It’s a Saturday morning and you reach for your phone out of habit. Scrolling past a low quality Android selfie from a high school classmate, and a bar video from the night before that you refuse to turn your sound on for, lies Instagram gold: perfectly stacked slices of bacon atop a golden omelette, with a crisped brown biscuit on the side and an inscrutable breakfast sandwich on rye bread in a separate dish — an overindulgent visual targeting your brain (and wallet) more than your actual digestive capacity. It’s perfectly timed for brunch, and the menu under one of the overflowing plates peers out just enough for you to make out the restaurant’s logo. Suddenly, you’re on your way to try it out yourself — or at least that’s the hope.
It takes more than just a camera and a good order to halt a person’s marathon scrolling session. It takes actual work. So much so that cultivating a loyal audience by capturing the best of a city’s food and drink scene has become some people’s full-time jobs. The demand is there. A survey released in March by the Pew Research Center shows that 60 percent of Instagram users check the photo-sharing app at least once a day, and 38 percent of them reported checking it several times a day. Of 18 to 24-year-olds, 71 percent are active Instagram users, along with about 55 percent of 25 to 29-year-olds. The fact that the people who make celebrities out of YouTube pranksters with questionable morals takes its restaurant advice from nebulous “content creators” can be troubling, especially if you’re a food critic or a restaurateur infinitely more familiar with print ads than with sponsored posts.
But whether you like it or not, the rules that govern advertising and word-of-mouth in Charleston’s celebrated culinary scene are being upended by a handful of people with smartphones and free time. These social media mavens are hustling their way through a saturated industry, elbowing gatekeepers and competitive colleagues on their way to a seat at the table.
The success of a local business is becoming increasingly contingent on whether or not its products are worthy of the attention of so-called influencers, many of whom catch thousands of local eyes with a single post.
“In the last 18 to 24 months, our clients now place almost as much value on social media posts from a really important influencer as they would on an article in the City Paper or the Post & Courier,” says Melany Robinson of Polished Pig Media, a public relations firm that represents local hotspots such as Husk, Butcher & Bee, and The Daily. “The reality is that the influencer has become an important part of our job. When I got in this business in 2006 or 2007, [clients] wanted to be on the cover of magazines and they wanted national television. Now, people want really incredible social media.”
In a series of interviews over the past month, I’ve gotten to know some of the most followed food-and-drinkstagrammers in Charleston. The men and women behind each account have their own styles, audiences, and end games. Some are dedicated bloggers, others are unabashed picture-snappers. One woman is furiously working on her first book, while another duo pursues related business opportunities after recently finishing their own. There are, of course, a few common threads. In keeping with the oft-repeated mantra of authenticity, most are adamant about only posting dishes and drinks they genuinely enjoy. At the same time, no one is particularly keen on revealing how much of their content is either provided or paid for, and none of the influencers have an exact word for what they do: a hazy gray area that can include everything from highlighting a new opening in the revolving door of Charleston’s restaurant scene to flying out to major events — at the expense of national brands — in exchange for social media promotion.
Miguel Buencamino, 31
Favorite spot for a cheap drink: Faculty Lounge
Favorite cocktail: A Boulevardier (Negroni with bourbon)
Camera: Sony A6500
Editing software: VSCO, Lightroom
Audience: 63 percent male, ages 25-34
Miguel Buencamino was already seated when I got to the Gin Joint. As it turns out, it was a similar kind of place — another craft cocktail bar, this one in Orlando — that sparked his affection for high-minded hooch. “I’ve never worked behind a bar,” he says, “but I love this industry because I think it’s like cooking with liquid.” There were a few false starts on the way to 19,000 followers. After relocating to the Holy City in 2012, his foray into social media influence started with a cooking blog in which he re-created recipes from Charleston’s best-known restaurants. “Super naïve of me,” he admits. “The chefs here are so talented.” During a car ride back to Orlando, he and his wife Brie began tossing out ideas and settled on the word “handcraft.” “We wanted it to be ambiguous,” he explained. “It works for everything. Hand-crafted food, tables, anything.” Pretty soon, the food stuff became irrelevant. “I posted a couple cocktails on my Instagram, taking a break from food, and that got way more likes than anything else I spent a ton of time on.”
The full-time software engineer has since learned to be more meticulous about how, and where, to invest his time. Buencamino’s last blog post was in December, but his Instagram is continuously and carefully updated with creative cocktails — and prominent brands — on full display. Only 10 percent of his posts are sponsored, denoting a clear-cut monetary transaction in exchange for exposure. The other 90 percent of posts, he says, are of brands and products that he personally seeks out, but even those are usually taken care of because, well, he’s Holy City Handcraft. The man is all smiles, with hair coiffed like a tidal wave and a four-top wooden home bar to match. “You know that my audience follows me because they like cocktails in Charleston, and that’s a targeted audience,” Buencamino explained. “The best part about it is [that] I tag your restaurant. When I tag you, they can click on your account and go on your website, and you can engage with them yourself.” Before we stumbled out of the dark corner we were huddled in, our check arrived at the table significantly discounted. I had already turned off my recorder, so I tactfully reminded Buencamino that I am obliged by you, our loyal reader, to be clear about how this works. “No, don’t put that in there,” he laughed.
Stephanie Lee, 33, and Melinda Lee, 31
Favorite cheap eats: Taco Boy, Mex 1 Coastal Cantina
Favorite restaurants: The Obstinate Daughter, Minero (specifically the veggie burrito)
Camera(s): iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy 7
Editing software: Snapspeed, Camera Plus
Audience: Mostly female, ages 25-34
The profile alone is a template for the quintessential foodie Instagram: back-to-back photos of pure, uninterrupted culinary pornography. A bowl of mac and cheese becomes near tangible, with sauce smothering the noodles and the plate under them, with vivid viscosity. The angles are perfect and the portions alone are enough to satisfy your hunger. The occasional picture of Stephanie enjoying her edible exploits appears every now and again, seemingly to remind you that the Charleston Foodie Babe is, indeed, a babe. So imagine my surprise when A) the mythical Foodie Babe turns out to be two sisters who are 18 months apart (“Someone’s gotta take all those pictures of her,” Melinda cracks) and B) they want to meet, of all places, at Salty Mike’s. In spite of my sneaking suspicion that Stephanie wanted to murder me and throw me into the marsh, she actually chose the notoriously low-key bar because she thought it would be quiet enough for an interview on a weekday afternoon.
Stephanie, a CPA by trade and a single mom to a 12-year-old boy, emanated the resplendent glamour of a local celebrity, replete with a very nice pair of blue heels and that signature influencer hair that anyone with an Instagram account can spot from three tables away. Her sister Melinda is the camera-shy but indispensable other half of the powerhouse profile. She donned scrubs from her day job as a dental school instructor at MUSC, and chimed in when Stephanie’s jargon got in the way of a clear answer. “The majority of the posts now that are in Charleston are probably comped meals,” she clarifies after Stephanie shares a long but revealing breakdown of the three geneses of a Foodie Babe post: the good ol’ paying-for-your-meal, the media invite or recognition-based giveaway, and the paid promotion. “We get so many e-mails,” Stephanie said. “It’s not just like, ‘OK cool, it’s free, send it over!’ ‘Cause then I feel like you get stuck with this whole ‘what do you do with this stuff that isn’t great?'”
Stephanie emphasizes that they don’t accept invitations to restaurants they wouldn’t go to — a practice that keeps their account honest and protects their growing brand from being tarnished. Melany Robinson, the restaurant public relations agent, cites that exact mentality as the reason why influencer marketing works, and why she has yet to directly arrange payment to a foodstagrammer in exchange for good PR. “I feel like genuine content comes from an organic place,” Robinson says. “You know the difference between an article written as an advertorial versus an editorial.” But in the visual world of Instagram, where the lines between organic and GMO content are blurred by sagacious ‘grammers, do we trust people to know the difference? More importantly, do they care? “We don’t hold ourselves out as restaurant critics at all,” Stephanie says. “The whole idea of influencer marketing came about because consumers were tired of traditional ads.”
Candice Herriott, 36
Favorite restaurants: Indaco, Zero George
Camera: iPhone 7 Plus (for Instagram), Canon 6D
Editing software: Lightroom, Instagram
Audience: Female, ages 25-34
Joe DiMaio, the executive chef at Darling Oyster Bar, dropped off an Easter basket for Candice Herriott’s daughter three years ago. Her pantry was running low, so she whipped up a quick cheese plate and set a bottle of wine on the table. “He said I should open up a cheese shop, and I said I have no interest in learning that much,” she said. “We laughed about it. A few minutes later he snapped his fingers and said, ‘I know what you should do!’ Such is the origin story of Charleston Food Writer, a blog and Instagram that were started on the same day. Herriott moved to Charleston almost 15 years ago to work at a hair salon, which she bought from the owner before closing it down about two years ago to focus on her upcoming, self-published book of recipes and interwoven stories on local produce and seafood, Provisions to Plate: A Charleston Seasonal Collective.
She says she’s constantly approached about advertising and “collaborations,” influencer industry jargon for some type of coverage — in the form of appearances, photos, videos, or posts—in exchange for provisions and accommodations. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I turn them down because it’s not my goal,” she says, signaling the virtues of bona fide blogging with a focus on locally sourced products and home cooking. “Please do not invite me [to social media happy hours] because I believe it’s an inorganic experience. I feel there are people that are interested in food and follow four or five Instagrams. If they see the same picture of the same brunch re-posted six times over those handles, it’s very obvious. So I always say, ‘Just send me a gift card.'” Herriott says she’s never been directly paid for a post and, like others of her ilk, stresses that she would never publish a dish or a drink she doesn’t like. That commitment to quality begets questions from more skeptical scrollers. If you only post things you like, yes, we can trust your account for good recommendations, but can we trust you to be honest, or — and I know this is blasphemous — to replace a critic with a sharp and independent pen? “I’m not a reviewer or a food critic, that’s other people’s jobs, ” Herriott clarifies. “I don’t have any culinary background, other than working in restaurants in my teenage years and early 20s. I like to share positive experiences and offer suggestions of things the majority of people haven’t heard of or experienced yet.”
Taneka Reaves, 32, and Johnny Caldwell, 32
Best bars to take a visitor to: Prohibition, Republic
Favorite spots to expand your horizons: Pancito & Lefty, Workshop
Cameras: iPhones 7 and 7 Plus
Audience: White men, ages 25-34
The Cocktail Bandits are proof that, whatever you call this business, it can become a viable way to make a living with the proper dedication and restraint. What started with an Instagram has splintered into hosting gigs, brand partnerships, a book deal, and an expanding horizon of opportunities. “We were seeing the food pictures, natural hair pictures, fitness pictures, and things like that,” Taneka Reaves says. “And we thought, ‘There’s no women talking about beverages.'” A write-up about the duo’s cocktail confections in this newspaper caught the attention of the Lee Brothers, a hometown James Beard Award-winning duo that parlayed success in the mail-order catalog business into books, a TV show, and appearances at events throughout the country. The brothers invited Reaves and Johnny Caldwell to the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival in 2015. There, Reaves and Caldwell crafted their first exclusive cocktail recipe for an event. A year later, Evening Post Books approached them with the idea of turning their blog into a recipe and history book that celebrates the local cocktail culture: Holy Spirits! The pre-order website boasts that the business partners have “nearly 30,000 followers on social media.”
For the big-haired branding experts and CofC alums, it’s been a deluge of offers and ovations since their first major appearance in Atlanta. They’ve even turned down a couple of TV offers that they thought were too “salacious” and, ultimately, off-brand. Caldwell is a stone-faced and calculating presence with a law degree in her back pocket. She sits across from me with a discerning eye. “I’m so business oriented now, and we get a lot of business that doesn’t require Instagram,” Caldwell says. “A lot of our business isn’t posting on social media, it’s being live in person, kissing the babies and shaking hands.” Last month, the duo hosted a two-hour event sponsored by Red Bull as the regional spokespersons for the energy drink company’s new line of organic sodas. They curated the cocktails and wrote 18 recipes for an unspecified figure. For the Cocktail Bandits, their work is as much about representation as it was about reward. Gesturing to the Butcher & Bee front-of-house, Reaves makes a point of how the three of us are the only people of color in the restaurant. “Usually we are,” she laments. “It’s important for people to see women like us in this restaurant. Us being here shows them that they can come out and enjoy the city like we do. I moved here 15 years ago, and certain people wouldn’t come downtown at all. They felt like there was nothing here for them. They just never felt comfortable or welcomed.” It’s hard to believe that this successful duo was asking friends and family for favors when they first decided to drop everything and fully dedicate themselves to Cocktail Bandits. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg where we are,” Reaves says. “There is no Plan B at this point, so you can absolutely sustain yourself,” Caldwell adds. “You can get caught up in the likes, but likes don’t get you moving if you don’t know what to do with it.”
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.