: “The reason why I was devastating to her is not because I’m a bully, it’s because it was disingenuous offering a collaboration with MKR. Also not doing any research on my restaurant or myself. I have far more real followers than many of these so-called influencers.”
The chef also wanted to empower smaller operators to push back.
“The hospo industry is getting knocked pretty hard at the moment. Why I took her down was to encourage smaller operators to not bow to pressure to give away food and drink. I’ve had everyone from knife sharpeners in Wollongong to photographers in Berlin lending their support to me.”
In the UK Mick Smith, a chef who runs three successful venues in St Ives, Cornwall including the Porthminster Beach Cafe, told the Guardian that some approaches he gets from influencers can feel like “blackmail”.
“It’s like people try and blackmail us: ‘We want stuff for free or else we’ll write a bad review.’ It’s a big problem.”
Only this week, a customer who wanted a discounted glass of wine but was made to pay full price took her complaint to social media.
“Within 30 minutes there were hundreds of extra comments on the post, many of them negative,” says Smith. “You feel like you have to monitor every social media thing – people want to take you down.”
The chef is approached several times a week by influencers wanting free food. Most offers he declines. He also spends a large part of his time dealing with online reviews and scams.
He’s about to appear on the TV show Fake Britain to talk about the barrage of emails he received from fake reviewers on TripAdvisor, “saying they would write thousands of fake reviews – 50p for every review. They guaranteed they would never get caught.”
Chefs around the world have been forwarding influencers’ requests to the prominent Australian restaurant reviewer John Lethlean, who has been publishing them on his Instagram under the hashtag #couscousforcomment.
Lethlean, whose restaurant reviews are published weekly in the Australian newspaper, told the Guardian he didn’t republish influencer correspondence to endear himself to the restaurant industry. “I do it mainly because I am so offended by a way a lot of these so-called influencers blur the lines between editorial purity and commercial message.”
This dilution of purity includes influencers offering to review a restaurant in exchange for a free meal.
The hashtag #couscousforcomment was started in 2016 by Tim Philips-Johansson, co-owner of the Sydney bar and restaurant Bulletin Place, after an influencer contacted him asking for a free meal in exchange for a favourable review.
“Any review where the payment is a free meal, you are not going to get an objective outcome,” Philips-Johansson said.
As for influencers who promise exposure: “With influencers, you have no idea how tangible the outcome is. So much of it is guesswork, so much of it is fake followers. What is in it for a restaurant to give away $100 worth of food and drink and someone has, for example, followers outside the country?”
If Philips-Johansson has $100 to spend on marketing, he’ll pay for a Facebook post to be targeted at people who live near Bulletin Place.
But such is the ubiquity of influencers that some restaurants feel almost as if they are can be held hostage by social media.
In Perth the West Australian reported that restaurants were giving away free food to Instagrammers because they were too intimidated to say no.
At the Sparrow’s Nest, the cafe’s manager, Lara Wolinski, said she was getting three or four requests from influencers for free food every week and she never turned them away. “The main reason behind this is a fear of negative publicity or backlash,” she told the West Australian.
In May a 10-seat Brisbane restaurant, Joy, was the victim of fake reviews after it turned down a request from an influencer for a free meal.
After the influencer requested $400 worth of free food and was declined, the restaurant co-owner and chef Tim Scott posted his partner Sarah Scott’s response to Instagram: “I’m not really sure when or why it became acceptable to exchange an Instagram post for years of hard work from two small business owners,” she wrote. “That is not something we are interested in. We run our business with dignity, honesty and integrity.”
Within 24 hours, the influencers had posted two fake Google reviews, one saying, ‘Very rude, I would not go back. Disappointing food.’
But because the restaurant is so small, the owners greet every diner – so they were able to call out the posts as fake.
Part of the problem, as far as the chefs are concerned, is the sense of entitlement among some influencers.
Says Philips-Johansson: “There is a certain smugness where they say, ‘We can give you exposure.’ Really? We politely decline stuff – we tell every guest they have to pay their own way. Reputable reviewers are different. We can filter out the diamond and the dust.”
The big question is: can influencers bring people through the door?
Pat Nourse, the creative director of Food and Wine Victoria and a former longtime editor of Gourmet Traveller’s awards and restaurant guide says: “There’s a handful of chefs and restaurateurs who are on TV shows five or six nights a week, that rate well, they have exposure in newspapers and on radio and have vast social followings and they can’t keep a restaurant open for a year – some cannot keep the lights on.”
Point being: an Instagram post is not going to save them.
Allira Carroll, the managing director of Tonic PR, which represents hospitality clients, says she does use influencers in marketing a restaurant but does it carefully, using vetted influencers.
“It could be a client with a new menu,” she says. “One of our clients is doing a truffle menu and the dishes are very Instagrammable, so we might use an Instagrammer there.”
Sometimes influencers are paid but many get paid in food and drink and run their Instagram accounts alongside full-time jobs. This could be why so many Instagrammers try to get a free meal at a high-end restaurants – or post plenty of pictures of cheap food like ice-creams and hamburgers, items that “are pretty and not that expensive”, says Nourse.
Even then, some influencers try to get freebies. This month a San Francisco ice-cream truck operator made international headlines when he posted a sign saying “influencers pay double” after becoming fed up with so many requests for free ice-creams – that cost $4.
Nourse sees the rise of Instagram emerging in tandem with the decline of traditional media and says it’s here to stay.
“The days of marquee reviewers are long gone,” he says. “There are lots of people writing reviews for a free feed, partly because it’s really expensive to write about restaurants when media companies are really strapped for cash.”
At the Good Food Guide, a three-star restaurant used to be reviewed five times, says Nourse, and the Gourmet Traveller guide’s budget for reviews “was a a really fat six-figure sum”.
Says Carroll: “Chefs would agree that having a seasoned critic review the restaurant is amazing but there are a lot of young people who don’t buy newspapers or magazines. They get their news from social. If you don’t engage with that on some level you’ll miss out.”
Nourse agrees: “The restaurant business is tough and if they can get an edge by giving someone a free hamburger or a glass of wine they will do it – if that someone is a football player or someone who does really good smokey eye YouTube video, or a semi-finalist in a cooking show.
“Who and what moves the dial, there’s no magic bullet – no one knows how it works these days. It’s the wild west now.”
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