Framed vertically by a camera phone and followed by an assistant with a light in hand, Vas Kiniris made a slow entrance into the quiet, leather-ensconced Keys Jazz Bistro in North Beach.
Wait—wind that back—and do it again. The angle wasn’t quite right.
Kiniris and a merry band of fellow content creators were at the club on a Thursday evening for a “collab” meant to promote the business’s offerings and share its story. It’s a reflection of the growing symbiosis between local small businesses and “micro-influencers”—social media users with smaller follower bases focused on niche interests.
The eight people armed with iPhones and a blinding handheld key light cut an odd mix across ages and backgrounds. Some said they’ve been doing the “foodie influencer thing” for nearly a decade, while many found themselves seeking connection during the pandemic through online communities dedicated to food.
It’s a modern, anachronistic twist to sell what is frankly a bit of a throwback. Keys, which opened in November, is a distinctly old-school experience: It’s on the former site of El Matador, a legendary club started by artist, author and bullfighter Barnaby Conrad in the 1950s.
The club provided an amusing backdrop to a somewhat chaotic scene with good-natured shoving, barking of directions and precarious positions on bar stools to get the right shot.
Pianist and Keys co-owner Simon Rowe doesn’t consider himself the most adept social media user, but he has enough knowledge to understand that word-of-mouth only goes so far in the internet age.
“We got a lot of really nice traditional press when we started,” Rowe said. “The question now is 'How do we keep the buzz going in a continuing and nimble way?'”
For many small restaurants and retailers, the answer comes alongside the somewhat shuddering thought that—in addition to ordering merchandise, serving customers and making payroll—they are also in the business of content creation.
But that’s the reality in 2023. Kiniris owned a furniture and home goods store called Zinc Details in the Fillmore for decades, and currently runs digital marketing and small business promotion firm NextSF.
“I was in business for 20-plus years, and every day, I had to share my brand with people that knew me or didn’t know me. I had to humanize myself. Businesses now have to be doing this digitally,” Kiniris said. “I feel somewhat sorry for the merchants, like, they have to learn video production now?”
What brings in customers in the door now—particularly after Covid served to further retrain consumers away from brick-and-mortars—are novel experiences, according to Kiniris.
One of his most popular early posts was a 20-second clip featuring Molinari’s, the storied century-old Italian deli and grocery that has been viewed more than 200,000 times.
“Nick, the owner, said he still has people coming in asking for the TikTok sandwich,” Kiniris said, laughing. “It helps that he’s a super-handsome dude. Unfortunately, he’s married.”
Local small business boosters are thinking of ways to narrow the gap between small business expertise and the throngs of up-and-coming content creators angling for deals.
Neighborhood group North Beach Neighbors organized a grant program funded by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development that awarded 26 local businesses personalized videos, custom photography and copywriting.
“Small businesses are juggling so many different things right now and promoting themselves and taking time to create content often falls by the wayside,” said Danny Sauter, a board member of North Beach Neighbors.
Some businesses have even collaborated with social media stars on items meant to bring in a new customer base who discovered. Local pizzeria chain Square Pie Guys linked up with influencer @allie.eats to create “The Allie Eats” a vegetarian white sauce pie with butternut squash, confit garlic and Brussel sprouts.
Andrew De Los Santos—better known as @andrewtourssf—has tens of thousands of followers across his various social media accounts that highlight a wide assortment of local restaurants, bars and special events.
He cringes a bit recalling his first viral post, a satirical look at the challenging street conditions of San Francisco’s Downtown. But that video set off a new career for the 27-year-old, who ended up quitting his job as an environmental consultant to become a full-time influencer.
“It really only takes one TikTok video to go viral for the platform to start to push out your other content,” De Los Santos said. “When it got to the point where I started having to say no to opportunities, that was a turning point.”
Nearly overnight, he started getting requests for collaborations with a number of restaurants across the city and was hired by a startup to highlight top San Francisco date spots, which ended up covering nearly 40 restaurants within two months.
A typical morning for De Los Santos starts is filled with editing video footage; he posts once a day on his main Instagram, his foodie-oriented Instagram, his Tiktok, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest.
The afternoon is stacked with collabs. On the day we spoke, he was visiting an Italian restaurant for lunch, a bar for happy hour, another restaurant for dinner and then a nightclub. His clients range from mom-and-pops that cover his costs in exchange for a series of posts to community benefit districts that pay him out of their marketing budgets.
His business has recently expanded to charging businesses for “foodie parties,” which bring in a handful of influencers, each with their own following, to share in the restaurant or bar experience.
And if the food sucks? De Los Santos said while businesses don’t direct him to sing specific praises, he’ll generally omit dishes or drinks that don’t meet his standards.
Although his reputation has brought a steady stream of incoming clients, some of his first collabs came through San Francisco social media marketing agency You Need Us Now, which would blast out specific jobs to their mailing list.
Mark Yen, founder of You Need Us Now, said his firm started near the beginning of the pandemic when many brick-and-mortar businesses were forced by circumstance to adapt their operations and marketing channels for a more online audience.
“We also realize that we don't often have the budget that bigger companies do, so we help them connect them with influencers who are not necessarily professionals,” Yen said.
Yen sells the deal as a win-win. The roughly 600 influencers on the platform get exposure, and businesses get a new host of high-quality content to promote their businesses online and, hopefully, an influx of new customers.
The ultimate goal is to convert likes and traffic into actual sales and revenue, so You Need Us Now focuses on signing on and vetting influencers who have a bulk of their followers who actually live in the Bay Area.
Although the company’s platform is free for influencers, businesses are charged a subscription fee that is tied to the number of campaigns they decide to pursue. Direct sales traffic can be tracked via unique coupon codes, tracking links or “secret menu” items that are only marketed through influencer channels.
“Part of our role is educating businesses that this type of marketing is not a one-time thing,” Yen said. “One influencer might generate some buzz, but working with multiple people creates a bandwagon effect. It’s like the online version of seeing a long line coming out of a restaurant.”
One of De Los Santos’ first “foodie parties” took place at Piroo, a Lower Polk Nepalese restaurant that opened in the spring of 2022. Co-owner Reshma Bhattarai said she turned to social media marketing via influencers as a tactic to introduce a type of cuisine that may be unfamiliar to a wider audience.
“When a person posts it on their social media to their followers they can explain what the food is, what the culture is and the story behind the dish,” Bhattarai said. “That has helped us to bring in a genuine amount of foot traffic.”
Bhattarai said influencer-driven marketing would be at the top of the list if she is looking to introduce a new menu item. In fact, she’s seen the social media boost supersede traditional avenues of publicity.
When food blog Infatuation put Piroo on its list of the city’s best new restaurants, it didn’t particularly move the needle for the business. It wasn’t until a post featuring Piroo went out on Instagram that a flood of reservations came in.
Back at the Keys Jazz Bistro, the cameras came out at all the opportune moments. As a bartender poured out a classic Sidecar in a frosty glass, when a wall of flame shot up from a sauté pan as a staffer flambéd an array of hefty prawns and, of course, when the dishes came out and were arranged on a table next to a selection of colorful cocktails.
As the influencers circled the scene, Kiniris batted someone’s hand away as they grabbed for a tostada.
“Here’s the most important thing to remember,” Kiniris said, turning to me. “The camera always eats first.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at email@example.com