Everything is literally goals for the Instagram influencers devouring Kansas City’s food scene
Who are these people, and what do they want?
Before the opening are the openings, and the evening of Wednesday, June 26, is the “media and influencers” preview at Fox & Pearl. The earthy Westside eatery is showing off its new and, by the looks of it, rather costly digs inside a rehabbed brick building at the corner of Summit Street and Avenida Cesar E. Chavez. Luxurious brown leather banquettes, leafy monstera plants, abundant natural light, a white marble bar—it’s beautiful, #bohodecor come to life. In a few weeks, chef Vaughn Good will begin serving chermoula-rubbed quail and summer squash ravioli to an eager and ravenous public. Tonight, though, it’s mostly passed hors d’oeuvres, pinot noir, and photo opportunities. Boiled down to its essence, the objective of the evening is simple: Get people with large audiences to post photos, videos, words—whatever—about Fox & Pearl. The easiest way to accomplish this is to invite them in, serve free food and drinks, and make everybody feel important.
Publicity once flowed through relatively orderly channels, like water out of a lawn sprinkler: print, radio, TV. Then came blogs. Then Yelp. In 2019, a decade deep into this era of social media dominance, publicity sprays erratically in all directions, a thumb on a hose. It is possible, though nobody actually knows for sure, that a young man who declares himself a Kansas City foodie on his 20,000-follower Instagram page is as essential to a restaurant’s PR strategy as a writeup in the Star or the chef’s appearance on a morning TV show. If you’d rather die than think about such things, but you’ve got a new restaurant you want people to know about, you might hire a marketing and PR firm to make sense of this new, fractured media landscape. And then, one night, a few weeks before you open, you may gaze out at a crowd of supposedly influential individuals assembled in your place of business and ask yourself: Who are these people?
Well—that’s what I was wondering, anyway. Oh, some of them I recognized. There’s Joyce Smith of the Star, a scoop factory, the steely matriarch of this scene, still alive, still kickin’. Even without the microphone or cameraman in tow, it’s hard to miss Belinda Post, the former Chiefs cheerleader and current host of KCTV5’s Better Kansas City. Is Post—bright-orange dress, heels, TV hair—here because she does a morning show, or because she has 6,000 Instagram followers? Hard to say. There’s Pete Dulin, a longtime KC food and beverage writer. He’ll go home and file a 3,000-word ode to Fox & Pearl on his website, petedulin.com. Ah, Kevin Collison. A former Star reporter, Collison these days runs a site called CitySceneKC, which seems to be funded largely through advertising and sponsorships from the real estate developers he worships in his business-friendly pieces. In a different setting, Collison might be seen as a compromised peddler of journalistic fluff. Here, he’s among the more accomplished guests. After all, he actually has to go write something about the place.
Whereas most of the other piggies at this trough are influencers—an easily dazzled digital subculture armed with VSCO apps and an abiding desire to grow their personal brands. Short-term goals include getting invited to events like these and posting photos of the food, the space, and themselves—often all three—to their Instagram pages. Longer-term aspirations vary: some hope to transition toward traditional media, some just want national brands to mail them free shit, others are purely in it for the serotonin blasts they get from Instagram likes. They have names I am embarrassed to say out loud: Kansas City Bucket List, Kansas City Foodie Finds, Miss KC Foodie. They are very nice, and very, very, very excited about The New Restaurant That Just Opened.
“I was skeptical, as a former journalist, of the influencer phenomenon when I started doing this,” Kimberly Stern, once the editor of local glossies 435 and KC Magazine, tells me. Stern + Silva, the PR outfit she recently started with ex-Star food writer Jill Silva, is the agency of record for Fox & Pearl. They organized this party. “The freebie thing [giving influencers free meals and products in exchange for them posting about it] I had to get schooled on. But when you’re developing a marketing plan, you really do have to include the influencers alongside traditional media. You can’t ignore them.”
They are indeed hard to ignore. Out on Fox & Pearl’s brick patio, I wince—actually, who am I kidding, I love to see it—as influencer after influencer poses in front of the back door, on which the restaurant’s logo is elegantly emblazoned. Their Instagram boyfriends (it’s a thing, look it up) dutifully snap their photos. Later that evening, the photos will hit the feed with captions like “All the feels at the @foxandpearlkc opening!” and “The fried green tomato at @foxandpearlkc is EVERYTHING.” Do not attempt to parse these words. They don’t actually mean anything. They are just there to go with the picture.
• • •
Most of our local influencers have tidy, well-intentioned, and basically believable origin stories, often having to do with KC pride. Mindy Hargesheimer, aka Kansas City Bucket List, moved to Kansas City three years ago from Chicago and was delighted to discover it wasn’t the cultural backwater she’d left behind after graduating from the University of Kansas in 2001. Benjamin Fuentes, aka Kansas City Foodie Finds, describes his Instagram page as a way for him to highlight small businesses; he says his goal is to “raise the KC foodie scene.” The pair behind KC Local Eats—Jamie Gibson and Brittney Hunter—are running partners who mapped their outings around new restaurants and coffee shops, then started an Instagram account in tribute to it.
Others will cop to more practical motives behind their accounts. Kasim Hardaway (pronounced “like awesome with a k,” per his Instagram bio) was early to the game and is considered by many to be the most influential influencer in Kansas City’s food scene. He says he “made an intentional effort to build up a following of Kansas Citians interested in food” after some local restaurant marketers noticed his follower count and started tossing him gift cards in exchange for posts. Stephanie Rupp, the 27-year-old behind the KC Cheeses account, says she’s always been “obsessed with cheese,” and that her father had long encouraged her to pursue this interest through a food-related book project, perhaps a recipe book.
“I was like, ‘I can’t cook or write a book,’” Rupp says. “So I started taking pictures and putting them on Instagram. It seemed like a better fit.”
A handful of KC influencers grew out of blogs or vlogs or Facebook accounts, but most are native creatures of Instagram. By around 2015-2016, the platform had achieved sufficient popularity and scale in Kansas City that it became possible to amass large local audiences. With a big enough follower count, you could then pitch yourself to potential restaurants and brands as a channel through which their products could be advertised.
“When I first got into it, I would get home from my 8-to-5 job and work four or five hours sending cold DMs to brands, liking their photos, asking if they’d be interested in working together,” says Fuentes, who started Kansas City Foodie Finds in 2016. “I started reaching out [to potential sponsors and advertisers] once I got to about 6,000 followers, and it wasn’t until I hit 10,000 that I started to see real interest.”
He goes on: “At that time, there were only three or so of us that had decent followings in Kansas City. But pretty soon after that—2017, I’d say—you started seeing accounts popping up left and right.”
It is impossible to say how many KC food influencers—self-identifying or not—are out there today. Lee Page says his PR and marketing firm, Page Communications, is keeping tabs on about 400 different influencers, though that number includes the larger Midwest region and different genres of influencer (fitness, lifestyle, mommy). Emily Farris, who from 2017-2018 ran social media strategy for the local restaurant group Bread and Butter Concepts (Stock Hill, Gram & Dun, The Oliver), and is something of an influencer herself through her cocktails-and-home-decor website and Instagram account, The Boozy Bungalow, says, “There are so many food accounts in KC with 10,000 or 15,000, even 30,000 followers. I feel like I see a new one every week.”
The level of professionalism varies. Hardaway and others at the top of the food chain have their own rate sheets and charge brands and restaurants actual money for posts. How much?
“I’ve seen [people ask for] everything from $300 to $5,000,” says Maila Yang, marketing and communications coordinator for the Kansas City Kansas Convention & Visitors Bureau, which lately has been arranging more partnerships with influencers.
A restaurant operator who wanted to remain anonymous because of how often he interacts with influencers says he recently heard from someone seeking $1,200 in exchange for a series of Instagram “stories” (which disappear after 24 hours) and a 24-hour grid post—meaning this influencer would post about the restaurant to her feed but then delete the post from her homepage “grid” after 24 hours.
“And this was a local person—not some national food personality or anything,” he says. “And she was literally doing nothing: The deal was that we would provide the photos and all the copy. We could have put anything we wanted on her page. Although, of course, she also wanted to sample our food first too.” (He declined the offer.)
But trade—comped dinners, free products, gift cards, invitations to parties—is the shape these arrangements most often take.
“Sometimes I reached out to them, and sometimes they reached out to me,” Farris says of her days wrangling influencers for Bread and Butter. “I’d say, ‘We’ll give you dinner and drinks and pay you this amount, and in exchange you have to post about these things on your page.’”
Farris adds: “I think the smart proprietors know they need to work with these people. And many [influencers] are gracious and professional, and they’re great to work with. But I think there’s also a recognition that, with some influencers, there is an inflated sense of entitlement.”
Bratty behavior abounds. It tends to manifest in subtle gestures, like the snitty face an in-demand photographer makes when presented with a check while dining at an establishment she has previously promoted on her page. Farris recalls receiving messages from aspiring influencers informing her that they were having dinner at a Bread and Butter restaurant at that very moment and were willing to post about it—if she comped their meal. (“So unprofessional,” Farris says.) Cheryl Baker, who runs the Miss KC Foodie account, told me a delicious, though unconfirmed, story about an influencer pair that pulled a “Do you know who we are?” while dining with their husbands at Tavern at Mission Farms. (The restaurant, which comped their starters and entrees, had the gall to charge them for dessert and drinks.) And in June, when a fundraiser was held for Crum’s Heirlooms—a much-adored local produce supplier whose barn and farm was destroyed by a tornado—multiple influencers contacted the organizers in hopes of snagging a free seat for the dinner. “There were three that I remember specifically,” says Bryan Sparks, one of the event’s organizers.
Then there was the Karbon incident. Karbon is one of the vendors inside Parlor, the Crossroads food hall that opened in 2018; it serves street food with Yucatan and Turkish influences. In June, the woman running the account KC Foodies Club met some mole wings there she didn’t like. Tagging Karbon, she called the wings “sad,” “ugly,” and “sloppy.” She went on: “What this dish said to me is that the people making it and/or the people serving it couldn’t give two f**ks less about food.”
The post was received so poorly that the influencer afterward changed her Instagram handle. (It’s now Midwest Food Scene.) A number of chefs and business owners hopped onto the thread to scold her for her comments. Food writers and assorted foodie types rushed in with comments in support of Karbon. The post became a dumping ground for virtue signaling one’s support of the local food scene.
It was a bad take—as several people noted, Karbon is billed as street food, utilitarian and not meant to be pretty—and the influencer was rightly clobbered for it. But if you zoomed up 10,000 feet, there was a larger, more depressing dynamic at play. Defending herself, this woman wrote in her next post that “if you go back over the last 2 years of posts you’ll see that this is the only bad review,” adding that in 33 years of eating out in Kansas City, she’d only had a “handful of negative restaurant experiences.”
In other words, an influential person in the Kansas City food scene (7,000 followers) is so undiscerning about food that in three decades of eating food at restaurants she has only had a “handful” of bad meals—a preposterous thing to say, much less believe. And by sharing her one supposedly bad experience on foodie Instagram, where anything other than cloying positivity jumps out like fresh shit on a white rug, she had learned the wrong lesson. It wasn’t to think about the context of the cuisine before offering an opinion. It wasn’t to consider that food is about more than how it looks. It was to shut up, take pretty pictures, and be like the rest of the influencers.
• • •
In early August, I drove down to the West Bottoms to meet with Chrissy Nucum, who recently turned her popular Filipino food truck KC Pinoy into a brick-and-mortar operation at 1623 Genessee. Nucum is bootstrapping the place; there aren’t any investors backing her, and she didn’t have money for a marketing rollout when she opened in January. Margins are tight at KC Pinoy, as are the dimensions: When I walked in, Nucum was alone, post-lunch rush, rolling silverware at one of the dining room’s 30-odd seats. She didn’t smile when I introduced myself, which made me smile. I’d spent the previous few weeks mainlining “KC, you’re cute” and “This latte is giving me LIFE” posts. Talking with Nucum felt like stepping out of a movie and into real life.
Nucum’s first taste of the influencer trend was three years ago, when she started her food truck.
“I got a message from this person who said, ‘Hey, I noticed you only have 105 followers—I’ve got this-many-thousands of followers, and I can do a sponsored post for you that will up your social media presence,’” Nucum says. “I was like, ‘How much?’ And it was $500. I was like, ‘I think I’d rather spend that on chicken and pork and soy sauce, but thanks.’ And this person was like, ‘Well, good luck.’ And they did not mean that in a sincere way.”
“As a business owner, you hold onto that dollar as tight as you can,” Nucum continues. “I understand that some of them do wield some power with certain audiences, but when I’ve asked for ROI [return on investment] from them, they never have any numbers. I’m supposed to comp these people for coming in and eating my food and taking a couple photos? My customers already do that, and they pay me for my food!”
Count Ryan Brazeal, chef and co-owner at the acclaimed Crossroads restaurant Novel, as also skeptical of the entire enterprise. “For us, at least, why would we pay ‘foodie’ people to come eat at our restaurant if they’re going to come anyway?” he says. “The contingent of ‘foodie’ people in Kansas City is not that big.”
The Antler Room opened in the Longfellow neighborhood in 2016, and a year later Bon Appetit named it one of America’s 50 Best New Restaurants. But before that honor arrived, co-owner Leslie Goellner—a front-of-house manager with 20 years of service experience—discovered she had launched her restaurant into a world where influencers were becoming more assertive by the day.
“Right when we opened, Kasim [Hardaway] contacted us and said, ‘What are you doing for SMI [social media influencers]?’” Goellner says. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I had to look it up. And then I was so angry that I didn’t reply. We’re over here opening this small restaurant, no investors, working our asses off, and you’re asking me to give you something to take a photo of your dining experience? I was like, Who is this person? It just kind of set the tone for me with these people.”
Three years in to running the Antler Room, Goellner is by now well-acquainted with the smarmy online habits of thirsty influencers hoping to snag a free meal.
“So, like, [local influencer] Anna Petrow will come in and post a photo here, and she’ll tag us, and underneath her photo some other influencer will be like, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to eat at Antler Room!’ And they comment back and forth and tag us in their story and say, ‘I would love to collaborate with you’ or something. And I’m like: I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna pay you to eat here.”
Several other restaurant operators described a similar experience of pestlike tagging. There is actually a technical term for these clusters of targeted engagement. They’re called “Instagram pods,” and besides getting the attention of restaurants, they’re meant to outsmart Instagram’s algorithm. (The term of art is “breaking the algorithm.”) Influencers turn on post notifications for other influencers so that they can quickly like and comment on each other’s posts. Because Instagram values engagement above all else, these flurries of concentrated activity boost the organic reach of those participating.
Clear away the tedious technical mechanics, and the scene beneath is grotesque—a pack of vampires heaping effusive, insincere praise onto one another’s posts with the hope of attracting more followers to aid them in their quest for free shit. Not everybody does this, of course. Cheryl Baker, aka Miss KC Foodie, says she’s never tried to game the platform this way, and she was surprised recently to discover that certain influencers she knows had been liking posts by her non-foodie friends in Pleasant Hill—35 miles southeast of Kansas City—where she lives.
“My friends would say to me, ‘Do you know this foodie guy named Kasim? He liked my post and followed me, but then he unfollowed me right away.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, I get what he’s doing.’”
Baker also recalls a local influencer who enlisted a bot to automatically comment on other people’s posts. “But then somebody died,” she says, “and there was a post about it, and the bot was like, ‘Great picture!’ with a smiley face emoji.”
Instagram has reportedly begun cracking down on bots and pods, but like the rest of the social media giants, it doesn’t have muscular systems in place to enforce its rules and regulations, much less the federal laws that are broken everyday on its platform.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, “if there is a material connection between an endorser and an advertiser—in other words, a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement—that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, unless it is already clear from the context of the communication. A material connection could be a business or family relationship, monetary payment, or the gift of a free product.”
Also influencer no-nos, according to the FTC, are insufficiently clear disclosures such as #sp (instead of #sponsored); sticking an #ad in a sea of hashtags; just #partner; and saying, “Thanks, [BRAND].” But comb through your favorite local influencers’ feeds, and you will find that few of them are appropriately disclosing their conflicts.
“I honestly had no idea this was happening,” says Jonathan Justus, chef and co-owner of Black Dirt, which opened last year on the South Plaza. “I started seeing local food people I was following doing staycations at the Crossroads Hotel. And I was like, wait, that person is getting paid for that! I knew enough to know that. But does the average person know this? How would they know?”
“Only a couple of them [local influencers] disclose that it’s paid content,” Goellner says. “With clothing and makeup and other industries, they’re better at making them put #ad or #paid or #sponsored or whatever on it. I don’t know why food isn’t part of that yet, but it should be.”
Paid or sponsored content is, of course, kind of the point of this whole thing for many influencers; they want that case of free kombucha. Ironically, though, the goal of achieving sponsorships often seems to coincide with those accounts shedding any vitality they once contained. Several supposedly once-good local food feeds are now little more than collections of sponsored ads for grocery stores, regional tourism bureaus, and boring national brands. It can often seem as though the mark of influencer success is an account that has curdled into a pale, spammy mush.
Are the influencers noticing this? Have they considered that all those clunkily sponsored posts might be undermining their accounts, even as the flow of free goods is so satisfying in the present? Is there a golden ratio between sponsored posts and “authentic” ones?
“It’s a difficult question,” Fuentes of Kansas City Foodie Finds says. “The reality is, they start to overlap. I did a giveaway for Buns Up recently, but I was gonna go there anyway. So it’s hard to say. But if I had to put a number on it, I’d probably say I’m at 50-50 right now.”
I put the same question to Hardaway, who a few weeks before had done a sponsored post that included the sentence, “I’m happy to share that I’m helping #PeptoBismol introduce its new Pepto Diarrhea.”
“I don’t think the sponsored posts dilute the authenticity of what I’m doing,” Hardaway says. “I’m honest about my sponsored advertisements, and I try to do occasional disclosures to let people know that if I don’t like a product, I just won’t post about it. I never want to be the channel for good reviews or bad reviews.”
A few days later, in an Instagram post featuring a photo of himself eating a chicken wing, Hardaway elaborated further, saying that a couple of questions I posed to him “still linger in contemplation.”
“As I grow as an influencer and partner with more brands, my goal is to always find alignments that feel natural and organic,” he wrote. “At one point my aim was to create a platform all about KC, but that has shifted to be a platform all about Kasim Hardaway: a lover of Kansas City, food, marketing (and a million other thangs like wangz) #kasimjhardaway.”
• • •
To be fair, those of us in legacy media are thinking a lot lately about brand dilution, too. If we want to be where the eyeballs are, we must be on the internet. But going there means acceding to its perverse and occasionally democracy-destroying incentives. A platform where a child is more influential than a 100-year-old newspaper is a dangerous place; it is also an easy place to lose one’s dignity. You can wake up one day to find that, by trying to compete in an economic landscape indifferent to your expertise, your media outlet has become the influencer who does too many Fit Tea posts.
“Media and influencers want different things,” says Travis Joyal, of the KC communications agency Joyal Marketing. “Influencers want content that results in high engagement, and on social media, it starts with the photo. A food and dining influencer wants the killer shot of the stylish new menu item. A fashion influencer wants a shot of them holding a pretty cocktail surrounded by the restaurant’s chic decor. Media wants a story. And media prefer not to be in the same group as influencers.”
But the future of media, if there is one, undeniably looks much more like what influencers are doing than the website on which you’re reading this. And the latest industry trend—advertisers favoring “micro-influencers” with 1,000 to 10,000 followers and high levels of engagement—suggests the number of influencers will only multiply going forward.
“Daily, there is at least one email here at the office between us about a new influencer we’ve found, or a new influencer that’s interested in working with us,” Page says.
Sarah Lehman, Page Communications’ PR manager, adds that the firm recently launched a “collaborate” page where potential influencers can fill out information about themselves with the goal of working with some of Page’s clients. “We’ve had 75 responses in a week,” Lehman says.
The brands are often just as hungry as the influencers—and wouldn’t you be if you had armies of obedient messengers who expect only a six-pack of canned wine for their troubles?
“I get emails every single day,” Hargesheimer of Kansas City Bucket List says. “There are a ton of platforms now where influencers can sign up and get unpaid work where they pay you in product,” Hardaway says.
And restaurants are catering to Instagrammers (if not specifically influencers) one way or another, be it through Instagram-friendly murals, art, and design (see: Parlor, Betty Rae’s, Novel, Messenger, so many more) or even the actual food they serve. “People know a big hamburger or an over-the-top-garnished bloody mary will get 2,000 likes, so they put it on the menu,” Goellner says. “I think, in some ways, it contributes to a stagnancy in the food culture in this city. How many photos of a hamburger or a donut do these people need to see?”
Ultimately, the only thing likely to topple the influencer gravy train is Instagram itself; a recent report found that engagement among Instagram influencers has dipped by about half over the last three years. In its ceaseless quest for growth and ever-greater profits, Instagram’s parent company—that’d be Facebook—has loaded up its site with ads, resulting in an ongoing Facebook exodus among millennials and Gen Z. Is Instagram resigned to the same fate? And what happens if, as has been rumored, Instagram removes likes from the platform? What will that mean for influencers selling themselves based on their engagement? It’s uncertainties like these that has people like Fuentes working on launching his own website.
“I’ve built my house on someone else’s ground,” he says. “Right now, I’ve been able to monetize within Instagram, but tomorrow, who knows what they’re going to do?”
“Every media bubble bursts,” Farris says. “There’s so many accounts right now that you’re starting to see a real lack of quality in some of them, and when the bubble bursts, the ones that are posting great content are the ones that will survive.”
As for the rest, perhaps the real treasure isn’t the influence but simply the comps they got along the way.
“Honestly, my long-term goal with this account is to have free coffee everywhere in Kansas City,” says Hunter of KC Local Eats.
She was laughing. But it definitely seemed like she meant it.