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Sweetfin co-founder Seth Cohen, left, with comedians J.T. Parr, center, and Chad Kroeger.

It’s a TikTok world, and Sweetfin’s embracing it

Fast-casual poke restaurant brand taps influencers in food, fitness, music, and comedy to prove a new era of marketing is upon us.

Sweetfin, a fast-casual poke brand founded in 2015, has leveraged influencers in food, fitness, music and even comedy to weave itself into the lifestyles of Southern California consumers.

The West Hollywood, Calif.-based company, which will have 20 units by mid-September, has worked with top chefs and social-media influencers to increase awareness of the brand in Southern California.

Seth Cohen, cofounder and president of the concept, said Sweetfin has partnered with food personalities like Phillip Frankland Lee, chef-owner of Sushi by Scratch Restaurants, and Richard Blais, the chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality, but also Instagram and TikTok influencers Tway Nguyen and H. Woo Lee, comedians Chad Kroeger and J.T. Parr, and fitness expert Lacey Stone.

These partnerships include exclusive bowl offerings on the Sweetfin menu, promoted to each partner’s networks.

“It's very challenging to remain relevant,” Cohen said. “It's something I think about all the time.”

The influencer partnerships are part of that strategy to keep Sweetfin top of mind for customers, he added.

“We want to meet our customer where they are,” Cohen said. “I think a great example of that is us being at Coachella, which is the preeminent, in my opinion, music festival in the U.S. It’s filled with tastemakers of all sorts, and we have a big presence there in the VIP area and the general admission area.”

Sweetfin’s influencers don’t necessarily have to have huge followings to be effective, he added.

“We did a great partnership with this woman named Lacey Stone, who was a celebrity trainer, and she created the Lacey Stone Bowl, which was a really popular but healthy take on a sweet poke bowl, and it drove in people who are really into fitness,” Cohen said. “We get people from all walks of life.”

Sweetfin highlights its influencer collaborations on its website, featuring a range from chef Ricardo Zarate’s Japanese-Peruvian-inspired bowl to chef Burt Bakman’s Israeli-Argentine bowl. Others include “Top Chef” contestants Shirley Chung, Antonia Lofaso and Katsuji Tanabe.

“We partner with incredible culinary partners that can really take the idea of poke and use it as a vessel to create a flavor experience that’s totally different,” Cohen said. “It's just a way for us on a quarterly basis to introduce a new menu item and get our fans excited to try something new.”

He said Sweetfin creates content that’s exciting both for its partners’ followings as well as the brand’s. That allows the partners to leverage Sweetfin’s following as much as the brand taps into their followers.

“So it’s a really great way for both the creators and Sweetfin to create exciting menu items and to both have a rewarding experience,” he said.

Sweetfin took to social media and influencers early, Cohen said.

“It was a way for us to reach millions and millions of people without having to spend a lot of money,” he said. “We knew we needed to create content that was differentiated, so we were one of the first restaurants that really took content curation seriously. We brought in professional film crews and took our guests and people on social media behind the line to see step by step how we were making our bowls and what we were doing within our kitchens.”

The brand was also an early adopter of “food porn” videos, which proliferated in the earlier days of social media.

“We've evolved,” Cohen said with a laugh, noting that professionally stylized content isn't necessarily as popular as it was in the beginning.

“Now it's more organic, first-person filming with your iPhone,” he said. “We've seen the popularity and true influence that people on social-media platforms really have in terms of swaying where people are going to eat.”

Sweetfin invites content creators to sample the menu, inviting them for a meal with no requirement to post anything.  If they have a great experience, Cohen said, then hopefully they post something.

Cohen added that Sweetfin works to find influencer collaborators before they become highly popular, or before they reach what he calls “an inflection point.”

One such collaboration was with comedians Chad Kroeger and J.T. Parr, who helped debut the fictitious Poke Week last September. Right after the partnership, the pair’s Netflix show, “Chad & JT Go Deep,” debuted.

“Even though they weren't technically in the culinary space, their brand just oozes Southern California,” Cohen said. “That was a great way for us to launch a marketing campaign and build sales on a week that just would typically be a normal sales week for us at the end of September.”

Cohen’s advice for concepts looking to create an influencer platform is to look for people that have an engaged community that was organically developed. “If you can find those people,” he said, “they can really move the needle.”

“It's great to sit with our team and come up with these ideas,” he added. “And naturally these chefs and partners and even musicians and fitness influencers that we've worked with are all creative in their own way. It just kind of breaks up the monotony of the blocking and tackling of what you're doing in the day-to-day of the restaurant business.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on X: @RonRuggless

Hear from Seth Cohen and other CREATORS honorees at CREATE: The Experience, Oct. 1-3 in Palm Springs, in a panel sponsored by Keurig Dr Pepper.

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