What It's REALLY Like To Become A Social Media Food Star

Photo: Getty Images.
There are few things people Instagram as much as food. Open the app and without fail you’ll see a stream of stacked burgers, dripping ice cream cones, and tables loaded with cheesy pizzas. It’s not uncommon to go out to a restaurant and see someone hold their phone up above their dish and snap a few photos. While posting that picture of a gooey grilled cheese might garner you several likes, some have managed to figure out how to turn the food porn craze into thousands upon thousands of followers. They have so much influence that they are often the first people PR firms turn to for spreading the word about a new restaurant or dish, either by comp’ing meals or paying them for a post in the process. But what is life actually like for the people behind these ultra popular food Instagram accounts?

For starters, most of them didn’t have professional experience as a photographer or in the restaurant world. Nicole Cogan, who runs the popular gluten-free Instagram called No Bread (73.2K followers), explains that she was working in finance when she began posting images. “I was constantly going out to client dinners every night and getting sick, so I started it as a photo log of what I could and couldn’t eat when I went to restaurants.” Jessica Hirsch, who is behind CheatDayEats (104K followers), is a teacher, Instagramming in her free time. For Gillie Houston, starting her namesake account (78.9K followers) was a way to track the foods she was teaching herself to cook while home from college one summer.

A photo posted by Jessica (@cheatdayeats) on

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Running a popular food Instagram account is definitely time consuming. Hirsch explains that she is still teaching high school math, but that every free moment she has is devoted to running her account. EatingNYC’s Alexa Mehraban (166K followers), who currently works in marketing and communications for a major New York City restaurant group, says that while the account is “still a side project,” it most definitely feels like her second job. Cogan has taken her account one step further and turned it into her main gig. Her Instagram is now part of a “full-scale lifestyle brand” and she supports herself through avenues like brand partnerships.

Like Cogan, Athena Calderone of Eye Swoon (68.7K followers) was able to translate her passion into a full-time role creating and curating food content. Originally trained as an interior decorator, Calderone’s food photos garnered such a positive response that she expanded her purview to encompass recipes, chef collaborations, and tablescapes. She has landed deals with major brands like Estée Lauder, Club Monaco, and Cointreau, and is in the process of writing her first cookbook. And while she feels that cooking and photographing food, “completes me creatively speaking” she admits it can also be overwhelming. “If something doesn’t turn out good, I am crushed," Calderone says. "I am always sweaty and leaning over things, trying to get the best light and right angle. And I feel a little like a fraud as far as my family is concerned because cooking for Eye Swoon consumes all of my energy — I have almost no interest or energy to cook for them.”

Even when Instagrammers' days are spent working other jobs, their evenings and weekends are devoted to their accounts. Hirsch says that once she wraps her teaching gig, she hits the gym, and then heads out to one to two events per night. “It seems like every day there is something going on at restaurants and I try to go to as much as possible,” she notes. On the weekends, Hirsch and her friends will pull what comedian Louis C.K. dubs a “bang-bang,” or eating two meals in a row at different restaurants. “I definitely try to pace myself, maybe just taking one or two bites of everything. But, if it's really good, sometimes I lose willpower,” she says. Houston, who currently works as a freelance editor for the food quarterly Cherry Bombe, avoids saying yes to events on the weekends, especially Sundays, so that she can have some downtime and cook for herself.

A photo posted by Athena Calderone (@eyeswoon) on

Attending events and dinners is only part of the work involved in running a popular Instagram account; there's also picking the right photo to post. Mehraban says at any given meal she takes between 50 to 100 pics and orders the foods she thinks will be the most Instagram-friendly. Hirsch tries not to take too long to shoot when she's out, but at home, admits she’ll spend around 20 minutes taking images of the meal. When it comes to getting the right shot, they're all willing to go the extra mile, even if that means standing on a chair in the middle of a restaurant. The Instagrammers also prefer to dine when it’s still light out, so that they can avoid having to use a flash. This is partially why Hirsch eats back-to-back brunches — she prefers natural light. Cogan agrees: “Yes, I will post the occasional night shot if the restaurant is only open at dinner, but natural light is your best friend.”

While it can be awkward to take a bunch of pictures while out to dinner with friends, the Instagrammers say that their pals are now accustomed to waiting until the dish has been shot. Some even offer to help in exchange for the free food. Hirsch says that dinner usually isn’t that bad because she often eats with other Instagrammers “who are in the same boat,” or with her boyfriend who knows the drill. Cogan adds that it’s nice going out to eat with fellow Instagrammers: “They understand you. Everyone is holding lights up for each other and there’s so many flashes going off at the table.”
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While the Instagrammers typically post two to three times a day, every day, they say that they never get sick of posting. “I love Instagram with a passion," explains Stephanie Le, who runs I Am a Food Blog (125K followers). "I feel like it is a huge source of creativity.” Mehraban says that Instagramming is now “part of way of life” for her. There is a bit of pressure to post, however. Cogan says Instagramming food has “become this competitive thing about going to this restaurant with this person. You feel a little bit of FOMO for not posting.” Houston admits that at one point “Instagram would stress me out and make me feel pointlessly competitive and anxious,” so she had to take a “step back and realize it's supposed to be a fun way to document [her] experiences.”

Plus, the perks of posting are hard to ignore. While many of the bloggers were reluctant to talk about money, they are eating at top restaurants across the country for free and skipping the line in the process. Hirsch says one of her favorite perks was being invited to eat a menu of "special pancakes" at one of her favorite restaurants, Clinton St. Baking Company in New York City, which notoriously has two hour waits for bunch. Hirsch adds that she used to save up to attend just one event at the New York City Wine & Food Festival, but thanks to her account, she was able to go as a VIP last year, for free. A popular Instagram account can also lead to partnerships with major brands. Cogan says she is currently working on something with Cheerios, and Mehraban reveals she had the chance to team up with Kellogg’s and chef Danny Bowien on a breakfast pop-up.

They all agree that the biggest advantage of having thousands of followers is that it has opened the door to like-minded people across the globe. "The best opportunity has been making so many friends in the food world through Instagram, because it's such a cool, creative, supportive community,” Houston says. It’s a strange job that few have, so the camaraderie is important — and as we all know, amazing food always tests even better when there's good company involved.
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