In June, our society wrestled, yet again, with a civil rights movements calling attention to the destruction of Black lives. During the outpouring of support for and attention given to Black-owned businesses, I began to receive a wave of offers. PR experts offered their time and expertise to get the word out about Black-owned concepts. Bloggers, influencers, and social media marketers volunteered to teach business owners about the power of Instagram and Twitter. It seemed, for a moment, that everyone everywhere wanted to help Black-owned businesses. I definitely did. And while I craved a break from the intense energy of the moment, I resolved to link as many business owners with resources as I could. I told myself that if I could help just one business then I could consider my efforts a success.
Since then, through an ad hoc effort organized via direct messages, my website, excel spreadsheets, and Google Forms, I've matched Black-owned food businesses with resources 38 times. The vast majority of those resources involved photography and social media support, unsurprising during a period where so much of our lives are conducted virtually due to COVID-19 and customers increasingly rely on digital feedback to make dining choices. As part of this project, in addition to matching businesses with a pool of professional volunteers, I've also dedicated my own time and expertise to consult, teach, and train business owners on the use of social media for business.
Now, five months later, have those efforts been successful?
Business owners emphasize the impact of discrete resources. It's hard to quantify the impact of training, updated photos, and digital strategy tweaks. Instead, the best feedback comes directly from business owners themselves in the form of qualitative assessments. Taking stock of the stories, questions, and comments provided by participating Black-owned businesses demonstrates that direct coaching and training remain especially powerful.
Nyana Quashie, co-owner of local food product business Camella's Kitchen, emphasized the positive impact of training materials developed by local food bloggers as well as direct coaching. She notes, "I've used the social media and photo posting guide to improve the way that I take and post photos. I have a somewhat older phone, so the LED light link that you included in the guide was really helpful. I was able to purchase directly off of Amazon and it's done wonders with the lighting. I've noticed a clear difference in the quality of my photos, especially when combined with tools like Lightroom."
Quashie has also taken information from those training materials and combined it with coaching to boost her business' social media presence. She says, "I've used the guide to improve the hashtags that I use [on our business Instagram] and, combined with your consultation, it has really helped with reach. Since June, I've had 8 posts reach over 1,000 accounts. Before June, I was lucky if any of my posts even reached 400 people. On top of that, our account has seen a major increase in the growth rate."
Quashie emphasizes that the resources provided have buoyed Camella's Kitchen. She says, "We did see increased sales. Most of our sales were previously done at pop-up events. However, as the pandemic spread, our operations were forced to be 100% online, as we no longer had the option to do those in person. This had a negative impact on our sales as we couldn't go out into the community." Through increased visibility, growing their online community, and leveraging other resources like free professional photography services, Camella's Kitchen was able to improve "in both sales and online community." In addition, she says that "increased visibility even led to a foray in working with restaurants - we got on Thamee's radar, and we're lucky to be included in their BIPOC pantry initiative. This has exposed us to the possibility of making additional revenue through business to business sales."
Chef/owner Paulos Belay of Detroit-style pizza pop-up Motown Square, which launched mid-pandemic, also highlighted the impact of photography assistance. He says, "great photos of food can be tough (at least for me) to take at home... It’s great that I now have several photos that can be fired up through social media and added throughout the website."
Belay also utilized social media coaching designed to teach food business owners best practices for Instagram as a free marketing tool. Belay noted, "I think social media sessions were extremely helpful. Announcing my business on Instagram and using it to gain recognition has been huge for me. Obviously friends, family, and word of mouth are good but it has been a very pleasant surprise that so many ordering pizzas found out through my posts and use of hashtags. I'm not much of a social media user so now I feel like I have a blueprint as a business owner to doing my own marketing. It's been very helpful for sales and awareness." Motown Square, Belay's weekend pizza pop-up has sold out almost every weekend since launching.
Feedback also underscores social media's importance as a marketing tool. In addition to matching business owners with discrete resources like photographers and social media coaching, I have attempted to use my platform to help Black-owned restaurants (and other local independent food businesses) in other ways. I photograph and share about them regularly, trying to spotlight businesses that I don't see in traditional media or being shared often by other bloggers. I had considered these efforts secondary, but when asked for feedback on the impact of recent efforts to support them, multiple businesses emphasized the power of these social media spotlights.
Nicole Watson, Director of Operations at The Shell Shack Seafood, noted an impact after I visited The Shell Shack (unannounced and independently) and posted about the food on my Instagram. Watson says, "we have lobster sliders on our menu but it was not until Feed the Malik patronized our store, took f the highest-grossing appetizers on our current menu."
Belay of Motown Square described a similar effect after I ordered (without his knowledge or any discount) and shared about the food on Instagram, saying, "your posts about Motown Square have generated many new interactions. People have ordered and messaged me saying they saw your post which is why they ordered. If no one knows about Motown Square then it doesn’t matter if it tastes good." I also received a comment from a local reporter that my recommendation on Instagram caused them to include Motown Square, which had previously not received any traditional media coverage, on the 11 o'clock news.
Other notes from food business owners via Instagram and Twitter have emphasized the same message: that social media sharing has made a direct and measurable impact on their business, on sales, and on their ability to remain operating.
However, these efforts have not been without flaw or failure. After providing business owners with contract information for free professional services, about one-third never reached out to the provided resources. From feedback, I've learned that some of that disconnect was the result of being overwhelmed or just plain busy, but other factors are surely at play. Some business owners have noted they are waiting to leverage said services strategically, waiting until they change their menu to contact a photographer for example. And, as someone who works in the digital space and encounters the biases that accompany that on a regular basis, I would make an educated guess that others decided they did not see the value in investing in new tactics (like leveraging social media) during a crisis and directed their efforts to more traditional marketing efforts, as is their right.
Finally, though some business owners have asked for coaching or other resources, it became clear that they sought more traditional influencer marketing from Feed The Malik. And while I can and do share about businesses that I enjoy, I won't promote businesses that I have not visited and/or did not enjoy. This has led to some hard conversations as I sought to explain my belief that social media sharing has the best opportunity to make an impact if my recommendations are wholeheartedly honest.
A few lessons emerge as I look towards continuing these efforts in the future:
Some businesses have seen strong financial rewards from the resources provided. However, those rewards can be fickle, require a significant time investment, and like many marketing strategies, rely on a bit of luck, namely the right person seeing their efforts at just the right time (as occurred with the Instagram share prompting a TV segment example). This can be especially frustrating for those trying to ensure the long-term survival of their businesses. I'm unsure how to ease those frustrations, but I do understand them.
Many of the resources require time and energy to leverage, which may or may not be possible for a small business owner with limited staff and resources. Capacity and fatigue (both my own and business owners') are important factors to consider as I continue these efforts in the future.
As the months pass, interest in assisting Black business owners and the pool of willing volunteer resources shrinks. Attention spans are short and it will become more difficult to provide resources that rely on outside sources, like professional photography. I will shift more to provide as many resources as I can personally, namely my own semi-professional photography and videography, and social media coaching sessions.
Food bloggers should consider if and how they wish to impact local businesses, especially during times of crisis. Honest reviews and deliberate attention to small businesses, particularly those without representation by public relations firms and/or major media coverage can make a direct impact.
In the grand scheme of this crisis and broader inequality in our society, my efforts are extremely modest. However, I am committed to continuing this work with the local food community as much as I can in the future. And while I have focused on working with Black businesses, I welcome food business owners of any background who want to learn more about social media marketing or improve their stock of photos for their business. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to learn more.
And special thanks to my Patreon subscribers, whose support provides me and Feed The Malik the financial stability to dedicate time and energy to providing these services. I'm immensely grateful for that community and for all the professionals who continue to generously volunteer their time and energy.