Social media is a vital digital component of attracting and building an audience, but how do you build a restaurant brand that fosters authentic connections?
Vincent Williams of Honey’s Kettle, Tamearra Dyson of Souley Vegan Restaurants, and Shawn Lalehzarian of The Red Chickz joined DoorDash at Main Street Summit: LA to discuss how they’ve built a loyal customer base, used their restaurant’s social media strategy to gain brand recognition and sales, and more.
Watch the full session on YouTube and read below to learn about how these three restaurateurs leverage social media for success.
Authenticity doesn’t mean perfection
Shawn Lalehzarian is the co-founder and CEO of The Red Chickz (@theredchickz, with 1.2 million TikTok followers and 150,000 Instagram followers), a Nashville hot chicken-style restaurant with two locations in Downtown Los Angeles and Culver City, California. For Shawn, authenticity is all about painting a realistic picture of what the customer can expect instead of spending time creating stylized photos. He’s learned that while presentation matters, building a loyal restaurant social media following doesn’t require fancy lighting or elaborate photoshoots.
“It's about being authentic and showing exactly what you're going to get when you come to our store. Our posts on TikTok and Instagram are shot at random angles without perfect lighting,” Shawn says. “It's actually the product that comes out of the kitchen and to your table.”
A mix of structured and spontaneous content is key for Tamearra Dyson, the executive chef and owner of Souley Vegan Restaurants (@souleyvegan, 55,000 Instagram followers), serving plant-based Louisiana Creole cuisine in Oakland, California.
“Souley Vegan was built with very authentic people. A lot of people know the brand, my story, and how we started, so they look for that from us,” she says. “I'll go on there and just do something quirky because that's just who I am. In the end, it’s about letting people know exactly what to expect when you come to Souley Vegan.”
For Tamearra, showcasing her personality online has helped her audience connect with Souley Vegan more meaningfully. “Souley Vegan is an extension of myself and I'm always my authentic self when I communicate to our followers,” she says. “I know who our customers are and we've built that culture.”
I'm kind of sewn into the brand, which is why a lot of people are able to identify with the brand and where it comes from. It’s never just about the business. Souley Vegan was birthed out of my experiences, and because I speak so candidly about my experiences, people are able to identify with me — and they love the brand even more.
Vincent Williams is the chef and owner at Honey’s Kettle, known for serving Los Angeles’s residents for over 20 years with their kettle fried chicken (@honeyskettle, 49,000 Instagram followers). He acknowledges that as social media started to evolve, so has the restaurant’s strategy — even if it started with less-than-ideal photos. “We started with cell phone-type photos, and the lighting was terrible. It didn’t start out as 110% of what it can be,” he remembers. “We're trying to learn more and more about what’s really eye-catching and will go viral.”
There are many metrics for measuring success in marketing your restaurant’s brand on social media; sometimes, the key to success lies in taking a risk and forging a different path.
“When we started our brand in 2018 everyone was trying to build this strong platform on Instagram and it was very competitive. So we took the advice of Red Ocean, Blue Ocean, and put our focus and effort on TikTok,” Shawn says. “There were definitely a lot of learning curves because it's a completely different market and audience from what Instagram is.”
That risk in investing in a new platform paid off; in the four years since The Red Chickz began posting on TikTok, they’ve garnered a massive following, with 1.2 million followers and over 33 million likes.
While everyone was busy with Instagram, we started our brand on TikTok. I remember in the first three or four months we were on TikTok we gained 17,000 followers. And when that happened, we felt like, ‘Okay, there's definitely something here that we need to focus on.’
Success also comes down to knowing your audience — and learning how to capture as much of their attention as possible. For Shawn, he’s realized that he has just a few seconds to make an impact.
“You have about three seconds to communicate your message, and if they stay, it’s for an extra two seconds, so now you have five seconds,” he says. “20-30% of viewers actually watch through the entire 10 or 15 seconds, but you have that first five seconds to give the message or hook them so they watch the entire thing.”
For Vincent, social shares have become how he measures social media success with Honey’s Kettle. “We have had people that come through the restaurant who are influencers, and they have their own platforms. In this day and age, people like to take pictures of the food and share it,” he says.
“We're really looking for the shares. That's what really counts to us because a lot of people could like it and never visit it.” As one of Los Angeles’s most well-known fried chicken restaurants, Vincent also emphasized the importance of making sure Honey’s Kettle lives up to expectations.
DIY vs. outsourcing social media marketing for your restaurant
Should you take the helm of your social media strategy or outsource it to someone else? All three restaurateurs found outsourcing or delegating social media to other employees is the best strategy for their businesses.
“We did not start out with anyone. It was just me, but it takes so much time. I outsource it to an individual contractor,“ Tamearra says. “It's important to make sure that your imagery and videos are right because it takes so much time.”
Shawn also outsources The Red Chickz’s social media to his in-house team and leverages experts to fill in the gaps with the restaurant’s strategy. “I think the first step is to figure out which part of the equation you got and which pieces you're lacking,” he says. “Having someone who has the understanding of the platform and who lives it and breathes it 10 hours a day was important because that was not us. We had to get someone from that generation that knows the language — how to communicate, how to caption, and what's hot — to fill that gap.”
For Vincent, relying on his family (his son is a co-owner of Honey’s Kettle) helped grow and sustain Honey’s Kettle’s presence on social media. “I've been fortunate enough to have my daughter in-house and I have a son who's a designer,” he says. “We have our own team because it can get very, very pricey to go out and hire somebody.”
Advice for building your restaurant’s social media strategy
With social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok becoming a necessary part of any restaurant’s marketing strategy, these restaurateurs have parting words of advice for anyone looking to grow their audience.
Shawn encourages restaurateurs to see past the stereotypes of certain social media platforms and focus on finding an audience that’ll resonate with their brand. “When I talk to a lot of different brand owners, what I hear is that TikTok is that crazy dance platform,” he says. “We have to pay attention to the fact that not everyone on TikTok creates content, but everyone is watching. It's not just that limited age range that we think is on TikTok all the time."
He’s also not afraid to tell his team to think big and bring ideas to the table — no matter how outlandish those ideas may seem. “We have biweekly meetings with our team and we expect everyone to bring some outrageous ideas. The majority of them never come to life because it's too crazy. But some of them are crazy enough to come to life,” he says.
“TikTok has got us on different platforms such as Complex and Access Hollywood, all because of the creative content that we have. A lot of our content goes viral based on the creativity that we put out.”
Finding someone that can capture your voice and culture — then project that — is very important.
While Vincent is less involved in the day-to-day tasks with social media, he knows the power that a good social media strategy brings to a business is invaluable. “You can't really always quantify that in terms of people walking in the door spending their money,” Vincent says. “[Social media] creates such an awareness — this kinetic energy, so to speak — that all of a sudden it shows up in lines out the door. It’s the number one way to reach your audience.”
For more advice from local restaurateurs, watch all Main Street Summit: LA sessions on YouTube and check out other session recaps like Growing Your Restaurant Business: A Guide to Strategic Expansion.