• Alex Koons, whose Reels have garnered hundreds of thousands of plays on Instagram for Hot Tongue Pizza, taught himself the art of the short-form video.
  • “Don’t try to be funny if that’s not your strength,” he advises. “Being authentic is everything. That’s why every restaurant’s Reels will differ.”

By Alex Koons

(Editor’s note: Alex Koons’ innovative and offbeat Reels for Hot Tongue Pizza earn thousands or even tens of thousands of plays on Instagram. They typically feature Koons and his friends or staffers portraying oddball characters, dancing awkwardly or lip-syncing to pop-music audio clips, or, in a couple of noteworthy cases, striking a gushing vein of “white gold” (ranch dressing) underneath a rock or “farming” the brownish water of the L.A. River to make dough. Hot Tongue’s July 19, 2022 Reel poking fun at a certain vegan cheese brand garnered nearly 165,000 plays. You can follow Hot Tongue on Instagram at @hottonguepizza. Meanwhile, we asked Koons to share his thoughts about creating a Reel that feels, you know, real without spending a lot of, you know, dough and what-not.)

Let’s be honest: Social media can be a huge pain in the ass. Running a restaurant already entails a nearly insurmountable amount of other, more urgent issues to resolve on a daily basis. Dedicating your precious time to something outside of the day-to-day operations can appear daunting as all heck. At least, that’s what I thought at first…

My introduction to Instagram Reels came about five months ago. I noticed Instagram had shifted away from photography-based content and was going hard on this short-form video thing. I hated it. I had no idea how to make a Reel. As always, change is hard.

I decided to start small, so I practiced my skills at home. I made Reels that no one would see of random things around the house. I recorded my animals in the yard or just my wife watching TV. (I don’t recommend that—she wasn’t into it.) This little exercise helped me understand how to edit, use captions and lettering, and add music.

Once I felt comfortable making a Reel, it was time to take what I learned with me to Hot Tongue Pizza. The first thing I needed was an idea. Usually a good place to find an idea for a Reel is to look at what already exists out there that’s had some success. Success is all relative, of course, but typically I start broad, see what’s trending and check out what bigger brands outside of the pizza industry are doing on Instagram and TikTok. I consume some content to see what is out there. As I do this, I’m thinking of ways I can incorporate pizza into these existing ideas. My philosophy is to steal what you can and make it your own.

Hot Tongue Reels are an extension of the shop and what we stand for. They are a visual representation of our culture. I’ve steered away from food-focused content and use Reels instead for humor and fun. The way I see it, someone might be able to take a better photo of food than us, but absolutely no one is having more fun than we are. Having a little fun and showing off our vibe creates a lively, enjoyable atmosphere for the team. It also gives our customers a window to see how much we love what we do and how absolutely ridiculous we are.

One of the most important aspects to creating a Reel is that it’s real. Don’t try to be funny if that’s not your strength. Being authentic is everything. That’s why every restaurant’s Reels will differ. What’s authentic to one place won’t be the same for another. You have to make Reels that you’re proud of. If the food is your passion, capture that. If your dough process is crazy and that’s something you’re proud of, find a way to hone in on that. If you’re a funny person, see where that takes you.

Do not overthink this. Hearing your own voice and seeing yourself on camera can be extremely uncomfortable for anyone. Just like anything else, the more I did it, the more comfortable it became.

Creating Reels can consume a lot of time. I’m not going to lie: Sometimes they take me 15 minutes, sometimes it takes three hours. It’s important to have a plan and to carve out a chunk of time to work on them. I know, I know: three hours??!! I personally shoot and create all the Reels at Hot Tongue currently, so there is no budget other than my time. Social media managers and videographers can cost a fair amount of money, but if you don’t have the time or desire to create the content yourself, then finding someone you know who can create the content you want is probably the best way to go.

A lot of people ask: How often should I post? What’s the best time to post? These are questions for someone like Bruce Irving from Smart Pizza Marketing. (If you aren’t following him, do yourself a favor and go do it now.) I don’t get too caught up in the “whens” and “hows.” I worry about creating a solid piece of content that we are proud of. It’s all about honesty, quality and fun for us.

In my opinion, a Reel gives a restaurant the opportunity to build a persona and to become more human. The persona at Hot Tongue is really silly, a bit weird and high-energy, but I think people get to see how much fun we have doing what we do. That fun is what makes our customer service top-notch, our food delicious, and our space welcoming and authentic. We aren’t trying to do anything other than be ourselves, and creating these Reels has given us that opportunity.

At the end of the day, pizza is supposed to be fun. If you and your team are having a great time creating content, then you’ve already succeeded before even hitting “post.” Try not to ruin it for yourself by taking it too seriously. These social media platforms are tools that you can leverage to enhance a customer’s perception of your restaurant and help with marketing. Every operator will do well to remember that social media is a tool, not the playing field. Reality will always be the winner, and likes and reposts don’t always equate to sales and retention. SO JUST HAVE FUN!

If you’re already creating content and looking for ways to kick it up a notch, consider investing in some basic gear. Here are a couple of gear recommendations to make Reels a little easier to create and better-looking: An LED light or two and some light stands can really take your content to a new level—without breaking the bank. This equipment can also double up for food photos. Don’t underestimate the power of good lighting. Do you have a tripod for your smartphone? This can really help steady your shots. Also, it’s necessary if you are creating content solo!

Go out there and get wild! Good luck and godspeed!

Alex Koons is an industry consultant and the owner of Hot Tongue Pizza, an all-vegan pizzeria, and Purgatory Pizza in Los Angeles. Koons led a seminar on vegan pizza at the inaugural Pizza Tomorrow Summit, held November 9-10 in Orlando.