Twenty-three Charleston food enthusiasts have leveraged their status as social media influencers for the last five years to boost local restaurants and nonprofit causes. And while the pandemic provided some challenges for the group, called TastemakersCHS, it found a way to use its members online followings and connections made since its 2016 inception to help a food, beverage and nonprofit community searching for support.
The group was founded in 2016 by Charlotte Berger, a Charleston transplant who started her own public relations company post-pandemic after spending years representing restaurants, hotels and other businesses at other firms. At first, the goal was simple: help small, independent restaurants grow their following through social media marketing, Berger said.
“I started organizing tastings and dinners with the same sort of influencers that would come time and time again. It just made sense to create a group,” said Berger, adding that TastmakersCHS started with just eight local food enthusiasts. “It was great to foster relationships and further connections.”
The group partnered with spots like 2Nixons, Freehouse Brewery and Harold’s Cabin in its first year, but at the end of 2017, the mission changed for the Tastemakers, who decided to use their platforms to donate to Charleston-area nonprofits, with the help of the local restaurants hosting the group.
“We’re sitting here with 300,000 (combined) followers — what can we do to just dig a little deeper and give back to the city?” Berger recalled asking herself. “That was really what got me excited — being able to use our platform to talk about some more impactful missions and needs that our city has that people aren’t aware of.”
The group started by asking participating restaurants to choose a dish and donate $1 from each one sold to a charity of the restaurant’s choosing for a week. Tastemakers, in charge of marketing the fundraiser throughout the week, helped raise money for the Green Heart Project, Beautiful Gate Center, Fresh Future Farm and other local charities in year one of the charity program. Nowadays, Tastemakers spotlights a different charity each month, with $1 from the chosen dish going to the nonprofit for the entire month.
The group helped restaurants like Bay Street Biergarten continue its relationship with the participating nonprofit, CharlestonGOOD, after the month-long donation challenge, and at events with the Queen Street Hospitality Group, Tastemakers raised awareness for the restaurant group’s own nonprofit, Catch Up on Lunch.
With the social aspect of social media off the table during the pandemic, TastemakersCHS members continued to meet virtually, ordering takeout to support local restaurants. When the time came, members of the group who were comfortable resumed in-person dinners, scheduling at places that either offered outdoor dining or plenty of space for social distancing.
“During the pandemic, we’ve been trying to focus on either restaurants that have had a big dip in sales or really shifted their service and need to get the word out about their new way of operating,” Berger said. “The F&B community is definitely the most generous community that exists on the planet.”
The first post-pandemic charity partnership event took place at Gale, an outing that benefitted YoArt!. Since, the Tastemakers have visited several local spots, including Pink Cactus, Frannie and the Fox, Holy City Brewing and Kiki & Rye, which partnered with Wings for Kids, a nonprofit offering after-school programming for kids.
“Our partnership with TastemakersCHS and Kiki & Rye helps shine a spotlight on the work Wings does in Charleston’s Title 1 elementary schools,” said Racheal Hochberg, Wings for Kids development manager. “Every penny raised through this partnership will provide consistent virtual and in-person afterschool programming, including virtual field trips, activity care-packages and family event supplies.”
“We were thrilled to host the Tastemakers and be able to give back to the Windwood Farm Home for Children,” said Frannie and the Fox executive chef Tim Morton, who hosted the Tastemakers in August. “The Tastemakers platform is such a wonderful opportunity to connect with local voices, while celebrating our culinary community. We look forward to working with their group again in the future.”
The TastemakersCHS Charity Partnership Program surpassed $20,000 in total donations in January 2021 after raising funds for 18 local nonprofits in the last five years. This year, Tastemakers plans to highlight more “undercover charities” in need of funding. All of this would not be possible without the generous support of the restaurant industry, Berger said.
“A lot of restaurants want to give back; they want to be looped in with a local charity, they just don’t necessarily have a partner or know where to start,” Berger said. “Every nonprofit needs help right now more than ever. A lot of them have been affected — I can’t really think of any that haven’t.”
Check out where the Tastemakers are dining next on Instagram @tastemakerschs.