Recipe for TikTok Success: Inside Fazoli’s Test Kitchen

TikTok. Love it or hate it (or scroll on it for hours!) the social platform has exploded in use over the last few years with annual user numbers reaching over 1 billion in 2021.

Fazoli’s, an American fast-casual restaurant chain based in Lexington, Kentucky recently decided to grow its presence on the platform. They trialed various content formats and brought an advertising agency on board to help them break through. Now Fazoli’s TikTok page (@fazolisitalian) is skyrocketing in numbers with posts reaching 400-800k views, their campaign “Fazoli’s Test Kitchen” has been nominated for a Shorty Award, and they see further opportunities for success on the platform.

We sat down with Will Hanrahan, senior manager for digital marketing at Fazoli’s, to learn more about how they got started with TikTok, what has worked and what hasn’t, and where they see their content going in the future.

Reaching new audiences

Initially, the restaurant’s drive to create content on TikTok came as a desire to both engage with new audiences and try a platform that Hanrahan himself saw as entertaining and exciting. Fazoli’s was no stranger to social media. The chain has been, and is currently, active on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. TikTok, they thought, would be a way to reach beyond thoseRecipe for TikTok Sucess: Inside Fazoli’s Test Kitchen audiences and find a new base of (possibly younger) viewers and perhaps in the longer-term, restaurant go-ers. TikTok as a platform invites users to create playful and upbeat content and that ethos matched Fazoli’s brand message perfectly.

“We know that TikTok is a great way to reach a different, younger audience. We have our most engaged and most active current following and current user base on Facebook. Our biggest audience on Facebook is the 35 to 44 year old group, followed by 45 to 54, which is kind of not surprising given what data tells us about the average age of Facebook users. (All of this) suggested that there’s a big opportunity to reach a younger audience.”

Where to start

When Fazoli’s registered themselves on the platform as a business account, as opposed to an individual user, they quickly realized that with that they lost access to many of the ‘trending sounds’ which as TikTok users will know, are one of the major keys to being featured on the ‘For You’ page and gaining traction on the platform. With a goal of overcoming this challenge, Fazoli’s looked to some of its competitors to see how they were achieving success.

“One thing I’ve noticed was that when I was looking at what restaurants were doing, and popular content that was being served to me personally, the content was linked to a ‘behind the scenes’ look at restaurants. In other words, I was seeing a Chick-fil-A “BTS”, or behind the scenes of a McDonald’s– individual employees showing how food was being made. Those pieces of content performed really well. That was what made me start thinking along the lines of, if that’s what people want to see, then how can we make that work best for us?”

From there, Fazoli’s brought their personable head chef on board, with video content showing him explaining how the restaurant cooks some of their most popular items. This tracked well and the viewer numbers were rising but Fazoli’s still saw more potential on the platform. There emerged a concern that simply showing how current menu items are made might not be the exciting and eye-catching content that TikTok viewers are really after. Fazoli’s dug a little deeper.

“We kind of thought, is there a different way we could do this? And then we had an idea- what if it was all about our chef? How is he taking inspiration from other well known and well-loved dishes, and how could he put his take on it? I knew that our chef, chef Rick, was already open to collaboration, and he had some great ideas, and really jumped on board with this idea.” Fazoli’s Test Kitchen was born! The test kitchen became space unique to TikTok where Chef Rick could test his ideas, and those of inspired restaurant-goers, creating fun and whimsical eats like ‘Baconator Ravioli’ and ‘Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Chicken Parm’.

Creating authentic content

One of the first challenges the brand came across was the need to create entirely unique content from their other social platforms, and indeed from other competitors as well.

“I think the other thing, too, is that we were utilizing a lot of the same content just to kind of be efficient. (For this platform) We had to create completely new content so that did involve needing to allocate additional funds to be able to create this content.” To do this successfully, Fazoli’s worked in partnership with COOMER, an ad agency specializing in creative strategy, campaign development and branded entertainment

The content on TikTok often looks very organic, as if anyone on the street could make it, but in fact, when brands create TikTok content, Hanrahan would suggest that they are strategic in how they do it. The goal is to create organic and natural-looking content, but still have a professional and effective brand message behind it. It’s a fine balance between fitting in with the style of the platform while also staying true to the company message.

“This is the big challenge- how do brands get involved with something that is just by its nature meant to look or is being created by amateurs? In this early stage, brands are still trying to figure out ‘what is the right way to engage with this platform and be authentic?’ I think that if you don’t do it the right way, it could potentially have negative effects. Talking about it a lot internally, the ‘test kitchen’ idea felt like one of the most authentic ways we could use the existing chef. It felt like an authentic way to use the platform.”

Organic advertising

Because Fazoli’s was limited in their use of trending sounds, it meant that they simply couldn’t fit into the app’s algorithm in the same ways an individual user could. To gain traction and a following, they had to look to advertising.

In fact, while they could get stuck with a low number of views without paid advertising,  Hanrahan said, ” I feel like it’s about seeding a wave, as a pay-to-play For You / Discover page to tip the algorithm to begin creating media efficiency… like a paid viral movement.”

Fazoli’s decided to put their ad spend behind the videos they were already taking the time to create, and not adding in distinct advertising content. Hanrahan said, “​​We weren’t running separate creatives as ads. We were taking our existing posts, and putting paid-spend behind them. The product that TikTok uses for this is called Spark Ads. It essentially allows a piece of content that you’ve created, or someone else has created, to be shared with your ad account. You can then authorize it to be used in an ad campaign.”

For Fazoli’s, one of the biggest benefits of this advertising approach came back to the idea of presenting their work as authentic and organic content.

The benefit of that for us, which is the same benefit as promoted tweets, or Instagram or Facebook posts, is that it gives the impression (to the user) is organic and natural if you will. That’s a nice benefit for brands, and for marketers because it makes the content look like it’s popular. You don’t end up with videos stuck at 10 views, which has the benefit that it just makes all the content look like it has naturally got excellent reach

Metrics + Results

When Fazoli’s opened their TikTok account in early 2021, and even when they started the Test Kitchen campaign, they did not have distinct metrics in mind to measure success. Hanrahan said he knew it was going to be trial and error on the platform and that the exact results- whatever they ended up being- could be quantified in many different ways.

“The main indicators we were looking at were the views on our videos, the likes that the videos were getting, and the engagement- if our videos were being shared. We wanted to create content that would get served on the ‘for you’ page.”

Hanrahan went on to say, “We could also look at the viewing time…. things like how many seconds of the video was watched. From that we can get an idea of which content was performing the best in terms of how long we could get people. I think shares is one of the biggest indicators of success because if it’s good content, it’s getting shared. That’s how the platform works.”

The results to date have spoken for themselves. According to Coomer, “With over 3,000,000+ views and an improved Quality Score for @fazolisitalian, the paid-media efforts have experienced a 400% increase in performance vs non Test Kitchen content, and a 736% increase in performance vs benchmark paid social on Facebook ($1.97 CPM on TikTok vs $14.49 CPM on Facebook).”

Even more, the Test Kitchen campaign has been nominated for a Shorty Award for best ‘Branded Series’.

Lessons learned and looking forward

Fazoli’s quickly learned how little time you have to hook your viewers on TikTok, a matter of only seconds, and said in the future they will work to make their videos even shorter and snappier.

“You have got to hook them in those two seconds. The next big learning here is that we need to be even faster with it. We need to be even more high-energy and fast-paced. What we’re talking about for the next round is continuing the idea of the ‘test kitchen’, but trying to make content that feels even more native to the platform. We’ll continue with the advertising, and we think TikTok, too, will improve and get more sophisticated”

Incorporating customer ideas for the ’test kitchen’ is also inspiring the chain to create a place on their website where the content can live and allow the opportunity for guests to give their input and suggestions. Once available, this site will allow the restaurant another metric to measure–visits to the site and ultimately, they hope, visits to the restaurant.

About Fazoli’s
Founded in 1988 in Lexington, Ky., Fazoli’s, owned by FAT Brands Inc., owns and franchises nearly 220 restaurants in 27 states, making it the largest premium QSR Italian chain in America. Fazoli’s prides itself on serving premium quality Italian food, fast, fresh and friendly. Menu offerings include freshly prepared pasta entrees, Submarinos® sandwiches, salads, pizza and desserts – along with its unlimited signature breadsticks.



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