Small Business Spotlight: Love Of Food And Culture, Knack For Instagram Inspire 'The Grubfather'

May 08, 2018 - 7:25 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Sal DiBenedetto combined his love of food, travel, and living a positive lifestyle with a knack for Instagram to become a social media influencer with a booming following.

With ‘The Grubfather,’ DiBenedetto takes people from Long Island and New York City around the world as he documents cuisine, culture, and adventure.

“I’ve always felt very connected to food, so I feel that especially with social media, when you connect with people on a personal level and they can tell it’s genuine, it’s very successful, and you reach an audience that is willing to hear what you have to say,” DiBenedetto told WCBS 880’s Joe Connolly, “and that for me has been my biggest strongpoint is that I’m talking about things I’m passionate about – food, travel, you know, living a positive lifestyle – I think that has really aided me.”

About two years ago, DiBenedetto started a company creating social media campaigns for restaurants, bars, food products, realizing that restaurateurs often do not have the time to invest in food photography. He used his degrees in cultural anthropology and international studies – and his understanding of people – as inspirations to fill that need in the market.

DiBenedetto’s first paying gig came when he was working as a waiter at the restaurant Brooklyn Commune, which was operating primarily as a café. The executive chef, Chris Scott, wanted to draw more attention to the dinner program, and DiBenedetto tried to use social media to that end.

“Unfortunately, didn’t really work out too well,” he said. “We got a lot of people in from social media, but not enough to sustain the nighttime service. But he wound up going on to open up a New York Times-acclaimed restaurant, and he’s on ‘Top Chef’ right now.”

And even if the efforts were not as successful as originally hoped, DiBenedetto did gain recognition as the waiter who had taken to social media.

“It would be interesting to be a waiter, and I’d ask people who came in, I’d say, ‘Oh, how’d you hear about us?’ And they would be like, ‘Oh, we saw you guys on Instagram.’ And I’d be like: ‘Oh, no way! That’s me who does it. And I had people, because I got really into it, they would like get up and hug me, shake my hand. They’d be like: ‘That’s you behind there? That’s amazing.’ So it was a really encouraging moment for me to know that there was something there, and this was before Instagram even was as big as it is now,” he said. “So I knew that there was some secret sauce for restaurants in that formula, and I just knew I had to dive right into it.”

“The Grubfather” now has more than 30 clients. He still does all the photography himself for the most part, but he has hired a team for the “routine stuff behind the scenes.”

For those who want to turn their passion into a business, DiBenedetto said it takes love and commitment.

“Turn it into a hobby if you have to, but continue to do it every single day. Continue to further advance yourself every single day, and what it is that you love to do. Eventually, you’ll figure out a way to monetize it, and maybe it’s just some little extra income that helps pay off one bill. But then maybe your business grows and you’re able to pay off a few more bills, and then eventually, you start making more money than your regular job, and you’re doing well at it because it’s what you love to do, and then it becomes your full-time job,” he said. “Then you keep going, and you build a company.”

DiBenedetto also said an entrepreneur who is trying to monetize his or her passion needs to be assertive in asking to be paid.

“A lot of people right now, they’ll coast by; they’ll take a free meal in order to promote a restaurant. They will go ahead and, you know, give a restaurant pictures for free. But to me, I don’t think that that’s fair. I think that people who are not only producing content, but also engaging their audience to let them know about these different restaurants, they need to ask for what they want, and they need to be making money from it in some circumstances,” he said.

But that is not a hard and fast rule. DiBenedetto said sometimes, asking for financial compensation is not always the best way to go.

“I recently went to Sandals new overwater bungalows in Jamaica. I didn’t charge them, because they put me up in a gorgeous overwater bungalow to document my experience,” he said. “But as I always tell people, I like to wait until after my experience is done to start to stream my content, because if I didn’t enjoy myself, I wouldn’t put it out there to my audience, because you’re talking a very big responsibility you have as an ‘influencer’ here on social media, that people listen to what you have to say.”

As the owner of a social media-based business, DiBenedetto said it is important for anyone starting a similar venture to post constantly, engage with their audiences, and post dynamic content. He pointed to one video clip he posted that got 2 million views.

“It was 46 seconds, I believe, and it was a three-foot buffalo chicken wrap. So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen, like, in a pizzeria, how they do like a chicken roll. This was a buffalo chicken roll, and it was crazy,” he said.

DiBenedetto took the video at Mario’s Pizzeria of East Northport. He noted that he insisted upon showcasing the buffalo chicken roll rather than buffalo wings – which everybody else would be highlighting.

“You never want to be doing what everybody else is doing,” he said, “and I’ve taken quite a big stance on that – that if every influencer is going to one restaurant, I don’t want to go there, because they’re the ones all producing the same content. I’m going to go where other people aren’t going, so for me, you know, putting that out there was just, I said: ‘We’re not going to do buffalo chicken wings. We’re going to do a buffalo chicken wrap, because no one else was doing that, and the result was big.”

The use of hashtags, of course, is crucial in social media. But DiBenedetto noted that given how oversaturated the hashtag universe is, it is better to go narrow, but recognizable – not something broad such as #foodie, but not something completely made up that no one will be looking for.

“Something I’m actually looking about doing with my travels – potentially doing like hashtag, ‘#GrubfatherInParis,’ let’s say, and then they can click there, and anytime I go to Paris, all of my stuff will be there,” he said. “I haven’t done that yet, so don’t go looking there just yet, but eventually.”

DiBenedetto also had a suggestion for Instagram when it comes to hashtags. He said if users could search multiple hashtags instead of just one at a time, it would make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for.

“My advice would be that they should allow people to search multiple hashtags, so that I can type in hashtag ‘#LongIsland,’ hashtag ‘#burger,’ hashtag ‘#Huntington,’ and what’s going to pop up in my feed is burgers in Huntington, Long Island. You can’t do that now. I don’t understand it. And I keep reaching out to them. I keep direct-messaging Instagram’s CEO, and I’m like, ‘I have a great idea, just reach out to me.’ Now we have to start going public with it, like right now,” he said.

In terms of getting that message across to Instagram, DiBenedetto said he would use the hashtag, “#FixInstagram.”