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The pictures pop off the screen, intended to excite the primal part of your brain that causes your mouth to water and stomach to rumble even if you just finished a meal. 

A two-story burger, the patties jutting over the edge of the bun, heaped with too many toppings to count. A rainbow-sprinkles-spangled ice cream cone stacked high, the bottom scoops melting onto a manicured hand. A spoonful of mac and cheese connected to the dish by gooey strands stretching across the frame like a web.

This is food porn. But it’s not just eye candy. Some enterprising eaters are dining out for free at the hottest restaurants in the District by posting pictures on Instagram. These so-called influencers can even earn a comfortable living doing so.

The biggest local player is 24-year-old Justin Schuble, who runs @dcfoodporn, an account with 504,000 followers. He has a love-hate relationship with the title “influencer.” “It’s a good description of someone like myself who is influencing peoples’ choices, be that where they eat or where they travel or where they work out,” Schuble says, before adding, “It does sound a little pretentious.”

He started @dcfoodporn in 2014 while attending Georgetown University. It began as a hobby. “When companies started to reach out and restaurants started to invite me in for free meals, I realized people put value on what I was doing,” he says. “That’s when the lightbulb went off that I could do this, grow this, and potentially do it full time.”

Once he reached somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 followers, Schuble started getting paid for posts. Now he claims to rake in six-figure earnings over the course of a year.

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Whether they’re looking for cash or just a hot meal, influencers generally follow the same rules of engagement. If a restaurant employs a publicist, it’s usually their job to handle the onslaught of requests from influencers. Some local food-focused publicists say they are approached daily, and sometimes multiple times in one day. 

The more professionally minded influencers have a well honed pitch: who they are, how many followers they have, their engagement rates, what they’re offering, and what they’re expecting in return. Some even have rate cards outlining their services. In researching this story, City Paper saw D.C.-based influencers asking for as little as $45 and as much as $500 for a single static Instagram photo (as opposed to a story or video).

“They never call it paid advertising,” says Charissa Benjamin, a partner at Savor PR, a hospitality public relations agency with a number of restaurant clients, including Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken and Pizzeria Paradiso. “I call it just that, because that’s what this has evolved into.”

“I’ll get messages that say, ‘Yo, let’s collab,’” says Erika LaChance, founder of Crave Creative, which handles public relations for Bar Elena, Mola, and others. “That basically means, ‘Hey, I want to come in and take photos or videos in exchange for a free meal.’”

Some establishments actively court influencers. The W Hotel offers guests a “mukbang” experience inspired by South Korean videos where hosts film themselves eating ridiculous amounts of food. For $285, influencers and wannabes can create videos of themselves gorging on burgers, pizzas, fries, and a “carrot cake tower” using the provided microphone and cell phone stand.

Not everyone is as welcoming. “We have 100 percent of the time said, ‘No, thank you,’” says Andrew Dana, co-owner of Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Company, who is approached regularly. 

He’s not against people coming in to take photos of their experiences. Dana just wants their Instagram love to be legit. “Our whole brand is built on authenticity and realness,” he says. “Giving somebody a meal to take photos, you instantly lose some of that.”

Whether the influencer is asking to be paid or just looking for freebies, it’s important that restaurants gauge the legitimacy of an account. Followers can be bought and comments can come from “pods” of Instagrammers who pledge to comment on each other’s posts. Both tactics allow an account to overstate its reach and influence. 

There are online services that audit Instagram accounts, offering insights on the number of legitimate followers an account has amassed and other telling analytics. These can be expensive. The site socialauditpro.com charges $500 to determine how many fake accounts are following an Instagrammer with 500,000 followers, for example. A cheaper way to ascertain if an account’s following is for real is to dive deep into individual posts.

Benjamin doesn’t bother counting “likes” anymore. “It’s about engagement and the quality of that engagement,” she says. “I read through comments—since podding is such a common trend now—to see who is doing the commenting. You have to dig through the content and be really thoughtful and qualitative about it.”

A lack of engagement is a dead giveaway that an account has inflated its influence. “If you’re north of 50,000 followers and you’re only getting 1,800 views on your video, you’re a fraud and you’re not influencing anyone,” chides one longtime D.C. publicist who asked not to be named.

Huge followings aren’t necessarily the key to a good influencer. Aba Kwawu, president of TAA PR, which counts Punjab Grill, Ocean Prime, and CUT by Wolfgang Puck among its clients, has success working with micro-influencers, who have 5,000 followers or fewer, “because they are laser focused on a certain subject matter,” she says. “Their followers are super engaged, so our client’s numbers—likes and followers—go up even more than when we work with those influencers with more than a million followers.”

Sometimes it’s not about numbers at all. Deciding whether to agree to have an influencer come into a restaurant for gratis grub or a paid gig can come down to brand alignment. “If the influencer is someone who generally covers hot dogs and burgers—and there’s nothing wrong with that—I won’t jump at an opportunity to have them ‘collaborate’ with Punjab Grill,” Kwawu says. “It’s not a good fit.”

Publicists describe influencers as part of the contemporary media landscape, though they hedge that traditional print and digital press is still the gold standard, especially when restaurants open. But after the opening stories and first reviews publish and traditional media outlets move on to chasing new leads, influencers can help keep the buzz going.  

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Once the decision-maker determines whether they’re going to work with an influencer, the bargaining begins. The overwhelming majority of publicists City Paper talked to do not pay influencers for their work. Instead, they offer free food and drink with the stipulation that the influencer leave a tip.

Rose Collins, social media manager for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates Hazel, Birch & Barley, The Partisan, and others, takes this approach. In exchange, the influencer will post one or more pictures of their meal and allow the restaurants to use their photos. “It’s a mutually beneficial partnership,” she says, “because they’re looking for content to feed their channels.”

Sometimes restaurants ask influencers to dine at slow times so as to not inconvenience staff or other diners. In other instances, Instagrammers ask to come in when a restaurant isn’t open to the public, either so they can have full use of the space for a photoshoot or to take advantage of natural light. Some simply shoot on their phones, others have DSLR cameras and come in with one or more assistants. 

Publicists can’t mince words when spelling out what they’re offering on behalf of restaurants. “Unless you’re specific, there’s this feeling they’re going to come in and get whatever they want,” Benjamin says. “No, the $600 bottle of Champagne is not part of your offering this evening.”

Another longtime D.C. food publicist agrees. “It’s almost like a God complex,” they say. “They think they can have whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want it.”

There are ample stories of influencers putting too much food and drink on a restaurant’s tab. Kwawu once arranged a complimentary meal at an unnamed client for an influencer who rang up a bill of more than $600. Now she requires influencers to sign contracts, which include everything from food and drink budgets to whether the restaurant will be able to access engagement statistics on the posts that follow a meal. 

She’s one of the rare publicists who will pay influencers if she feels it will get results. “They can create content we just can’t create,” she explains. The most she ever paid a food influencer was $4,000 for three separate restaurant visits. If this sounds like a lot, consider that Kwawu once paid a major fashion influencer $10,000 to attend an event and post one picture on Instagram.

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Pictures aren’t the only way Instagram influencers can earn a living. Many will share “sponsored posts,” which is a fancy phrase for advertisements. These ads, often for national or international brands, can bring in serious money. 

Justin Schuble of @dcfoodporn says he’s been paid $4,000 to $6,000 for a single picture for such clients. In the past, he has worked with 7-Eleven, Potbelly, and olive oil producer Bertolli. His goal is for these posts to fit seamlessly into the rest of his content, even though he includes the hashtag #ad. “I try to not make the ads overly ad-y and in your face, because that turns people off,” he says.

Kimberly Kong, 32, co-operates @nomtasticfoods (39.1K followers) among other accounts. She says she makes between $50 to $1,000 per post, depending on the size of the brand, what’s required, and where it will be posted. She has done sponsored content for Boston Market, Wilson Creek Winery, Prairie Organic Spirits, and Michelob ULTRA.

Danny Kim is even more enterprising. Through his two accounts, @dannygrubs (114K followers) and @eatthecapital (63K followers), the 24-year-old offers a full suite of services including consulting and social media management for restaurants.  

He says he oversees a quarter million-dollar company, based on annual revenues, which employs a dozen part-time staffers and a full-time project manager. He was unwilling to provide proof of his company’s net worth. “Nobody knows how we do it, but there’s a way,” he says.

Kim did reveal some of his clients, including Union Market bao stand Bun’d Up, island-themed Tiki Taco, and seafood eatery Pesce. All have been featured on @eatthecapital’s Instagram feed without any mention of Kim’s business relationship with them.

This illustrates the gray area some Instagram influencers work in. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know when they are getting paid or otherwise compensated for the content they’re sharing, even though they are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose when that’s the case. Did the Instagram influencer you follow post a picture of a dish because they enjoyed it? Or were they in it for the free frites or a paycheck? 

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Using Instagram’s built-in “insights” tools, it’s easy to surmise how many new Instagram followers or account visits a restaurant garnered from an influencer’s post, which speaks to the tangible, real-world impact these influencers can have. 

There’s anecdotal evidence that influencers can help a restaurant’s bottom line. Collins notes that when @dcfoodporn posted a picture of cinnamon roll at Bluejacket, the restaurant noticed a spike in guests specifically requesting it. 

But there’s also evidence that hearts and comments do not add up to dollars and cents for the restaurant. One veteran food publicist who asked not to be named required an influencer with 30,000 followers to include a unique promo code in their post. There were zero redemptions for the code at the restaurant.

“It buys awareness, but it’s difficult to determine how that translates into sales,” Benjamin adds. “It’s part of your overall marketing budget.” It’s like the money you take to a casino. Consider it lost and you won’t mind losing it.

Every publicist had horror stories, though most were not willing to share them on the record. Katherine Cotsonas, director of BCENE Public Relations, which oversees PR for Sauf Haus Bier Hall & Garten and Public Bar Live, says she contracted and paid an influencer to do some work for one of her restaurant clients, but they never delivered. Ultimately, she marked it a loss. “I wasn’t going to take them to small claims court for $500,” she says.

Most of the drama is on a smaller scale, involving the influencer either no-showing or arriving late for a reservation, both of which are an inconvenience, and potentially lost revenue, for the restaurant. Other times, Instagrammers post something careless or sloppy. LaChance remembers having an influencer in for National Gin Day. They posted a cocktail that clearly featured bourbon. Cotsonas also recounts getting late-night texts from influencers asking if they can stop by a client’s establishment to score free food and drink, which has the desperate feel of a booty call.

Those looking to take advantage of publicists or restaurants should think twice. “The PR and marketing community is smaller in D.C. than people think it is,” Cotsonas cautions. “The bad influencers build a reputation for being not great.”

For Kong, hearing about other Instagram influencers behaving badly makes her wince. “My goal is to put the restaurant first,” she says. “We’re trying to help them out and get them more exposure. There are a lot of people who don’t care and are just enamored by getting free stuff. I don’t want to be lumped in that category.”

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As an experiment, City Paper set up an Instagram account with the handle @whattoeatinwashdc. Rather than put in all the work of organically growing followers, City Paper Googled “buy Instagram followers” and spent a little over $100. As soon as the payment for what the invoice called “freelance software services” went through, @whattoeatinwashdc skyrocketed to 11,000 followers within minutes.

Over the next few weeks, @whattoeatinwashdc posted a series of food pictures, followed food-related accounts in the D.C. area, and interacted with other users. In no time, restaurants  and other food influencers tagged the account in their posts. Voila! @whattoeatinwashdc was well on its way to becoming an Instagram influencer—though City Paper never asked anyone for a free meal or to be paid for posts. 

Seeing how quickly it was possible to rack up followers and gain a modicum of influence was both surprising and sobering. It can make one a more thoughtful Instagram consumer. As loveable as double-patty burgers, sprinkles-covered ice cream cones, and super creamy mac and cheese are, one would hope the shutterbugs behind them are being straightforward. 

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