In a July TikTok post, a woman with blue, purple, and silver hair unwraps a brick of sticky rice. “How to properly eat sticky rice at a restaurant,” white letters read over her head. “No, no, no, no,” she mouths, shaking her finger over the completely unwrapped rice. “Please do not open the bag all the way and leave it on your plate,” a robotic-sounding voiceover says. “Sticky rice is very sensitive to air.”
Informational TikTok posts have become popular on the app, whether it’s instructing someone how to eat a chicken wing or how to smoke a whole alligator. But this post isn’t coming from a food blogger’s account — it was posted on a restaurant’s.
Khao Niew, the Lao restaurant within beer bar Cully Central, is one of the few Portland food businesses with a TikTok account. Ae Sangasy, who owns both businesses, started posting TikToks per the recommendation of her teenage kids. Instead of sticking to promotional videos of her restaurant, she decided to include Lao recipes and traditions as well, as a way to teach her potential customers about her culture. “When I look for places to eat, TikTok seems like a growing platform that’s pretty useful,” Sangasy says. “Lao food is not very tapped into [in Portland]. A lot of Lao cooks brand themselves as Thai, and Lao food is just amazing but undiscovered. ... I wanted to be kind of educational.”
TikTok specializes in short-form videos, often made with viral “sounds” or songs lifted from other TikToks. A handful of prominent Portland Instagram accounts — @nomnom_nori, @eatinginpdx — have started their own TikTok accounts, highlighting Portland restaurants and food carts; posts with the hashtag #pdxeats have garnered millions of views. While chains like Dunkin and Pizza Hut have grown significant audiences on the app, Portland’s food scene has been hesitant to follow suit — especially compared to Instagram, which many businesses use in lieu of an actual website. Nonetheless, a few chefs have begun populating the app slowly but surely, using trending songs and prompts to get their names circulating within the Portland food world.
Papi Sal’s, the Southeast Portland food cart specializing in Philadelphian-Puerto-Rican sandwiches, posted its first TikTok in January, going on to share videos of owner John Hatch baking bread to Dr. Dre, or a hand dunking a sandwich into pollo guisado while “Oh Yeah” by Yello plays in the background. Jess Mummery, Hatch’s business partner who runs the cart’s social media, prefers TikTok to Instagram, thanks to the app’s For You page — which allows users to see content from creators they don’t follow.
“TikTok feels like it’s kind of where instagram used to be five years ago, where you could get your content to reach a wide range of people without worrying too much about the algorithm,” Mummery says. “Although our Instagram page does well with likes and views, I think more small businesses have a good chance of their content reaching more accounts on TikTok than getting lost in the shuffle on Instagram.”
For owner Berlu Bakery owner Vince Nguyen, the appeal of TikTok isn’t necessarily the algorithm, but the video editor. Nguyen has run the pop-up bakery’s account for about a year, using viral songs and sounds over images of its gluten-free pastries and Vietnamese snacks. “I don’t rely on TikTok as a way to grow, but what I like about TikTok is that it’s a really easy platform to create videos,” Nguyen says. “Most trends start on TikTok, so you can be ahead of the curve on certain things. ... That’s part of being a restaurateur — a willingness to adapt.”
On Nguyen’s days off, he heads to the restaurant to record some videos, and uses that for TikTok fodder throughout the week; he’ll repost the TikTok videos on Instagram for reels, as well. He says that on weeks he posts more videos on his social accounts, the pop-up’s sales spike. “It’s really just about finding out what songs are trending and applying it to whatever image or video you have,” Nguyen says. “I’ve tried to use my TikToks as a form of entertainment, not just advertisement.”
While Nguyen feels creative freedom with TikToks, Justin Hintze, who runs the popular fried chicken and sandwich cart Jojo, finds the construction of TikToks unnecessarily involved. Jojo’s account has only posted a single TikTok since it joined the app — a video of a cart employee making a sandwich. While he plans to dive in again once his restaurant opens, he knows he’ll end up spending a significant portion of his time working on video content. “I started it because it’s definitely the future — the level of engagement there is so much higher than Instagram,” Hintze says. “It’s just so time consuming. The one video I have on TikTok, which is not very good, took hours, and an Instagram post takes minutes, or not even a minute.”
Hintze’s concern about the time commitment extends beyond himself as a cart owner: He says he’s worried that the growth of TikTok may favor restaurant groups and already lucrative businesses. “It seems like it’s putting the little guy at a disadvantage,” he says. “It takes so much more capital, whether it’s with equipment, software, or just with the time it takes.”
Sangasy feels similarly — she’s not sure she would know how to use TikTok if it weren’t for her kids. But for her, it’s part of the business. “I don’t know how small businesses or other businesses can do it without hiring social media specialists to help them, and that could be a big deal,” she says. “But to stay relevant, you kind of have to. ... It could be time consuming or discouraging, but I do think it will pay off.”