TikTok makes small Denver restaurants famous, but it caused Domo to close

A 15-second TikTok video shows a close-up shot of a lobster tail being generously dunked into a ramekin of butter, then pans out to reveal the rest of a plate loaded with shrimp, crab and sausage. “Hidden Gem in Denver, CO” reads the Jan. 27, 2021, caption from the account @denverfoodscene before introducing TK’S Surf and Turf as Denver’s first black-owned seafood restaurant.

But by Jan. 28 of that year, the restaurant was no longer hidden: The TikTok video had amassed one million views, turning a Klieg light on the family-owned restaurant.

The viral video that was recorded at TK’s Surf and Turf, 10890 E. Dartmouth Ave. in Denver, not only drove up traffic in the days after it was posted, it also changed the trajectory of the small business that opened during the height of the pandemic.

Owner Tyler Kanwai said that more than 18 months after the viral video, locals and tourists are still coming in and reporting they discovered his restaurant on the TikTok short-form video sharing app. In an interview with Bloomberg, TikTok’s CEO even gave a shoutout to the seafood spot and, more recently, producers of a forthcoming national food show have courted Kanwai.

“I’ll tell you what, that video set business on fire,” he said in mid-September. “I compare social media to being in a room with everyone in the world. That’s why it’s so important for small businesses to utilize social platforms like TikTok.”

Hidden Gem In Denver Co Tks Surf And Turf Is the first black owned seafood restaurant in Colorado #denverfoodscene #blm #saythiernames

♬ Oh Honey – Delegation

Unlike social media platforms before it, the TikTok algorithm has less to do with connecting users with their friends and family than it is about steering them to specific “sides” of the app it believes they’ll like — putting in front of them user-generated recaps of “90 Day Fiancé,” or home remodels with a minimalist aesthetic, or trending dances to hip-hop remixes.

And those users hungry for food content? They’ll get a steady stream of steaming dumplings, clinking cocktail glasses and birria tacos coming hot off a griddle.

But TikTok users aren’t just passively scrolling on the app. They’re skipping Google and Yelp and going straight to the video platform to seek out new restaurants, a notion confirmed by Google senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan who, in July, publicized internal data suggesting almost 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States go to TikTok and Instagram instead of Google for their search needs.

The app has been leveling the playing field for small businesses that don’t have big advertising budgets. But it’s also dealing wild cards to restaurateurs who could go viral with a customer’s close-up video clip of an epic cheese pull, but hopefully not get the boom in business during an acute labor shortage.

Here’s a look at how TikTok is reshaping the food scene in Denver.

Cheese pulls and saucy dunks

On the creator side, Yesenia Chinchilla knows exactly what her audience likes: “Anything that’s saucy or cheesy is going to be a hit,” says the TikTok influencer behind @denverfoodscene, one of the Mile High City’s most popular accounts.

Chinchilla started making TikTok videos as a way to document her exploration of Denver’s restaurants. Now, the home chef and mom of two has turned her hobby into a full-time job. Alongside her husband, Daniel Perez, she churns out videos of syrup-drizzled pancakes and smoking cocktails and sauced-up burritos on a near-daily basis for her 500,000-plus followers.

Chinchilla’s content is the result of working with restaurant PR firms as well as setting out to discover under-the-radar eateries, and she loves introducing her followers to family-owned restaurants. She’s like a culinary scout, with the power to put mom-and-pop restaurants into the big leagues.

“The TikTok algorithm is really powerful,” Chinchilla said. “It’s given those smaller restaurants more of a voice.”

Generally speaking, as we consume more social media, it’s become difficult for a single static photo or meme to go viral. But TikTok is shaking things up, with users having ready-made formats and trending songs to spark the creative process.

“The difference with TikTok is you don’t have to have a big following for your video to go viral,” says Steve Juliff, communications specialist for Metropolitan State University of Denver’s School of Hospitality, which sponsors the @DenverFoodScene account.

In some cases, a restaurant can intentionally partner with a TikTok creator and subsequently prepare to get crushed with business after the video posts.

But there are other instances in which a customer could film a quick video that goes viral, surprising unsuspecting restaurateurs who might not have the inventory or seating to keep pace with the demand, further compounding labor shortages.

Last year, DOMO Japanese Country Restaurant in Denver was forced to temporarily shut its doors after a 40-second video showing off the beautiful outdoor gardens went viral and led to hundreds of people forming lines around the restaurant, which was counterintuitive to social distancing measures, according to a Facebook post from the restaurant.

Domo is a beautiful Japanese restaurant located in Denver #colorado #coloradoeats

♬ original sound – Zane Gentry


On Tuesday, Westword reported that Domo’s owner, Gaku Homma, is permanently closing the restaurant, at 1365 Osage St., saying if he reopened, the increased business wouldn’t allow him to keep up the quality standards that his patrons were used to. At 72, he was also ready to retire.

TikTok takes over business plans

Charles Murray frequently witnesses the power of influence in real-time at his sports bar Slater’s 50/50 Denver. When one of the restaurant’s signature milkshakes parades out into the dining room, phones get whipped out like a reflex and film, say, the Happy Happy Birthday Shake that has a crushed Jolly Rancher rim, lollipops, and is topped with Twinkies and a cupcake, commanding attention with a lit sparkler.

“We won’t have sold a shake all night and then someone orders one, and people see it, and the next thing you know, five or 10 more orders come in,” Murray says.

As Murray drew up his pre-pandemic business plan, he thought sharing a mixed-use building with office workers would be his restaurant’s secret sauce. Now, TikTok is a top driver to Slater’s 50/50 Denver, at 3600 Blake St.

Slater’s 50/50 is a great spot to grab a burger and a shake located in Denver #colorado #denverfood #slaterspartners

♬ Feels (feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean) – Calvin Harris

The restaurant’s saucy wings, over-the-top shakes and Denver-centric mural all make for great TikTok fodder. When popular accounts film in the restaurant, Murray sees an immediate spike in business that’s akin to the milkshake effect that happens in the restaurant.

But how can restaurants translate that 15 seconds of fame on the app into longer-term, more sustainable business?

You’ve got a short window of opportunity, Juliff said. He recommends that restaurateurs capitalize on viral moments by responding to people who are commenting on the videos and building a following. People are particularly interested in knowing the stories of small businesses.

“They want to know why you started and why you chose the food you did,” he says. Especially if there’s a trending song playing in the background and visuals of saucy slam dunks.

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