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Learn the dos and don'ts of TikTok from an expert.

A primer on TikTok for restaurants

In December, one of my predictions for the new year was that TikTok would be essential for every business. In just the first week of 2023, there was a study proving that to be true.

With over one billion users, the video-focused social-media platform seems to be taking over the world. According to Capterra’s 2022 TikTok Marketing Survey, conducted in November and released in January, 78% of small businesses say TikTok ads drive profits — mostly in the first six months.

Fifty-three percent of restaurants that market on TikTok said that they would be spending at least 10% more on the platform for advertising in the new year. Seventy-eight percent said they realized positive ROI from the ads they’ve posted on TikTok within the first six months.

“In response to Gen Z’s preference for TikTok as a search engine over Google Maps, Google plans to launch augmented search functions to rival TikTok reviews’ immersive, authentic qualities,” said Molly Burke, senior retail analyst at Capterra, in a release. “Users like TikTok because its seemingly endless content feels authentic and unfussy — videos made by real people, for real people. Creating ads that capture the candid nature of organic TikTok content helps businesses blend in and profit.”

More than three-quarters of businesses that use TikTok post organic content, according to the survey. Seventy-two percent of business that post both organic TikTok content and ads said organic TikTok content is extremely valuable to their company’s overall marketing performance, while 55% said the same for ads.

“While other platforms’ content suggestion algorithms can feel like an oligarchy dominated by legacy brands and Hollywood celebrities, TikTok’s ‘For You’ page has been characterized as a meritocracy where small businesses can reap rewards from both paid and organic content,” said Burke.

According to Capterra, “at least one in 10 small businesses using TikTok has gone viral on the app.” Furthermore, 66% of businesses said their best-performing organic content is original and not inspired by trends, beating posts based on viral sounds (44%) or hashtags (38%).

“TikTok encourages intersectionality or cross vertical multifaceted channel curation,” said Lena Katz, lead, creator-integrated services at Ampersand (AOI-Pro). “You can be all sorts of different things. I think it’s much more reflective of humans [than other social media apps].”

So, how can restaurants create valuable TikTok content?

“A big challenge for us [marketing professionals] was relearning the creative process and blowing up everything we sort of knew as ad creatives to say, ‘that’s not how we can do things anymore,’” said Ryan Goff, chief marketing officer and director of social media strategy for agency MGH Inc. “If we want to be successful on the platform, especially from a performance marketing standpoint, or e-commerce marketing standpoint, we have to create content that looks like we are a user.”

Katz, who used to work for TikTok, echoed the same sentiment.

“I think a small amount of ad spend can make a big difference,” she said. “The number one thing they say at TikTok is ‘don’t make ads, make TikToks.’ That’s really hard for some of the bigger businesses to understand but it’s really important.”

For restaurants, there’s a balance between user-generated content and owned content.

According to Emily Schultz, senior brand manager of community for restaurant software company BentoBox, restaurants are and should be cashing in on user-generated content.

“If you search Carbone [on TikTok], you’ll see their rigatoni everywhere but they’re all from users and none are from Carbone the brand,” she said. But the posts are getting the brand more power than it had before as one of New York’s top restaurants.

Another example is Bernie’s Restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Pre-TikTok, the restaurant was busy, but post-TikTok, it has lines around the block.

But what if you don’t want to rely on just user-generated content? What if you want to make your own TikToks?

Some of the dos and don’ts of posting on TikTok, according to Katz:

Make it look genuine

“No matter what, you should really be going for something that seems so entertaining that you can slip in the advertisement, and no one will know it’s an advertisement,” Katz said.

One company that’s succeeding at that is MOD Pizza. The pizza chain incorporates its “MODSquad” into its TikToks. According to Cody Permenter, senior manager of content for MOD, this is the content that performs best for the fast-casual chain.

“We see TikTok as a really big opportunity for MOD,” he said. “Different from other brands, we’re a pizza place, but the magic behind MOD is our people — both the MODSquad and the people they serve.”

One viral example is this TikTok of an order delivered to the wrong address. The MODSquad sprung into action and went to the customer’s house, sweeping the porch, taking away the mistaken pizza, and placing flowers on the doorstep. The MODSquad even brought a package for the owner into the garage.

That TikTok has over 200,000 likes and counting since it was posted in November. 

“There’s so much creativity in the MODSquad population,” said Permenter.

That’s why MOD Pizza is experimenting with a new program, set to launch later this year, where the members of the MODSquad can contribute to the social strategy for the brand and create their own content.

Permenter and MOD are reaching out to their employees because “the people who work for your company are already making content,” he said.

That includes TikToks of their own about working for MOD. Even individual stores are getting in on the action separate from MOD corporate’s social strategy.

These videos are raw and not filtered through a perfect lens. That’s the key to a successful TikTok, Katz said. That’s how to boost discoverability on the app.

Build something around your personality

Taco Bell currently has 2.1 million TikTok followers and is constantly going viral on the platform, mainly because it has its own personality.

Much like the rest of Taco Bell’s marketing, the brand’s TikTok is irreverent and fun, using inside jokes between the brand and its customers for an added kick.

“Our strategy is to approach TikTok like a creator,” said Nicole Weltman, head of Taco Bell social. “We have a resident, in-house creator who unlocks this approach for us and works to personify our brand personality. It is important to us to participate in the larger TikTok community, so we balance our messages and creative ideas with platform trends and interactive content.”

Take, for instance, the company’s fan-favorite Mexican Pizza. Musician Doja Cat posted a TikTok lamenting that the Mexican Pizza had left the menu at Taco Bell in March. Her song went viral on the app — so viral that Taco Bell reintroduced the pizza for a limited time. 

But that’s not all. The chain then released a TikTok-only musical about the Mexican Pizza with Dolly Parton in September. While the musical was streamed live and is not available on TikTok, the preview videos have over 250,000 views.

The debut of the Mexican Pizza itself has over 57 million views. It pokes fun at the social team, and uses an original song, quick graphics, and loud colors to show the pizza off. The Mexican Pizza was reintroduced as a permanent menu item at Taco Bell in mid-September.

The videos that seem to do best for Taco Bell, however, are food videos, like this one demonstrating a menu hack.

“TikTok is a priority platform for Taco Bell for many reasons — the reach and dwell time, especially with key audience segments [like] Gen Z, is undeniable and a critical part of our strategy,” said Weltman. “’TikTok made me buy it’ is a real phenomenon, and we feel TikTok drive cultural relevance, top of mind awareness and sales across our business.”

The same is true at Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Chipotle is not always one to give into TikTok hacks. When a “hack” for how to get a $3 burrito using the chain’s taco option was posted in July (it’s since been deleted), the internet went wild, and Chipotle banned ordering tacos through the mobile app. However, Chipotle has recently given in to a different TikTok hack: cheesesteak quesadillas.

According to TikTok user Alexis Frost, who has 2.4 million followers, it’s an item Chipotle team members order themselves when they arrive at a Chipotle or eat during their shift. It’s a quesadilla made with cheese, fajita veggies, and steak — all items available on the Chipotle makeline.

After initial hesitation, the chain conceded and said it would make Philly cheesesteak quesadillas available on the menu starting in March.

We’re amazed by the passion of our fans and their ability to find unique ways to enjoy our hand-crafted quesadillas with Chipotle’s real ingredients. Due to the preparation time required, quesadillas were designed to be digitally exclusive to best support our team members, avoid overcrowding on our front-line and ensure guests have a seamless experience,” read a statement from the company. “Currently, our quesadilla offering does not include fajita veggies with a protein, however, we are looking forward to adding this combination in the future.”

Bojangles is another example of a restaurant company using TikTok to its advantage.

Bojangles uses menu hacks to engage customers on the platform and bring their comments to life. The brand has released menu hacks that it’s seen on TikTok or heard about from customers on its channel, including a hack with buffalo chicken and another with Thanksgiving stuffing.

“It allows us to be very creative, it allows us to really connect with our consumers and hear from them in a very different way,” said Samuel Warren, senior creative director at Bojangles.

Some other tricks Bojangles has used on the platform include stitching with a creator who received their press package for the holidays, combining the creator’s video with one of their own.

Don’t be afraid to try different things, even the same thing multiple ways

“[Taco Bell] isn’t afraid to take big swings and have fun,” said Katz. They’re not afraid to research a subtok and dive deep into it.”

(A subtok is a group of posts centered around one thing, like pasta, for example, and it would be called #PastaTok.)

Some of those swings include stitching with customers, playing games, promoting new initiatives, and joining in on trends

“We often see fans of our content showing up in the comments and a ton of fan love when our creator duets with someone. We consistently have strong engagement with our content,” said Weltman.

In preparation for the recent LTO showdown between its Enchirito and Double Decker Taco, Taco Bell released several videos with the same man acting as a game show host. There were several videos, and they all performed well for the brand. Taco Bell wasn’t afraid to try the same thing multiple times.

The ideal TikTok

“The dream is that someone there is really comfortable in front of a camera and is willing to vlog,” said Katz about what an ideal TikTok would be.

That means a stitch with another video (take one person’s video and react to it), a response to a comment, or anything incorporating the community on TikTok, because “TikTok is a platform that wants you to be collaborative, be a creator, collaborate with other creators, and find your community,” Katz said.

Chipotle, for example, partnered with Tariq, a boy who went viral for his love of corn. The chain capitalized on a trend, collaborated with another creator, and developed a new strategy based on this collaboration.

The resulting video has over 59 million views.

There’s also a TikTok of the trend of asking someone questions guerilla-style on the street that Chipotle participated in. That garnered them over 187,000 views.

Or the video from Chipotle that was a stitch with another user of a man in finance walking down the street. However, in the Chipotle video, he’s carrying Chipotle instead of showing off his work clothes.

Chipotle is an example of a brand using every element to achieve success. And the chain is seeing that success via its 2.1 million followers and 49 million likes.

The conundrum of TikTok

While brands may feel great about the social-media app and what it can do for them, Google is feeling threatened by all of it.

A Google executive said to TechCrunch that almost “40% of young people don’t go to Google Maps to look for a new place, they go to TikTok or Instagram.”

Senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan, who runs Google’s knowledge & information organization, referenced TikTok in a broader conversation at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference about the future of Google’s products and its use of AI.

Raghavan mentioned that younger people are more interested in “visually rich forms” of search and discovery.

Part of that searching is done with trends on TikTok like “get ready with me” or, using a certain song, while others are finding places to visit via original content showcasing a restaurant or the brand’s food like Taco Bell has done.

“It’s so interesting to watch brands either follow along with trends on the platform, or to forge their own paths and to say, ‘we're going to try to create our own trend, or do our own thing here,’” said Goff of MGH Inc. “And it doesn't always take off, many times it doesn't, but every once in a while, something does stick and then it becomes a viral thing on the platform.”

Outback Steakhouse is getting in on the game as well. Its latest marketing campaign is called Steak it to the House and uses top college football players and their profiles across TikTok and Instagram to amplify its new catering program.

This program comes on the back of a previous marketing campaign called TeamMATES NIL, for which Outback signed 80 athletes across 38 states and 15 different NCAA sports. That program achieved over 650,600 social impressions and 314 million earned impressions .

Social impressions are organic impressions achieved through non-monetary means. Earned impressions are those paid for through things like boosting or advertisements.

The impact of the most recent Steak it to the House campaign has yet to be determined.

It’s not just chains like MOD, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Bojangles, and Outback Steakhouse that can take advantage of TikTok —  there’s huge potential for independent restaurants as well.

According to MGH, 53% of Millennial TikTok users have visited a restaurant and/or ordered food from it after seeing it on TikTok.

Additionally, 38% of TikTok users across all generations — approximately 51.8 million diners — have visited a restaurant or ordered food from it after seeing a TikTok video about it.

The MGH survey also found that TikTok videos have prompted users to travel longer distances for new dining experiences, as well as swayed them to spend more money than they usually would on restaurants. Of the TikTok users surveyed, 30% have traveled longer than they normally do to visit a restaurant after seeing it on TikTok, and 28% have visited a restaurant that was slightly more expensive than the ones they usually visit after seeing it on TikTok.

Then there’s the story of Keith Lee. Lee is a former MMA fighter who became a TikTok star with his restaurant reviews. He has over 8.1 million followers and his reviews have millions of likes.

His video from January 3 went especially viral because of the story behind it. Business owner Frank Steele reached out to Lee because he “couldn’t afford rent” at his restaurant Frankensons in Las Vegas. He told KTNV that his restaurant, which opened four months ago, was “lucky if [it] made $400 a day.”

Lee went to the restaurant and —  promising an honest review — ate the food for his followers. He gave most of the food an 8 out of 10 and gave the lemon pepper wings a 10 out of 10, saying they were among the best wings he ever had.

“There is no way you should be behind on rent, or struggling to pay rent,” Lee said in the video, adding, “That food is delicious.”

Lee went so far as to say, “this is why I started making videos like this.”

The response was overwhelming.

Steele saw traffic tick up just a few hours after the initial video was posted, and the restaurant got even busier from there. The video has over 41 million views as of  January 31, many of which have translated to customers for Frankensons, with some people coming from as far as California and Utah for his food —  especially those lemon pepper wings.

“Our phone never stopped ringing. I’ve sold more lemon pepper wings in the last two days than I have in the past four months,” Steele told KTNV after the video was posted.

Frankensons now has over 400,000 followers on TikTok, rivaling competitors in the area like Domino’s, which has around 375,000 followers, Little Caesar’s with around 380,000, and Pizza Hut, which has about 342,000.

“I’ve worked in this space for 15 years, and I can’t remember another tool that we’ve had in our toolbox that has the potential to do something like that,” said Goff. “Even the best media hit in the world, you might get some response, but it seems as though the TikTok response is even stronger because we're all part of this like unique community.”

That’s something TikTok likes.

Katz went so far as to say, “that’s always been the dream.”

In Phoenix, the food truck Los Tacos Malcriados, aka Naughty Tacos, has become viral on TikTok and a favorite amongst customers. Known for its risqué taco names like the Slutty Sandia, the food truck has about 395,000 followers with over 6 million likes. It’s now opening two brick-and-mortar stores in Phoenix because of the attention it received on TikTok.

In this video, the owner is showing the line during a lightning storm complete with pouring rain. The line stretches over 100 people long for the restaurant’s tacos.

The first location is expected to open at the end of January in Phoenix, while the second location in nearby Glendale is expected to open a few months later.

“TikTok has completely shaken up the industry,” said Goff.

Permenter echoed that sentiment, “It’s changed content on the internet and in media. TikTok is here to stay.”

While it may be here to stay in the zeitgeist, there are governmental challenges for the China-based platform to overcome in the U.S.

“The biggest challenge for new brands entering the space is … recognizing that TikTok might not be around for much longer,” said Goff.

That’s due in large part to federal regulators who believe that TikTok is posing a security risk due to the company’s location in China. In December, the Senate passed legislation that said TikTok can’t be used on government devices.

In December, a group of 15 attorneys general wrote to Apple and Google calling on the app store owners to stop listing TikTok as being appropriate for teens, due to the prevalence of mature content on the app.

This is all following a ban that the Donald Trump administration floated past voters during his presidency in 2020. Since then, the U.S. government and TikTok have been working together on a plan that doesn’t pose a national security risk.

“Who's going to be the one who's willing to piss off the next generation of voters?” said Goff.

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