How A New York Restaurant Uses Instagram Influencers To Drive Sales

A few weeks ago, Manhattan restaurant Springbone Kitchen saw a surge in new customers. Dozens came in and asked for Springbone’s strawberry rhubarb ice cream, and the restaurant knew exactly where they had come from. A day earlier, a foodie Instagram account had posted a picture of the flavor to its hundreds of thousands of followers.

In May, Sam Eckstein and Jordan Feldman opened Springbone, a restaurant focused on bone broth. Since launching, Eckstein has crafted a social media marketing strategy centered on Instagram influencers or “Instagrammers,” and it has had a strong impact on the business.

Influencers typically have thousands of followers, and they’ve surfaced in many industries, ranging from food to home design. Food Instagrammers are an offshoot of food bloggers. They eat at a restaurant, photograph their food, and share their reactions. Over the past couple of years, Instagrammers have surged in popularity, especially in larger markets like New York. One of the largest accounts, New Fork City, has more than 700,000 followers, up from about 540,000 in January of this year.

 Springbone cofounder Sam Eckstein aims to make his food visually appealing and capture it in creative photographs and videos, which he posts to Springbone’s own Instagram account. He says it’s important to maintain Springbone’s account so that influencers will like what they see when they look up his restaurant.

When considering which Instagrammers to engage with, he looks for a minimum of 10,000 followers. Then he scans their posts to see if their interests align with Springbone’s healthy cuisine. “Many food bloggers are more into indulgent eating and desserts. There’s some gimmicky stuff out here,” he says. Among influencers, you don’t have to go far to find photos of heartburn-inducing meals, like this “mac & cheese grilled cheese.”

To find influencers, Eckstein simply looks up a top account like New Fork City and views who it follows. “I bet 80% of the people they follow are the biggest influencers in New York,” says the entrepreneur. When Springbone has a new menu item, Eckstein direct-messages influencers on Instagram and invites them in for a tasting. The unspoken agreement is that the restaurant will provide the food for free, and the influencers will post pictures afterward.

Early on, an Instagrammer Eckstein had solicited caught him off guard and asked for $100 in return for a post. Based on advice he had received from another influencer, Eckstein replied, “Sorry, we’re a new company. But we’d still love to have you in for a tasting.” The influencer showed up anyway, enjoyed free food, and posted a picture on Instagram.

Springbone never pays for posts. Eckstein says influencers will generally post pictures for free, since they need content to fill up their own feeds. He has been told that influencers will be more invested and will deliver better-quality posts if they believe in you, rather than just being paid by you.

One of the influencers Eckstein reached out to was @ny.foodie, an account run by Bruce and Monica Wong. The married couple agreed to come in for a free tasting and tried Springbone’s strawberry rhubarb ice cream. Four weeks ago they posted this picture to their 40,000 followers, drawing almost 600 likes and 8 comments. NY.Foodie included the hashtag #new_fork_city in the post, imploring the much larger account to repost the image. According to 20-year-old New Fork City co-manager Natalie Landsberg, she and her cofounders see all posts with that hashtag as submissions.

A week later, New Fork City reposted the image to its more than 700,000 followers and credited NY.Foodie. In this case, New Fork City didn’t solicit payment, but when it posts its own photos, it sometimes charges restaurants $500, says Landsberg. Recently, the FTC began to crack down on paid posts that weren’t appropriately labeled as paid ads. Landsberg says New Fork City always uses a hashtag like #sp—short for “sponsored”—when they’ve been paid for a post. “We don’t want to get in trouble,” she says. “And I think we owe that to our followers.”

The impact of New Fork City’s Springbone repost has been impressive. It has drawn over 16,000 likes and 235 comments. “Almost all of those are people commenting at their friends and saying, ‘Look at this, we should go get this together,’” Eckstein says. The post led dozens of customers to come in the next day, asking for strawberry rhubarb ice cream.

On an average day, Instagram might drive about 5% of Springbone’s new customers, Eckstein estimates. He projects revenue of $1.25 million over the next year. But Instagram’s impact is wider than that. It allows Springbone to shape the conversation around its brand and stay in touch with customers. Perhaps most importantly, “It makes us a restaurant that becomes talked about,” says Eckstein. “Without Instagram, you fall out of that conversation.”

Article Written by Jeff Kauflin of Forbes.