We are in the social media age. It reins queen even in the food and restaurant industry. When was the last time you picked a restaurant without seeing pictures of the food being served? Where do you find out about new restaurants and spots to go? Besides restaurant recommendations through word-of-mouth, I can say it’s almost entirely on social media, whether that be a customer posting or the establishment posting. I spoke with Chris Bily, a marketing mastermind who successfully founded the social media savvy restaurants, Original Grain and XO Taco in Syracuse, New York. He shared some insight into how he creates such an Instagram-worthy buzz.

Check out the podcast story here. 

I walked into XO Taco next to a run-down church on East Fayette Street and I was surprised to see such a popping, hip restaurant just a few streets down from Interstate 81. With natural light filling the long room, there was hanging lights and plants coming down from the ceiling, and a giant wall with XO written all over it. And then the picture-perfect spot-a grass wall with giant neon lips begging you to get a selfie in front of it.

Bily says the restaurant has its “mystic,” describing it as “an eclectic sort like punk rock neon meets California psychedelic rock.”

XO Taco’s general manager Mary Anne Stella described the food as clean and fresh with a California-style Mexican food truck, but better. She said with everything made in-house, even the taco shells, it brings them a cut above their competition.

“I don’t think that there’s a place in the city that looks like this. There is nothing that's electric hip, clean,” said Stella. “I know I can’t stay away from the idea clean simplicity of it.”

The idea that a restaurant is more than just the food is the reason Bily is so successful with Original Grain, and now with XO Taco. He feels there are so many more variables than the food itself.

“I think we as younger diners appreciate more than just the food, the f***ing ambience, the f***ing lights, the neon on the wall,” Bily said. “There’s just so many things that when you walk in the door we want you to get your hair blown back and that to come full circle when you sit down and eat tacos or have a grain bowl.”

I sat down with a superfan of XO Taco, Joe Sanchez, a marketing guru and a local TV/radio personality in Syracuse.

Sanchez had heard the rumors of XO Taco before it was even considered a done deal and he watched the project come to life through Chris’s regular updates on his Instagram. Sanchez feels Bily had the social media aspect in mind the whole time while creating XO Taco.

“Chris does a really good job as far as putting something together that's definitely clever and youthful,” Sanchez explained. “I think that whole grass wall is perfect selfie station.”

Sanchez told me how a restaurant’s social media presence affected his choosing when dining. He felt an establishment’s social media set up a level of expectation. He stressed it’s essential that businesses have some facet of a media presence. Not only their own social media but giving the customer something to post about. He referred to this marketing strategy as “peer to peer influencing.”

XO Taco’s restaurant manager Stella completely agrees. She feels if restaurants don’t embrace social media, they will fall behind and hinder their business.

“That’s how you make your money” Stella added.

Stella proved if just how social media can be so powerful. During Valentine’s Day Weekend, XO Taco hosted a Galentine’s Day event. XO Taco provided no advertising for this event besides on social media.

They had 170 brunches that day. Stella said on a normal weekend, they would have 40 brunches at the most. She said they were full from the minute the opened.

“There was no advertising but social media. Halfway through the day, I walked up to Chris and I’m like the power of social media has completely blown me away. Completely.” She added, “it was incredible.”

And that is exactly how XO Taco plans on advertising going forward: strictly social media.

"We don’t do any advertising. We do no print, no radio,” Stella said. “A lot of it is word of mouth for who Chris Bily is and what he’s created and just the buzz of who some of our partners are.”

So what exactly does Chris Bily bring to the table?

Stella describes him as a dynamic-always-on-the-run personality.

“It’s his playful, hard-working, energetic [personality]. I mean he’s always up. He’s always ready for the next challenge,” said Stella. “He’s ready to see what we can do to create, to grow.”

While Chris has created this mega social media food brands around Syracuse and expanding out to Rochester, he himself has created his own brand. Sitting with his sleeves rolled up and his hat turned backwards, Bily explained.

“I’m a very brand person, like nerd. I love good branding and how impactful a good image can be. You know what it means to people, not only visually but emotionally.”

According to Chris, the posts with the most engagement are the high-quality photographs of people with food. He said the social media focuses on capturing the audience with puns and pointing out cool options, design, people, food, cocktails in the restaurant.

Chris has a feel for his customers and hopped on the social media train long before it became vital to the success of restaurants. In the very early opening months, a San Francisco lifestyle media brand dujour.com praised XO Taco for the Instagram-worthy neon wall. But Chris simply states give the people what they want and they will come.

“If you create a cool space and a destination, people will come. If you create something fun and exciting, they are going to show up,” Bily said. “Obviously, back it up with good food, good music, good vibe.”