Family-owned restaurants rely on their first-generation Utah children for social media success

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cristina Olvera, owner of La Casa Del Tamal Mexican Restaurant, located inside the Azteca Bazaar in West Valley City, gets ready to start cooking.

Frida Guerrero had done her research and designed a plan for promoting her mother’s Mexican restaurant on social media. “We need to get black straws that match my black stickers,” she announced, envisioning a post about its strawberry agua fresca.

Cristina Olvera didn’t understand what her 22-year-old daughter was planning and was unsure whether these details would help La Casa del Tamal succeed. But few people were visiting the then-nameless Mexican restaurant inside West Valley City’s Azteca Indoor Bazaar, and she knew they needed to do something.

Guerrero got her straws. She tucked one into a clear plastic cup, customized by a black sticker with the logo she had designed and filled with an icy, light pink strawberry agua fresca. She snapped a shot with green leaves as the background and posted it on La Casa del Tamal’s Instagram page — where it now has 275 likes.

Children have always stepped in to help family-owned restaurants survive. But in 2020, first-generation offspring are often the ones providing a social media presence, photo-worthy menu ideas and restaurant design tips.

More than just English translators, they create a bridge between family traditions and their own American culture — developing strategies that resonate with both.

Opening and maintaining a food establishment is tough, especially during a pandemic, so these marketing tools come in handy to keep their parents authentic cuisine alive.

“I knew I had to do something and I saw how people make things viral or make things a thing,” said Guerrero. “I go out to eat a lot and I know how I am. Me and my generation, we love to eat where the environment feels a certain way and I want to match that.”

Born in Hidalgo, Mexico, Guerrero moved to Utah before her first birthday. She has absorbed both the Mexican and American cultures, she said, so she knew how to combine them to help her parents’ business stand out.

To develop the look she wanted, she created a Pinterest board with inspiration for her ideal restaurant. It needed to be modern and, most importantly, Instagram-worthy. On Google, she searched for some keywords: “modern,” “Mexican restaurant,” “foodie.”

After Guerrero convinced her mother to add tacos filled with cheese and birria — a beef stew cooked in a red pepper sauce — to the menu, sales went up by 300%, she said. Their Instagram following hit 4,200.

“I saw that they were trendy, and my parents had everything to do it,” Guerrero explained. “So when they added them, they didn’t realize it was going to be their main seller.”

Guerrero also switched the social media of La Casa del Tamal from Spanish-only posts to compelling descriptions in English of the dishes she grew up eating.

Olvera already had a group of loyal customers from her former catering business. But now regulars also include foodies, TikTok fans and others who follow the social media accounts.

Nine months after opening, Olvera already is planning to move to a larger location, with its own kitchen and patio. It’s another leap of faith for Olvera, but trusting her daughter has brought good results so far.

“I’m so happy now that my parents respect what I do and now they see it as a job,” said Guerrero. “I finally went from doing it as a favor to getting paid for it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People line up at La Casa Del Tamal Mexican Restaurant, located inside the Azteca Bazaar in West Valley City, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Sandy Arrieta also tapped the social media expertise of her offspring when she decided to turn her 20-year-old dream — a Venezuelan restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City — into a reality.

Her son, Erick Pernia, and daughter had returned to Salt Lake City after working on their own projects, she said, so she knew it was time for Arempas to be born.

Pernia, who has a sales and marketing background, has chronicled the restaurant’s journey on Instagram.

There were the frustrating moments during the renovation of the old building at 350 S. State St., like when a contractor bailed, leaving an opening in the roof. That was followed by days of heavy rain and some flooding inside the restaurant.

That heartbreaking picture is in contrast with the video of the pre-COVID-19 grand opening. It showed a packed room with crying emojis, told Arrieta’s story of her dream and included Pernia’s descriptions of the menu items.

Born in San Cristobal, Venezuela, and brought up in Salt Lake City, Pernia’s mission while managing the social media and development of Arempas’ web presence is to introduce Venezuelan culture to the city where he was raised.

Arepas, a cornmeal sandwich — with endless possibilities of savory fillings — and corn dough empanadas are the main dishes featured on its social media and website. Pernia has built a community of more than 2,700 followers on Instagram for his family business.

Pernia said the family wants to keep the authenticity of Venezuelan street food, with all its juices and colors, because “that’s what we wanted people to feel.” But at the same time, “It’s hard to make the food look sexy,” he said.

“We are creating our lives here, so we want to give something back,” Pernia said. “Our goal is just to make it as quick, as delicious and full of an experience as possible.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Arempas Venezuelan Cuisine owner Sandy Arrieta, pictured here on Feb. 27, 2020, said she's been cooking all her life. Her restaurant serves traditional Venezuelan food in downtown Salt Lake City.

Kiki Sharma, manager of Bhutan House in Sandy, wants to portray a sense of belonging through her social media posts.

After escaping Bhutan, her parents, Kamal and Geeta Niroula, lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 20 years. They heard Utah was a dry, beautiful place with mountains reminiscent of their home, and moved here in 2010. Their restaurant, at 1241 E. 8600 South, combines cuisines from all the influential countries in their lives — Bhutan, India and Nepal.

Participating in the Spice Kitchen Incubator program — which helps refugees and disadvantaged people launch food businesses — was key to getting their initial customers.

Adding new ones is Sharma’s job — along with managing the business side of the restaurant and serving as a waitress while her father cooks.

She posts pictures of garlic naan, butter chicken and tikka masala on Instagram and Facebook with the help of a friend who is a social media marketer.

“I still don’t have any training on social media. Every time I try, I don’t know what to post, or if it’s a good time,” she said. “It’s hard. I have my own social media, and kind of based on that experience, I just do whatever I think I should do.”