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Newsletter: Essential California: The ice cream truck vs. the influencers

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CVT Soft Serve proprietor Joe Nicchi holding an “Influencers Pay Double” sign in his vintage, two-tone ice cream truck.
(Photo courtesy of Joe Nicchi )

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, July 3, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

The ice cream man was fed up.

Instagram has fundamentally changed the way the culinary industry operates in Los Angeles and beyond in recent years, but Joe Nicchi had kept it simple when he opened his food truck in 2014.

Nicchi, who looks a little bit like the actor Vincent Gallo — if Vincent Gallo were someone who could be cast as the “scruffy” character on a popular network sitcom — sells his ice cream out of a vintage 1960s Mister Softee truck. (Because this is Los Angeles, Nicchi is also an actor himself. “I know, it’s so cliche. Commercials paid the bills for the first truck.”)

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Forget the made-to-be-geotagged unicorn flavors or the otherworldly swirl of a black charcoal soft serve that commands lines halfway down the block. Nicchi’s soft-serve ice cream business offers three aggressively simple options — chocolate, vanilla or twist, hence the name, CVT Soft Serve.

But the “influencers” kept coming to ask Nicchi for free ice cream.

“At first I was confused,” Nicchi explained over the phone, before launching into a slightly different tone of voice to re-create one of the encounters: “It’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up. So, I don’t know if you follow me but I have a 100,000 followers. Could you hook me up with an ice cream? I’ll post about you in my story.’ ”

“It totally threw me. I’m like, this is a $4 item. What are you talking about?” And then it became normal, something that happened at least once a week. There was a constant barrage of influencers coming up to his truck or sending emails, demanding special treatment and devaluing his product — which, for the record, is a family recipe passed down from his father, who has long served soft-serve ice cream for dessert in his upstate New York restaurants.

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Instagram influencer marketing is a now ubiquitous, billion-dollar industry, but in many ways it’s also still the Wild West. The FTC only first enforced its guidelines in 2017, and the broader market and its mores remain a rapidly evolving playing field.

Instagram influencers tend to be digital natives who wield a kind of credibility with their audiences that might be difficult to buy through the avenues of traditional advertising. “The good influencers can really make you feel like you’re a part of everything,” said Evan Asano, founder and CEO of Mediakix, a leading influencer marketing agency.

And if the life that they’re presenting is one that you too would like to lead, well, that influencer is arguably the world’s foremost expert on just how to get there — and what to do, wear, buy and eat along the way.

The business of food influencers “has grown like crazy,” as Asano explained, and some restaurants take social media into account as they design their physical space. Restaurants can “trend on Instagram,” which not only generates buzz but can also translate into increased foot traffic and IRL dollars cycling through the cash register.

Restaurants giving free food to influencers “used to be common,” according to Asano. But that’s changed in the last two years, as “the influencer fads started to saturate.” Suddenly, everyone was an “influencer” and they all wanted free stuff.

“Recently, there’s been a huge backlash about it,” Asano said, explaining that many restaurants have made it a policy to no longer participate. “If you just have 10,000 followers and you want a free steak, it’s just not going to happen anymore.”

“Restaurants and hotels now are getting flooded. Some get 30 [requests] a day,” Asano said.

Every human has a breaking point. When Joe Nicchi reached his, the small-business owner found himself at a copy shop in West Hollywood on Sunday morning, printing and laminating a sign that read “Influencers Pay Double” to place in his truck window before he got to the Melrose Trading Post.

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And then, like many a denizen of the 21st century before him, he proudly posed for a picture with his handiwork and uploaded it to Instagram. Needless to say, it went viral.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

The Trump administration has abruptly given up its fight over a citizenship question on next year’s census, switching course in an unusual retreat. The decision was seen as a major victory for civil rights groups and states, including California, that had challenged the move in court. Los Angeles Times

Two young men were shot and two other people were injured in a shooting at Tanforan Mall in San Bruno on Tuesday afternoon. The shooting caused panic at the bustling shopping area and forced the closure of a nearby BART station. San Francisco Chronicle

Lee A. Iacocca, the father of the Ford Mustang who later rescued Chrysler, has died at 94. Iacocca was an ambitious immigrant’s son and salesman extraordinaire whose blunt and swaggering persona dominated the automobile industry like nobody since Henry Ford. He had spent his last years living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

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The W-shaped mansion has 123 rooms, including 14 bedrooms and 27 bathrooms.
(Jim Bartsch)

At $120 million, the sale of this Holmby Hills mansion just set a new price record in L.A County. The 56,500-square-foot chateau was originally built for the late producer Aaron Spelling and his widow Candy. (Yes, this was the “home” that famously had multiple gift-wrapping rooms.) Los Angeles Times

L.A.’s new Airbnb rules are now in effect — here’s what you need to know. Curbed LA

Five restaurants that tell a story about the way we’re eating right now in Los Angeles, according to restaurant critic Patricia Escárcega. Los Angeles Times

If the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tightens rules and evicts families with “mixed” immigration status, residents of Pacoima’s San Fernando Gardens could face eviction — along with thousands of other Angelenos living in public housing. Los Angeles Daily News

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom fired back at President Trump over his remarks about homelessness in California. Trump had suggested that homelessness in West Coast cities — places run by the “liberal establishment” — was a problem that had emerged in the last two years, and one where he may “intercede.” Los Angeles Times

California legalized home cooking sales last year. Why are they still banned locally everywhere except Riverside County? Sacramento Bee

A state bill that would have required warning labels on sodas and sugary drinks has been shelved. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

A UC Davis professor faces prosecution in Turkey for signing a petition three years ago that criticized the Turkish army’s conduct toward Kurdish residents. The petition was signed by more than 2,000 academics. Fresno Bee

They used fake credit cards to spend three nights at Santa Barbara’s luxe Ritz-Carlton Bacara and went on a $6,000 shopping spree at the beachfront resort’s spa before being arrested. Santa Barbara Independent

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

More than 90 Sacramento County schools do not have vaccination rates high enough to achieve community immunity against measles. Sacramento Bee

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Here’s how to explore Stockton from a tourist’s perspective, from agricultural history at the San Joaquin Historical Museum to a kayak ride on Lodi Lake. Stockton Record

Footage from an R-rated movie with a “graphic” sex scene was accidentally played for kids in a funhouse at the Alameda County Fair. KTVU

One of only 20 floating homes on San Francisco’s Mission Creek is for sale. According to the listing agent, these homes typically sell privately between friends and neighbors and rarely appear on the open market. SF Gate

What will San Diego look like in 2069? In honor of the city’s 250th birthday, experts try to predict the future. San Diego Magazine

This UC Berkeley health physicist might brew the strongest coffee in the world. SF Gate

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 77. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: windy, 67. San Jose: partly sunny, 76. Sacramento: sunny, 89. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Under the benign sun, they grow lax and almost hysterical.
Life magazine, describing the people of California in 1938

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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