Apparently, L.A. hath no fury like an ice cream man scorned.
CVT Soft Serve founder Joe Nicchi gets asked for free cups and cones at least once a week, usually in exchange for a quick shout-out on social media: a hallmark of the Instagram-driven influencer economy. While some restaurateurs hand over the freebies for favorable photos posted online, when it comes to giving away CVT’s old-school chocolate, vanilla and swirl, the requests are usually met with a hard “no” or a chipper email back to the influencer (“I’d rather vacation in North Korea.”). But last Thursday Nicchi snapped, and now influencers will pay—double, to be precise.
It was that day that an influencer asked the CVT founder to cater a 300-person event in exchange for some photos taken at the truck. On Sunday, he updated his company policy with a little Instagram publicity of his own.
Posing with a sign declaring “INFLUENCERS PAY DOUBLE,” Nicchi went on to caption the photo: “We’ve decided to make this thing official with signage. We truly don’t care if you’re an influencer, or how many followers you have. We will never give you a free ice cream in exchange for a post on your social media page. It’s literally a $4 item… well now it’s $8 for you.”
The post made it to the front page of the r/LosAngeles Reddit board within 24 hours.
“I’m not an asshole. Honestly,” Nicchi tells Time Out Los Angeles. “I just have no time for difficult people.”
“I’m a dad. I have a wife and kids,” he continues. “I love doing this, but it’s a business. I need to make money. Most people understand that; influencers, not so much.”
While there are plenty of arguments to be made for teaming up with social-media influencers—expanded audience reach, name recognition, high-quality photos of your product—retail and service-industry companies need money to pay for production expenses, labor, insurance and, in the case of one large brown-and-tan soft-serve truck, enough gas to power daily treks all over Los Angeles.
“I’m honestly embarrassed for them,” Nicchi says. “They let me know how many followers they have within 30 seconds of meeting them… I don’t trust their following because I know you or I can purchase followers and likes. It makes no sense.”
For an industry driven by metrics, the influencer economy is a nebulous one. Dummy follower accounts can be purchased online or through apps, inflating a user’s follower base and obscuring the reality-based reach that these posters have, while subscription services for likes and photo comments flood posts and make “Too cool!” and “OMG love it” interactions appear authentic.
That’s not to say that influencers are all disingenuous, but it does make the work all that much more competitive and frustrating for influencers who try to make income honestly. And it makes restaurateurs and all walks of business owners skeptical of just how much product they should be giving away, if any at all.
Longtime fans and followers of CVT probably weren’t too surprised by the policy change; Nicchi occasionally publishes emails and messages asking him for goods in exchange for influencer posts—a common CVT hashtag is #WeLoveMostOfOurCustomers, after all, but Nicchi says that jab doesn’t just apply to influencers.
“It’s in relation to anyone that gives me a hard time,” he says. “We pride ourselves on having the smallest menu in L.A., yet people still find a way to be difficult. I had one woman ask me if the salt [topping] was salty?”
Warranted or not, is he concerned he’ll alienate L.A.’s influencer community, the one that poses in front of pink walls and holds jet-black charcoal ice cream in front of neon signs and now feels—for better or worse—synonymous with L.A. Instagram life? He’ll tell you straight-faced that he’s not worried at all. If anything, he hopes his new policy starts a conversation about the smoke and mirrors of “what frauds they are.”
“I fear that I’m coming across as bitter, and I’m not,” Nicchi adds. “I’m just done with the bullshit. I’m not the Soup Nazi.”
You can find CVT Soft Serve around town from Tuesday to Sunday, with daily schedules posted on Twitter, or in-house at Silver Lake’s Burgers Never Say Die. (Don’t ask them for an influencer deal, either.)