I have an uneasy truce with the idea of food influencers on social media, especially when it comes to the way they promote independently owned restaurants. Having been a longtime restaurant employee, and now a longtime food writer, I feel I bring a unique perspective to the issue—and I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of people whose Instagram accounts don’t deserve your attention.
It’s worth pointing out that many food influencers are, I believe, genuinely trustworthy. They provide information and opinions about dishes that can help you decide whether or not to spend your hard-earned money at restaurants you’ve been wondering about. Many of them do this for the pure love of food, first and foremost; if they weren’t on social media, these are the types of people who would be out exploring on their own just for the fun of it.
But you have to sift through a lot of social media accounts to learn which ones are building a following for the right reasons. The not-so-savory types have self-serving interests in mind, primarily seeking out opportunities that involve free food and other perks in exchange for their clout, then failing to disclose those arrangements to their audience. Some will even threaten to defame restaurants that don’t provide them with freebies and special treatment. It’s important to weed this type of influencer out of your feed so that you’re not inadvertently rewarding their behavior by expanding their social media reach.
And there’s absolutely no doubt that influencers have a role in the financial success of some restaurants. Word-of-mouth hype is crucial even on the individual level: If I post about a favorite restaurant of mine on social media, let’s say, that restaurant is more likely to be top of mind when my friends and followers are trying to decide where to eat, because enthusiasm is infectious. What I do and say online has real life consequences. So I try to be careful about what I say—but hey, if I like something, why not talk about it?
Things get harder to navigate when the person raving about a restaurant isn’t your friend, but rather a person with thousands of followers. The bigger the account, the more likely stuff is happening behind the scenes that blurs the lines between a genuine recommendation and a paid promotion.
Malik approached a St. Louis restaurant, Corner17, via direct message on Instagram and cut straight to the chase by asking for $100 off the food—which essentially means he wanted all of it for free—in exchange for posting a video about the restaurant to his account, which has 219,000 followers. Corner17 posted some of the DMs to its feed in order to demonstrate how not to approach an independent restaurant about potential collaboration.
“Thank you for your offer but I don’t think this collaboration will work for us tho,” Corner17 said in response to Malik’s “offer.”
Malik ended up visiting Corner17 anyway, and posted about it in his Instagram stories, visible to all his hundreds of thousands of followers. Pictures of the food were captioned “Worst dumplings ever” and “Taro dumplings that taste like a$$.”
The fact that this happened after Malik was denied free food by the restaurant makes his claims questionable—but even if it wasn’t the result of some personal vendetta, why follow anyone on Instagram who delights in calling a restaurant’s food “ass”? Is this person giving you valuable intel, or just being catty online for likes? Either way, you don’t need them in your feed.
After Corner17 posted about the incident, there was an outpouring of love for the restaurant. One commenter said, “We love Corner 17! You all are a pillar in our community, keep killing it!”
Malik, meanwhile, addressed the issue head on in a video post.
“I would never leave a positive review on a restaurant that paid me for it, and I would never leave a bad review on a restaurant that decided not to work with me,” Malik says in the video. “The narrative of the story makes it seem like the food wasn’t comped, therefore I left a bad review and that is not the case.”
“One thing I do regret is the words I used to describe the food,” he continued. Moving forward I will be more respectful of that. This has been a very teachable moment for me, and I will come out of this better and stronger than before.”
The apology strikes me as genuine, considering the rest of his feed doesn’t typically show his likeness. Still, until he can demonstrate that he’s not adversarial toward restaurants, there’s probably no good reason to give this guy a follow. Apologies should always be followed up with action, and in this case, it’d be great to see @antonio_eats_la find new ways to support restaurants, rather than looking for restaurants to support him.
Beyond the situation outlined above, any influencer that receives any free food needs to say so. Full stop. Transparency is what earns my trust in food media. If something has been sent out “on the house,” or a meal has been comped, the recipient should be up front about it.
Some influencers do this stuff for a living, meaning at some point in their daily activities, money exchanges hands. If there’s something that specifically looks like an ad for a product, service, or restaurant, that’s fine; it should just be clearly stated. Most influencers’ feeds pretty much just looks like enthusiastic shilling anyway, so if I sniff something out that looks like paid product placement—for instance, if the photo looks like part of a bigger, more professional shoot than the other photos in their feed—and it’s not marked, I’m instantly out.
If you suspect that a particular influencer is producing sponsored content without disclosing that in the caption of their post, go ahead and hold them to task. Ask questions via comment or DM. That’s why people build up a following in the first place, right? To have an audience to engage with?
If an Instagram account strictly posts food that I’m bummed I can’t try for myself, it’s no longer aspirational; I just feel shitty, and I unfollow. Making me feel bad about my own life does nothing but harm me, no matter how much I think I’d like to go from Alinea to Eleven Madison Park to the French Laundry within the span of a week. Some accounts are designed to elicit feelings of FOMO, and they’re really good at it.
If you don’t want to unfollow, you can selectively mute someone’s Instagram stories or main feed posts. Even just muting one or the other can keep your feed from flooding you with feelings of envy.
It’s fun to see where influencers go out to eat, but if you’re looking for inspiration, you don’t strictly need them. Restaurants typically have pretty good social media pages of their own, and supporting them directly lets you keep up with their latest offerings, check their current hours, and ask questions about the business. It also gives you a better sense of what the challenges of owning an independent restaurant can be, as in the case of Corner17. That can be a lot more eye-opening than a filtered photo of filet mignon on an influencer’s plate.
Following popular foodie accounts can be pretty useful if you’re curious about places you’ve never tried. They might even lead you to discover your new favorite restaurant. Just remember that their motivations might not exactly be in line with yours, and you don’t owe them your attention. They earn it.