Influencer dinners? An inside look into the Columbia food influencer scene | Food News & Features

On a Thursday evening in Columbia, a small group of mostly women in their 20s and 30s sit around Pitas laughing and sipping on pinot noir or chardonnay as they wait for shared appetizers to arrive.

“I loved being surrounded by people who know the importance of the ‘Phone eats first,’ mindset.” one woman said, while snapping the perfectly Instagram-able photo of a bowl of hummus and a side of pita bread.

The next day, they’ll post curated videos and aesthetically pleasing photos to their various social media accounts (namely Instagram) that center around the promotion of good eats in the city.

The women are a part of a growing group of local food micro-influencers in the city who have taken to their social media accounts to promote their favorite restaurants and bars around Columbia. And at Pitas, they’re attending what’s become known around the city as a “media dinner” or an “influencer dinner.”

“I think it plays a really vital part of marketing a restaurant. It really does, like getting eyes on your business from someone that you, like, know and trust,” said Mattison Heatherly, of City Social founder, a public relations and marketing firm for restaurant and hospitality spots around Columbia.

Heatherly is one of more than a couple dozen people in the area who have created “foodie” Instagrams — sharing everything from video montages called Instagram Reels to carefully curated photos paired with semi-reviews in the captions of posts.

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Heatherly first noticed an uptick in food bloggers using social media to get the word out about restaurants when she was studying in the mid-2010s at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She said other, bigger cities like Houston and Austin had a slew of mostly young women using Instagram and internet blogs to share their opinions on food options in the city.

This inspiration snowballed into a business for Heatherly. Heatherly moved to Columbia in 2018 and had already been using her social media to post about the restaurants she was eating at since 2016.

When she noticed that a lot of the restaurants she loved to frequent didn’t have a strong online presence, she got the idea to offer web design and social marketing services to them. In 2019, she founded City Social.

It has brought success for both Heatherly and the businesses who’ve hired her. She currently has 10 clients (or restaurants that utilize her public relations or marketing services) around town, including spots like Terra and Village Idiot Pizza. And the businesses she works with have noticed an increase in social media follows and views.

But she’s not the only one who’s seen the need for social media marketing and promotion of local restaurants in a relatively small market.

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“For me, the page was always more about having fun and promoting (restaurants) and not really getting treated any differently than influencer would. I always really hated that term,” said Lynn Luc, who runs the @gocola Instagram page and works as a freelance food photographer and content creator in the city.

Outside of Luc and Heatherly, who are both millennials, younger micro-influencers have come onto the scene, as well as more students at the University of South Carolina who have begun using their social media platforms for the promotion of restaurants and bars.

“Every weekend (of freshman year), Cantina 76 was my go-to spot, but now that I’m a senior, I like to, you know, find new places and tap into, like, the social media community that Columbia has and find new spots from there,” said Meghan McCabe, who runs the Instagram account @meegmeals, which she started over two years ago.

McCabe is a senior public relations major at the university and has used her experiences with local influencers and food bloggers to learn more about social media marketing outside of her classwork.

Local restaurants feel the difference

The result of promotion from the handful of food social media pages has made an impact on local businesses, co-owner of Village Idiot Pizza Kelly Glynn said. Glynn has been a client of Heatherly’s for about two years and said she’s noticed an impact on the restaurant’s social media analytics.

“We’ve always been primarily a word-of-mouth establishment,” Glynn said. “Back in the day, the only places that you were advertising was Free Times and Zipsheet … as social media has come into play, there are thousands of ways that you can spend your dollars to get consumers in.”

Village Idiot, a well-established pizza spot in Five Points (with two other locations – an Olympia Mills location and a Forest Acres location), has hosted two similar influencer dinners – one in the spring of this year and the other in mid-August .

People from around the city’s food scene, like food bloggers and media professionals, had a chance to meet the owners, participate in a pizza-making competition and sample pizza. All of these things resulted in visually attractive content for social media feeds.

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That’s one of the main intentions behind influencer dinners like these, Hampton Street Vineyard owner Jonathan Lopez said. Lopez has worked with influencers and food bloggers to build the restaurant’s brand after taking over the longstanding French restaurant in 2020. Lopez said the restaurant has hosted a handful of influencer dinners since he’s been an owner.

“They already have a major following and are encouraging people to come eat at places around Columbia, so it’s a no-brainer to include them and to utilize their help,” Lopez said.

And while the dinners and social media posts from local influencers definitively increase traffic for restaurant websites and social media pages, they sometimes come at a cost: Many restaurants don’t charge for influencer dinners, meaning that a sit-down meal, often including beer or wine offerings, often costs the restaurants hundreds of dollars.

“It is really expensive, obviously, to kind of provide (food) for large groups like that,” Luc said. “Most restaurants, or other businesses, can’t just randomly drop like $600 in product for a big dinner.”

Luc said that while the goal is for the attendees of the dinner to post about the business afterwards, it’s not a guarantee.

But the price of the dinners, which typically run Village Idiot around $500 to $800, is well worth it for the publicity, Glynn said. She said it gives her restaurant an opportunity to build a stronger brand in the community and to network with food influencers and media personalities in the city.

So what exactly is an influencer?

Not only has the online food community increased traffic virtually and in the restaurants, the relationship between local food influencers and independently run restaurants is a symbiotic one, restaurants owners said.

Thought, the women who run social media accounts like these often don’t label themselves as influencers in the way most people view influencers.

“I don’t really consider myself an influencer,” Heatherly said. “But I think if I can share my journey and my story of being a young female entrepreneur that is also encouraging other women and other people in Columbia to support local businesses… I think that is very on-brand for my personal side and also transitions into my job (running City Social).”

Typically, influencers build a brand online and gain enough of a following that they can approach businesses with a proposition: free items from a business in exchange for advertising through their social media accounts. Columbia food influencers and restaurant owners said this isn’t as prevalent in the city’s scene.

But there’s evidence that word-of-mouth reviews and posts like what local food influencers often make drives business for smaller restaurants, according to Ram Janakiraman, a marketing professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied social media marketing.

“We know that (word-of-mouth) really matters because it’s seen as more objective and therefore it’s more influential, regardless of the context,” Janakiraman said.

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