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How some restaurants and TikTok influencers leaned on one another to survive the pandemic

Food blogger Caroline Ponseti raises a glass to her TikTok followers while filming a restaurant review at Sospeso on H Street NE. (Natachi Onwuamaegbu/The Washington Post)

It’s really quite simple, food blogger Caroline Ponseti explains while nodding her head toward the tall ferns nestled within carefully selected ceramic pots that dot the stairwell. A good TikTok restaurant review must have one of two things: some level of camera-grabbing aesthetics (which this Mediterranean restaurant has plenty of) or a good story. Luckily for her, Sospeso, on Washington’s H Street NE, has both.

Ponseti leaves her booth — complimentary vermouth cocktail in hand — then stands in front of the stairs and raises her glass to the 13,000 followers on her account, @TheThriftySpoon. Later, she adds a voice-over reminding them to “hit that follow button for more D.C. dining.”

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The relationship between TikTok food blogger and restaurant is a complex one, but in most cases, it’s a business deal. The influencer gets free food and content for their channel, and the restaurant gets to reach an audience most advertisers can’t: young people on TikTok. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants were closing at record numbers and letting go of employees; meanwhile, on social media, food bloggers such as Ponseti were struggling to find material.

As restaurants were forced to get creative with takeout options and delivery services, so were food bloggers. With TikTokers gaining a broader audience during the pandemic — a Pew Research Center study in April found that 21 percent of U.S. adults say they use TikTok, including about 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds — food bloggers used the platform to highlight small food businesses that needed exposure more than ever.

The result: Some restaurants and food bloggers survived the pandemic — together.

“Restaurants have grown to like the social media [marketing] space more,” said Aba Kwawu, president of D.C.-based TAA Public Relations. “It’s not just pretty. It is now core to business.”

Kwawu’s goal was always to bring people into brick-and-mortar storefronts. Forced to pivot during the pandemic, she encouraged businesses to send meals to influencers, promote takeaway cocktails — do anything to get people to know the business was out there and needed help. TikTokers ate up the content (literally), and businesses noticed an increase in customers.

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Ponseti, who created her TikTok account in February, first contacted the owner of Sospeso in 2017, the same year she started her blog and the restaurant had its grand opening. The initial connection was easy: Ponseti wanted a story to grow her following, and Sospeso wanted to attract customers. Ponseti featured the restaurant on her Instagram several times in recent years, then in March 2020, when the restaurant was forced to close, she highlighted Sospeso’s takeout options.

“It really helps, you know?” said Hatice Rosato, who owns Sospeso with her husband, Mike Rosato. “I had people coming and telling me, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m a friend of Caroline’s,’ or ‘I saw her TikTok and wanted to come in.’ ”

Most influencers are either paid or have their meal comped in return for a quick feature (Ponseti paid only a tip during her latest visit to Sospeso), but restaurants find that this gamble can pay off. Alex Hussein, the owner of @DCSpot, another food blog and TikTok account, featured his uncle and aunt’s business on his TikTok account in April. Mom’s Pizza Restaurant in Arlington, Va., had just been robbed and was about to close after 32 years.

“That video got over 500,000 views — it blew up,” said Hussein, a student at George Mason University. “Lots of locals saw it. My family said they were packed with people the next day and the days after that until they closed the place.”

His uncle’s restaurant wasn’t especially aesthetically appealing, Hussein said, so he had to rely on the story. With more than 40,000 TikTok followers, he knows what kinds of videos go viral. It’s important to grab a user’s attention in the first few seconds — people tend to scroll away fast.

“Tell people what they want to know,” said Hussein, who works as a freelance social media consultant. “Tell them the interesting parts, and show off the good-looking parts.”

New York City-based TikTok influencer Janneh Konneh tries to keep her restaurant reviews to less than 30 seconds. Those are the ones that perform the best.

“You’ve got to know what are people looking for,” said Konneh, whose TikTok account has more than 45,000 followers. “The food and the camera angles and all is what keeps them intrigued in the video.” The story is what gets them there.

Konneh started her account at the beginning of the pandemic, and she has had to continuously adapt. She began by filming her favorite takeout options before venturing to outdoor dining and eventually bars, bottomless brunches and rooftops.

Her restaurant reviews usually begin the same way: Konneh films herself walking into the restaurant, panning over whatever exposed brick, plants, paintings or bright lights surround the doorway. Then there’s the aerial view of the food (always vegetarian) and a short panning video of her cocktail(s). They’re compelling and brief — viewers are in and out of the restaurant with a drink, starter and entree in less than a half-minute.

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The TikTokers who continue to succeed during and after the pandemic have to be adept at following the trends, Kwawu said. Gaining viewers is easy, but keeping them is difficult. One thing that has worked, Kwawu noted, is that influencers have used the pandemic as an opportunity to get personal — about the restaurants they love, their political views and their lives.

“Now, I always look for influencers who know how to humanize restaurants,” Kwawu said. “That’s what social media brings to the table.”

To do that successfully, sometimes close relationships are necessary — like the one between Sospeso and Ponseti. In her TikTok feature, she pans through the restaurant’s embossed front windows and tells the Rosatos’ story. They’re “a neighborhood couple that wanted to open a restaurant that reflects their respective Italian and Turkish heritages.”

Ponseti doesn’t normally interview the restaurateurs, but in this case she had met the owners and, more than anything, wanted them to succeed.

“It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship; one could not exist without the other,” she said. “Everyone was feeling helpless last year, and this gave me a way to do some good.”

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