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What kitchen tool is coming to restaurants’ rescue? Instagram.

“People don’t read signs — but they look at the internet.” Instagram has become restaurants’ first line of communication with customers, and it’s driving sales.

Chef Chris Paul and wife, Leigh-Ann Charles-Paul (not shown) at their pop-up restaurant, Lakay, inside Herman's Coffee, 1313 S 3rd St, Philadelphia. At right is Ebony Burnett, taking a pic for uploading to Instagram. She is from Wynnefield section of Philadelphia and found herself within a few minutes of this pop-up and so she swung by for a food order.
Chef Chris Paul and wife, Leigh-Ann Charles-Paul (not shown) at their pop-up restaurant, Lakay, inside Herman's Coffee, 1313 S 3rd St, Philadelphia. At right is Ebony Burnett, taking a pic for uploading to Instagram. She is from Wynnefield section of Philadelphia and found herself within a few minutes of this pop-up and so she swung by for a food order.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Bars and restaurants rely on myriad tools of the trade, from cocktail shakers to chef’s knives. And then there’s the kitchen instrument the pandemic has made all the more essential: Instagram.

Social media has long been important to the hospitality industry. Customers provided free marketing, gleefully snapping shots of their dinner, and savvy chefs built online followings with behind-the-scenes looks at dishes and kitchen dynamics.

But as the pandemic has progressed, Instagram has emerged as a critical medium to update customers, keep enthusiasm up, and, most importantly, to drive sales. Some latecomers are discovering the power of posting for the first time, while others are harnessing established profiles to make the best of COVID-era operations. Still more users are setting up shop for the first time altogether.

Reaching customers old and new

The Saloon has been in Bella Vista for over half a century, and in that time it’s transformed from a one-room bar selling hamburgers and 40-cent martinis to a pricey Italian steakhouse stitched together in five rowhouses. It’s an old-school classic, and its faithful clientele was fittingly old-school, too.

“We never really had to worry about marketing,” says manager Marty Angeline. Outreach was not a priority.“ We have people that live across the street who come in and say, ‘I’ve lived across the street for three, four years now and I’ve never once been in here.’”

But the pandemic has nudged the Saloon into the 21st century: It forced the restaurant to seek out its regulars and new customers, too. Angeline and others approached owner Richard Santore, who is in his 80s, about starting an Instagram account.

“He didn’t really understand it, but we just started doing it. We got so many followers so quick, I think within a week we had eight, 900 followers,” he says. Since May, @saloonphilly has amassed more than 1,200 followers. The staff has used it to showcase some of the steakhouse’s lesser-known qualities, including its antique-laden interior and fresh pasta, and Angeline says new customers have discovered them as a result.

“One silver lining of the pandemic is it really opened their eyes to how much a little bit of marketing really can go a long way,” he says.

That’s never escaped Danielle Renzulli, owner of 12 Steps Down in the Italian Market, who started the bar’s Instagram account in 2012. She and her bartenders divided the labor for @12stepsdown over the years; everyone posted during their shift. Many consisted of what you might expect of a dive: jokey memes, posts about free pool and Quizzo, pictures of regulars sporting bingo-night prizes.

But the bar’s Instagram posts have gotten less insular and more “outreaching” as the pandemic has gone on, Renzulli says. It’s partly out of necessity — to inform customers about street seating, food specials, indoor dining — but the posts are also an avenue for encouragement.

“It almost feels like that’s the way that people are supporting bars and restaurants,” Renzulli says. “Like [people are saying], ‘Yes, you guys are still there, let’s show you some love and know that we’re seeing your post.’”

Chef Ari Miller echoes the sentiment. He misses the days at Musi, his temporarily sidelined Pennsport BYOB, when he chatted with customers. Instagram offers the next-best thing. “We get a lot of activity,” he says. “People ask us questions, express their love, offer us constructive criticism.

“It really is that casual intimacy that we’ve lost because you don’t have that ability to walk to a table and say thanks.”

Shifting gears

Miller manages @musiphilly, his personal account, and @frizwit, a profile he created almost as a placeholder for his cheesesteak pop-ups. In March, he says, the accounts started to blur. He posted no-frills home-cooking videos to the Musi account in a departure from the quirky-yet-composed dishes that defined the BYOB.

“It was like, what is the point of this account that was here to say ‘This is what we do as a restaurant’ and then all of sudden there’s no restaurant?” he remembers of the early months before Musi rebooted for outdoor dining.

Since late October, however, Miller and his crew have relied exclusively on Frizwit — it’s available for pickup and $2 delivery every weekend, along with a small menu of sandwich-adjacent offerings. Naturally, @musiphilly, with its 6,400 followers, was conscripted into service.

It’s another reason Instagram became so invaluable: Your message can change on a dime, something the pandemic demanded of nearly every business.

That’s how Barry Johnson used @bartender_barry when his private bartending gigs evaporated in March and he had to cancel a spring soiree at the Philadelphia Ethical Society. But Johnson took to Instagram with original cocktail recipes and livestreams. They eventually led to bookings for private virtual classes.

“People have been forced to think more creatively,” Johnson says. Before he was limited by geography, but now, “I can host cocktail classes with people in New Jersey or even in California. The possibilities and opportunities have just been expanded in some ways.”

From posts to profits

Instagram “is the only thing that my businesses is right now,” says Nano Wheedan, a Mount Airy native who co-owned a bustling pizza restaurant in Austin before moving back to the area in May. He’s been selling breakfast tacos in South Philly via the account @nanostortillas since September; the flour tortilla-wrapped tacos are snapped up virtually, seconds after he posts his weekly menu.

“I have 1,800 followers on Instagram. I’ve not given tacos to more than 100 people. It’s totally crazy,” Wheedan says, acknowledging that a following doesn’t guarantee success in real-life business. “I don’t want to sell myself short, but it’s a bubble. ... It’s up to us to make good on the promise that Instagram shows.”

Wheedan is far from alone in using the app as a launchpad. Plenty of other Philly start-ups — Heavy Metal Sausage, Juana Tamale, Pizza Jawn, Micah’s Mixx lemonade stand, not to mention a slew of budding bakeries — have charted the same course, moving on to full-fledged websites and sometimes brick-and-mortar shops.

» READ MORE: Micah Harrigan is boosting his South Philly lemonade stand with Instagram. He’s 10.

But even a seasoned outfit like South Philly Barbacoa uses Instagram to make sales. Some of @barbacoachef’s 33,000 followers clamored for delivery to New York and D.C. last year after co-owner Ben Miller posted a video of himself making deliveries in Philadelphia. So Miller, who spearheads the account, decided: “If they’re driving for us, I can drive for them, too.” Miller uses direct messages and a Google Form to field orders in advance of the early-morning journeys, which he livestreams.

One might not think Barbacoa — which routinely had lines out the door pre-pandemic — would need to do much self-promotion, but Miller cites it as an important tool for drumming up business. “Every weekend we have to find new ways to take pictures of the same small menu,” he says. “Immediately after we put something up, we always get people that come by.”

“Last year, numbers-wise, I probably made 30 grand on Instagram,” says South Jersey-based chef Chris Paul. Since returning to the Philadelphia area last spring after a yearlong sabbatical, he started hosting his Lakay pop-ups at Herman’s Coffee, South Philly Barbacoa, and Cadence. He recently took up a semipermanent residence at Kampar Kitchen, chef Ange Branca’s new venture in the Bok Building, where Paul’s two-person meal is available on Thursdays.

Last year was the first in which Paul began cooking the Haitian food he grew up eating, after two decades of working in restaurants, including Parc and Lacroix. While he’s used @chrispaulchef on and off to promote other entrepreneurial ambitions, it had mostly been for documenting nights out, workouts, and travels — including a cross-country trip he and his wife took with their two cats this summer. “There wasn’t a focus,” Paul says.

But since his Lakay pop-ups started, his following has topped 3,000 and he’s seen sales grow accordingly. “Ninety-five% of anyone who’s come through a pop-up was because of Instagram.”

Now he’s approaching his account with more intention, paring back on just-for-fun content and drafting posts that concentrate on Caribbean food and culture instead. “That’s probably the hard transition that I’m going to work on this year, to really remove the personal stuff,” he says.

» READ MORE: The People’s Kitchen at El Compadre serves free meals and social justice to those in need

A love-hate relationship

Even before last March, ComfortFood and Kitchenette owner Kim Quay made sure the Morrisville, Bucks County takeout/catering shop and restaurant had a robust presence on Instagram. But @comfortfoodandkitchenette took on a new importance when the coronavirus shut the Philly area down, ending the restaurant’s dine-in service and slashing its hours and staff.

“There’s just no way we could keep up on the website and making signs,” Quay says. “The whole front of my place at one point was covered with signs of what the hell we were doing. And people don’t read signs — but they look at the internet.”

She turned to Instagram to post menus and policies, and urged customers to check their page. She’s seen an uptick in interactions and now even differentiates the content she posts, putting cheekier messages in Instagram stories (for millennials) and directing early-morning posts toward her older audience.

“And [after] nine months of that now, I can change the amount of food that we sell in a day by what I post,” she says. “We sold 30 burgers in less than an hour on a Thursday night, from 4 to 5 o’clock. That’s nuts. And that’s because it was on Instagram in the morning.”

Savvy as she is with the app, sometimes it strikes her: “I’m a cook. I didn’t think I was gonna have to figure any of this out by owning a restaurant. But here we are,” she says. “All I want to do is put my phone down and never see it again. And that is not a choice for me.”

“It’s a full-time job,” Kampar Kitchen’s Ange Branca says of Instagram. “I’m grateful for it, because it has provided me a free way of promoting the business. [But] on top of everything that I have to do, this is one more thing that I put on my schedule. And it has to be on there. Because if I don’t keep up with emanating that presence, it does affect the business.”

When Branca’s Sate Kampar closed last year, she used @satekamparphilly to say goodbye: “We have loved serving all of you, and the community, so much,” she wrote. “We will be back. Please continue to follow us.”

In the next months, she told faithful followers about summer pop-ups and community work. She kept up the energy. Now that she’s launched Kampar Kitchen, she’s beginning to see regulars in person again.

“It’s so wonderful to know that they’ve stayed in touch and we’ve kept in contact with every one of our very, very loyal customers,” Branca say. “And it was through Instagram.”