Three TikTok experts led a panel discussion on using the social media platform at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Kansas City.

If you’re not using TikTok, your competitors probably are — and that’s setting your restaurant brand behind the marketing game.

That was the key takeaway from “Workshopping It with TokTok,” the keynote session at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Kansas City that kicked off Sunday, March 24. The session was sponsored by TikTok.

Speakers participating in the workshop session included Brenda Cortes, a Kansas City-based content creator and influencer, Lauran Driver, head of industry — dining, auto, travel for TikTok and Brad Haley, CMO for Dave’s Hot Chicken.

TikTok has 170 million daily users, and while many are personal accounts, more businesses are leveraging TikTok as part of social media marketing campaigns. Driver said TikTok is a “full screen, sound-on immersive platform.” Approximately 24% of TikTok users are ages 18-24, 52% are ages 25-44 and 24% are ages 45 and up.

Hashtags remain a useful tool for users to search, and relevant samples include #FoodTok with 2 million hashtags on the site and 4.8 million covering #pizza.

Leveraging TikTok

TikTok is a call to action, Driver said, as users often want to visit the restaurants they see on the platform, like Dave’s Hot Chicken. There are thousands of videos on the platform of users enjoying Dave’s food.

Haley said the brand is on its seventh year in the restaurant industry and was started by three childhood friends in a parking lot pop-up in East Hollywood. The brand became popular after an Eater L.A. writer wrote about on the brand, and the results were lines around the block.

Today, Dave’s Hot Chicken successfully utilizes TikTok as part of its social media campaigns and has 2.1 million followers. Its mission statement is “Blow Your Mind,” but the brand doesn’t tell guests how it does that, instead letting influencers and creators do the heavy lifting on social media. The image of a content creator biting into a juicy, flavorful and crispy hot chicken sandwich is a powerful call to action, and there are so many videos of TikTok users enjoying Dave’s Hot Chicken food that the brand makes commercials out of them.

“The brand was born on social, and that’s really our secret sauce,” Haley said.

Dave’s Hot Chicken has a lot of social currency, Haley added, and when there’s a new Dave’s in town, people want to visit it and create videos about the food and the design, which is urban and catchy. Dave’s can then use those videos in its own advertising, include one content creator with three million followers testing out Dave’s “Not Chicken” a new cauliflower-based product that has the flavor of the brand’s signature chicken without the meat. In his own TikTok video, the influencer bites into the sandwich, and viewers can hear the crispy crunch of the batter. He pours Dave’s sauce on top, drizzles it in honey and digs in. Dave’s took the video and created a 30-second ad for the Not Chicken product and has been running it since early January.

“I don’t think we could have written something as good and compelling as that, and if we had it would probably seem kind of cringe, which a lot of brands have to avoid,” Haley explained. “We just let our guests speak for us.”

TikTok is still growing for Dave’s Hot Chicken and there’s no sign of it slowing, he said, which is clearly a boon for a company with less than 200 restaurants.

“TikTok’s mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy,” Driver said.

Driver said not all brands have the luxury of so much user-generated content, and asked Haley what those brands should do. While Dave’s Hot Chicken’s founder is fond of saying “It’s all about the food, bro,” Haley said that’s not necessarily true. There’s the environment and designs of the restaurants to consider as well. The interiors of the stores are beautiful — Dave’s has a team of artists who come into new stores and paint them with graffiti, an homage to the graffiti around the original street stand — and other brands can leverage their own store designs to create effective social media.

Driver asked Haley for a piece of advice on how to get started, and Haley recommended that brands have someone on their team who can immerse themselves in social media and find the right way in.

“Frankly, we’re blessed that we have this organic content out there that we can use to amplify or repurpose it into an … ad,” he said. “I think the key is you want it to be as real as possible.”

Creating content

Cortes said she started her content creation journey on TikTok as it’s an easier platform to grow in.

“I found it way easier than growing my Instagram,” she said. Consistency in posting and using hashtags have been paramount to her success.

TikTok has a creative center that allows users to search for creative content producers in their respective areas, and brands can leverage those influencers.

“I think it’s great for brands to have connections or partnerships with people who are local because of the authenticity of it,” Cortes said. “A lot of people relate to us. We’re your average everyday person out on the street shopping. … I go out and I eat at restaurants, I experience things to experience and I think they can relate to that.”

Driver asked Cortes how important it is for brands to understand her demographics or audience before partnering with her. Cortes said it’s important at some level, and she feels like brands need to realize who their own target audience is because every business is a little different. For instance, an amusement company will have a difference demographic than a restaurant, and restaurants themselves can have differing audiences based on whether they are a QSR, fast casual, full or fine dining. Cortes said brands will often ask for her demographics right down to the ages of her own followers and if they’re male or female.

“If that aligns with your brand, then that’s a good way to get your business out there,” she said.

She added a restaurant can have the best food in the world, but if it doesn’t have an inviting environment with friendly service welcoming guests into their space, then it can set an off tone for guests.

Driver asked Cortes how users balance authenticity with a brand’s goals and objectives, and Cortes said it can be relatively easy and she hasn’t experienced a restaurant yet that doesn’t have its own authenticity.

“I feel like every place has its unique thing and honestly maybe I don’t love somewhere I go … but there’s a place for everyone. … I make sure to capture what I see, what I eat, what I’m experiencing and showcase that and maybe it’s not necessarily something that I love, somebody else will come and it’s going to be their thing. So, I’m just kind of that middle person. I’m very in control when I come in and I make content and I’m going to speak out for what I love and what makes that place unique.”

Content neutrality is important for Cortes, who said she seeks out new restaurants daily. Every content creator has his or her niche.

“I have a style and I feel across my content you can kind of see what my style is,” she said. “I feel that just being myself and being original and not worrying about what other creators are doing” results in authentic, successful content creation.

The Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit is hosted by Networld Media Group. The company’s next restaurant-focused event is the Fast Casual Executive Summit October 13-15, 2024 in Denver Colorado. Click here for more information.

About Networld Media Group

Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading media communications company specializing in digital media, events and associations in the technology, restaurant, banking, and retail industries. It’s media brands include,,,,, and Events under the Networld umbrella include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit and the Self-Service Innovation Summit.

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