How Branded Restaurants Group Makes The Most Out Of Influencer Marketing

"There are people who have millions of followers, and they're not really the people that we're looking for," says Branded Restaurants' Julie Zucker.

The rise of social media image sharing and the rejection of traditional advertising has helped propel self-styled “Influencers” into a true position of trust by consumers. But for brands, particularly restaurants, a natural caution remains, as the ability to manage and balance the needs of regular customers while attracting people who can help a brand stand out on everything from Instagram to Google Maps is something eateries never had to deal before.

And as Influencers become more professional and powerful, knowing how to work with them is an essential marketing discipline that brands are learning through trial and error, says Julie Zucker, director of marketing and promotions for Branded Restaurants, which represents two multi-location New York City casual dining establishments, the retro diner Big Daddy’s and the southern roadhouse Duke’s.

GeoMarketing: How has Big Daddy’s and Duke’s approach to Influencers evolved over the last few years?

Julie Zucker: We started really working with influencers almost a year ago. It was important for us to get in touch with the right people. And so what we did is Brett [Blee, social media marketing manager], charged with coming up with a list of the top people in New York. It involved just spending a few days on Instagram and looking at other people’s pictures we like.

There are people who have millions of followers, and they’re not really the people that we’re looking for. We want Influencers who have around 10,000 followers or 20,000 followers. The idea is that we’d rather have somebody whose followers and the people they influence are in New York. That’s number one. Secondly, they’re all people that would, in fact, like to come to one of our restaurants.

If somebody’s only posting about going to La Bernardin, or Daniel, or any other high-end restaurants, it’s mostly likely that people who follow them are not going to be super-interested in a hamburger or a milkshake.

What else do you look for in a potential Influencer?

We also want people that kind of fit in with our brands, we want people who are fun, and we want people who are colorful. We decided to institute an “Instagram account takeover program,” in which we would have Influencers come in, we’d give them a meal, and then, we’d have a manager log them into our Instagram account, and they would take a story for their visit and they would also take photos of their dishes.

It’s one thing to just give someone a free meal, have them come in, post on our account. What does that do from a practical standpoint?

We really want their followers. Part of the give-and-take of the relationship we have is that we do ask them if they can post photos on their account as well. Then, we take it a step further and tell them that we encourage them to post a photo on their page saying something like, “Hey in the next two weeks if anyone comes to Big Daddy’s and mentions this post,” they’ll get 15 percent off their check.

One of the biggest questions in social media you get time and time again, is how do you measure the ROI?

How do you connect social media posts to actual business?

It’s good for us to note, “Hey, so-and -so posted an image, and while nobody came in and mentioned it, we did get a student who reached out to us from Fordham, and she only had maybe like 1,000 or so followers – she wasn’t a true Influencer. She was just someone who really loved food. She asked if she could come in and that she would tell all of her friends at school. We hadn’t really worked with somebody who, I would primarily think of as a fan of the restaurant.

So we thought, let’s try it out. So she came in, did a great takeover, and then she ended up posting to her friends. We got a lot of people who came in and mentioned her. That was the first time our managers and servers were thought, “Wow, she was a big influence on our business.”

She actually brought people in. At the end of the day, you want to increase your business and you want to see sales – and she was able to do that for us.

An “Instagramable” image from Branded Restaurant’s southern-themed bar, Duke’s.

How did that change the way you viewed Influencers?

That single experience also got us thinking about our strategy. Reaching out to students to come would be more beneficial. A young student is more apt to get excited at the idea of being invited to come in by a restaurant.

How do you balance appealing to Influencers and fans?

We’ve caught people like one other woman who claimed to be an Influencer. At the end of the day she just sent her daughter and her daughter’s friend in for a meal and then asked to come to our next restaurant, realizing we were connected, and kind of we were like “Okay, we know what you’re doing here.” It comes down to really paying attention to who it is, whether it’s a fan or whether it’s an Influencer.

How do you usually start cultivating Influencers?

Usually, for our Influencer program, we do the first touch. We reach out to them and say here’s the program – would you like to do it? And most of the time people don’t have any problem, because they’re getting a free meal. It’s the people who reach out to us and say hey I’ll do this for you, but I charge “X” amount of money.

It’s interesting that when we reach out to people and say, “Here’s our program, are you in or you out?” Everyone just says in. It has to go back to a restaurant reaching out to someone and saying “Hey we really like your page, we follow you from our personal account, I love your work…” That kind of a thing. It’s giving somebody who does this for fun an ego boost. We love that.

Bret and I, we both follow all of our favorite food accounts. And it’s people that we’d personally like to see and food we’d like to see.

How do you vet the Influencers you work with? Are there any Instagram tools that help?

We look at the hashtag “#eats” and the site Infatuation and see people who post to there. But you know, as far as Instagram algorithms work, every time I go on, I’m pretty sure Instagram knows that my world revolves around food. So when it’s telling me suggestions of people who I should follow, we get a good view of all the local food accounts.

Also, there are many group Instagram influencer events. One day, I turned on my Instagram and I saw something from Barilla Pasta, and my whole entire suggested feed was Barilla Pasta. I could tell that there was an Influencer event that night. Obviously, those people are vetted by that particular Influencer who set up the party.

When we see something like that, we can just reach out directly to those influencers who post the pictures and invite them in. Still, getting us to pay people who can bring in people for an event isn’t a better result when we invite people in one-on-one, because they can come in on their time, and it’s not competitive.

What’s it like when things don’t go well with potential Influencers?

When people who ask us to pay, we just say, sorry, we don’t do that.

We had one instance where two people came, and they also wanted to come with their boyfriends. At that point it’s like all right, we’ll take care of two of your meals but this isn’t date night on Branded Restaurants here.

What else don’t you want to see from Influencers?

Don’t wear stiletto heels and take pictures standing in a booth. That’s happened.

There were a group of two women who’ll come in and they take pictures of themselves with the Big Daddy’s milkshake, and then they claim that the servers were horrible, and that they were treated terribly. That’s not the case. If you come during a busy lunch or a busy brunch and our servers have tables of eating, paying customers, from the servers’ end, they should treat everyone who walks through the door equally. But they’re going to give more preference to the paying guests.

Branded Restaurants plans to populate its website with images of menu items taken by Influencers.

Ultimately, how are Influencers important to the two restaurant brands?

The biggest part about influencers for us is that we then are able to use their photos. Being able to see our food through their lens. Brett and I can take pictures of food; and I have in my lens what I think looks good and she has what looks good to her. But bringing Influencers in adds a whole new dimension to our photos. An influencer will come in, take a picture of that sandwich that I never thought was photo-worthy, and oh my gosh, it’s now our new favorite photo.

Leveraging Influencers is really great for us because we love to see what they find interesting for them to order, and for them to photograph.

Another aspect is that we have people that we work with a lot and that come in often. We love their photos so much that in our website redesign we’re actually using their photos on our homepage. We got their permission to do so, and you could hire a professional photographer to come to your restaurant and take pictures and edit them for $3,000 or $4,000 for 10 photos. If you have an Influencer who’s a customer, someone who loves to eat, and we just invite them in and give them credit, that’s great for them.

Has the nature of reviews and they way you respond to customer comments on social media sites changed? What’s driving the changes?

When I really just first started kind of in the industry, there was only Zagat and that was it. And then when Yelp came along, it was like anyone could be a reviewer. And I think in general, human nature is to say something when something’s bad, and when something’s wrong, and that your first instinct when something is good is, you’re not going to necessarily tell the world.

The difference between Yelp and Zagat, at least at that time, was that Zagat people who really submitted their restaurant reviews were people who were dedicated. I’m not sure how aware of the old Zagat rating system went, but in order for you to get your free book, you had to write your reviews and you had to write at least 10 reviews. And it was online; it was a time-consuming process. And you have to really be dedicated to want to do that. So also, that goes back to just human nature, that if you’re going to put the time to do this, you’re going to be doing it honestly.

And that’s why I think Zagat was so, and still is in many ways, probably one of the most, you know, influential review sites, because it’s people who really, you know it’s going to be an honest review, because it’s anonymous too.

With OpenTable reviews, you weren’t able to respond to your customers directly until this past month. Unless a guest provided their email, you weren’t able to reach out. We always take, and have taken, OpenTable reviews very seriously because the only way you’re invited to write a review is after you’ve been confirmed that you ate at that restaurant. We‘re also were part of OpenTable’s Rewards Network, which links to your credit cards, and also in order for you to get your points for eating at a restaurant, you have to write a review.

All that being said, it’s really lovely to now see this huge surge in reviews on Google and Facebook. And I really love how Google has really worked hard to build restaurant pages out.

You’re seeing people who go on Google, and not every review is great, we’re not perfect, but I think in general the reviews that you see where something is not necessarily perfect on Google, it’s something that we’re already aware of. And it’s not just someone yelling at us; it’s someone saying hey you know what, like your bathroom was really dirty.

It’s straightforward and things that you can respond to, as opposed to just the general, you don’t know who the hell this person is, and when they came in, they just like, they’re just in this bad mood on Yelp and they’re just spouting off.

Overall, the changes in how reviews appear and in the number of platforms available, has actually given me as a restaurant marketer kind of another like, faith in humanity, that there are still people out there that are willing to take the extra step to really share their concerns.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.