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.

The Works plate at TK’s Surf & Turf Kitchen in Denver, Colorado on Wednesday, September 14, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

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.”

@denverfoodscene

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.

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