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Miss Shirley's Cafe is among the restaurants participating in Maryland Vegan Restaurant Week that is using the promotion's "influencer services," pairing the eatery with social media influencers that will promote its dishes.
Miss Shirley's Cafe is among the restaurants participating in Maryland Vegan Restaurant Week that is using the promotion's "influencer services," pairing the eatery with social media influencers that will promote its dishes. (Rachel Paraoan)

Maryland Vegan Restaurant Week organizers are working together to change the perception of vegans — one Instagram post at a time.

For the first time since the event began four years ago, “influencer” services are available for restaurants participating in the promotion, which runs through Feb. 23. The social media influencers will take photos of special vegan dishes featured on menus during restaurant week and post them for thousands of followers to see.

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The idea for influencers is that both the restaurant and vegan week will gain more exposure, event co-founder Samantha Claassen said. They’re also hoping it increases sales and bridges the gap between vegans and non-vegans by encouraging new plant-based dishes.

Twenty-four restaurants across the state are slated to participate in Vegan Restaurant Week, according to its website. At least five of them have chosen the influencer route.

Restaurants who want to be set up with influencers during vegan restaurant week pay anywhere from $250 to $1,049 depending upon the level of service desired ranging from social media posts to TV appearances. Then, influencer coordinator Rachel Paraoan takes it from there.

Once the participating restaurant decides on an influencer package, Paraoan scours her list of Instagram influencers — both vegan and non-vegan for a variety — and picks around 10 people to come to a tasting. Restaurant chefs prepare dishes with the promise that influencers will snap vibrant photos and promote the place and food with hashtags and captions on posts and stories to their thousands of followers.

“It’s not only just exposure for vegan week but it’s exposure for the whole business that leaves a lasting impact,” Paraoan said. “We need to change that mentality of ‘ew vegan food.’”

The idea of incorporating the growing number of Instagram influencers into restaurant week surfaced after Claassen tried it at her own restaurant, the Golden West Cafe in Hampden, three years ago. She’s been hosting events with Instagram-skilled photographers at least twice a year ever since.

“You eat with your eyes,” the restaurant owner said. “People come into our restaurant and they show us their phones and say this is what they saw and they want it.”

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