We all do it for the 'Gram, but there are some who take it further.
For the first time in my Toronto brunch career, I'm the first in line for weekend brunch. Well, nearly first. Already seated on the lone bench in front of the restaurant, Beast, is Ryan, Alex, and Kelly. Or, rather, the masterminds behind the food-centered Instagram accounts @eatfamous, @hypebelly, and @kellyforyou (respectively) are waiting for us. Beast puts out an impressive brunch spread - but the sheer pleasure of eating isn't the only draw. You could call it a working brunch, in a way: The 3 Spoons' first Insta-meet as a collective.
For the uninitiated (and I, with a paltry 300 Instagram followers, fit that definition), Insta-meets are community-organized intersections between the digital and IRL (in real life) worlds. Think of them as creative pow-wows, where likeminded Instagramers gather to develop new content, plan collaborations, and - in our case - eat. Not all Instagramers that meet are necessarily friends - though they might play that for the cameras. But that's not Abhi's style; he connected with Ryan and Alex at past Instagram events and, over the course of time, the three have become friends. I, for one, was excited at the prospect of meeting new eating partners - a commodity that you can never have enough of.
"Is that how you always eat?"
Beast is a cozy restaurant, especially in the colder months when its patio isn't open. It takes dedication to beat the Toronto brunch crowd to any spot on a Saturday - particularly with a group as large as ours. And, more importantly, we needed to have our first pick of one of the restaurant's two larger tables close to the windows - the ones with the most natural light. It's not an Instameet if you're not able to take the best pictures. In fact, is it even eating?
But, Instagram or not, we're foodies first. After the chaos of first-time seat juggling, there's a marked lull in the conversation. The silence of quiet contemplation as the menu is perused. Then, the strategy. Collectively we've ordered the vast majority of Beast's menu through a careful calculation of favourite dishes, sharing potential, difference to past meals, and photo potential. Plus sharing items before the mains.
"One question that I always get from people is 'is that how you always eat?'", says Ryan as the first plates appear on the table: one of each daily donut available on Beast's menu. There's a murmur of consensus around the table. Everyone is normal sized here, but that's not what our Instagram feeds would indicate. Take Ryan's account, @eatfamous. It's specifically curated to showcase the best of junk food around the world - burgers, pizza, fried chicken. The more amenable a dish is to cheese, bacon, and deep frying - often times all at once - the higher the chance that it will make it on Ryan's account. The simple answer is, no, that's not our everyday.
Or, perhaps also due to the intermittent nature of dining with food creatives. In the span of time it would take a normal table to devour the small platter of donuts on the table, we're still angling to get the best shots. Some have already begun alternating between taking snaps on their phones and closer pictures with dedicated DSLRs. Instagram is a hungry god that demands constant fresh content. There's shots for the regular feed: flat-lays, closeups, and panned-out pictures of the whole table. Then, there's the more informal shots for the Instagram Stories feature: carefully annotated stills and boomerangs of breaking open cream-filled pastries. To the table neighbouring us it probably looks absurd. But hey, we're working here.
That's one of the most surprising things about being a food creative; that it's possible to make a living taking pictures of delicious things. For some of the top Instagramers today, it can be a full-time job. But, for many dedicated to the craft, it's more likely a full-time pursuit in addition to an existing career.
Pushing past 250K followers, @eatfamous certainly has the potential to generate the revenue needed for full-time dedication. Ryan, though, still works as a logistics manager at one of the top global CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies. The demands of maintaining @eatfamous just feels like a full-time job.
The same is true for @hypebelly's Alex, who thrives on the management-side of a major Toronto firm working in city planning and architecture. He'd always identified as a creative and pursued his passion by studying architecture. The Instagram account, for him, is a creative outlet. A labour of love. "Photography and my love of food just came perfectly together," says Alex.
As with many of the new jobs and niches created during this generation, whether you call being an Influencer (capital "I") a career, a gig, or a passion project one thing is clear: it's not your usual job.
Alex recounts one project in particular, where he was flown to Atlanta to promote a new app. His team was given a food truck to use for promotion. The hidden caveat - and a source of much swearing - was that the vehicle arrived unwrapped. It required a late night of carefully applying the full-truck decal, followed by a harrowing drive of the unwieldy machine through unfamiliar streets. Who drove the car? Alex.
I didn't ask him if the pay was worth it. In fact, like many more established "creative" fields, pay may not have even been on the table. It's the artist's curse: offers of work not for money, but exposure and experience. For those working in the food industry, offers can be as lowly as free food.
It's not your usual job.
"You just need to know your worth," says Alex. It's a sentiment that the four Instagramers in the room collectively nod to. For this reason, Abhi maintains a detailed marketing package that he sends to prospective projects and agencies. It's not just an artist's portfolio - it's a careful outlay of digital metrics, market focus, and demographics.
Instagram has become an increasingly saturated marketplace for talent. All it takes is a smartphone (which, in Canada, is in the hands of more than 70% of the entire population - and virtually all of the dreaded Millennial generation - at the time of writing) with a decent camera. After a base level of artistic talent - the ability to line up the perfect composition - a "good" account is in the eye of the beholder. The quest to break higher follower counts demands clever marketing: the right combination of tags, partnerships, and just a bit of luck. Incumbent players - those who got into the game three years earlier, like Ryan and Alex - had a slightly more frictionless path to Insta-fame. And as a fascination with food further permeates the popular culture, it becomes harder and harder to differentiate one's account from the sea of others.
This fierce competition can prompt some single-minded behaviour in the search for the perfect shot. As we sip coffee, the table shares horror stories of dealing with the worst of the food creative community. People pushing into personal space just to frame a picture against "that" wall: the one with the logo. Returning from the washroom to find their plate of food placed on the floor just so it wouldn't mar the aestethics of another Influencer's flat-lay. There's endless jockeying, like pigs at a trough.
Perhaps it's one of the reasons why Beast was chosen as our meeting ground of choice. Getting into Beast for brunch is hard, but not as impossible as it is in some more trending - and potentially less-truly tasty - spots. The restaurant also touts a criminally underrated dinner menu. All of this culminates in reputation across the city as being a chef's restaurant; a no-fuss, damn-good food vibe that likely doesn't care about your 500 followers. It speaks volumes that this was one of the locations during Anthony Bourdain's Toronto Layover episode. There's no bullshit.
It's at this moment that our mains arrive, along with another natural lull in conversation. But the action doesn't pause for long. There's another flurry of pictures, all of us carefully pushing dishes to best capture a gestalt picture of the event. Ryan and Alex are both live-streaming this part of the proceedings to their followers, a fact that I only learned after nearly knocking over a phone sandwiched precariously between the ketchup and hot sauce bottles.
This is the moment where I'm lost. I leave the photography to the pros and bury myself in the food. It doesn't disappoint.
The hallmark of Beast's brunch menu is its riffs on the breakfast sandwich. At its base: an expertly fried chicken thighs and a fried egg slid between a crumbly biscuit. Together, we've ordered four of them, each with different accouterments. One is liberally doused in sausage gravy. Another, house-made kimchi and kecap manis. Yet another boasts liberal applications of guacamole, ranchero sauce, and feta cheese. They're messy affairs - sandwiches for only a couple of bites before the need for a fork, knife, and more napkins makes itself apparent.
Rounding out the selection is a plate of challah french toast made more decadent with the inclusion of duck confit. The eggy bread has a perfect custard give; a foil to the salty richness of the duck leg. There's also one of the day's specials, a three-meat omelette worthy of any hangover cure regimen.
As if the individual mains aren't enough, we've also ordered extra sides of Beast's bacon and crispy pork hocks. The hocks, alone, are worth visiting the Tecumseth Street restaurant. The crispy exterior of the little cubes gives way to the most delightfully unctuous, braised-pork flavour. We've all requested half fries, half salad to go alongside; the salad mostly out of guilt.
It's so good, I pull out my phone to take a picture to share with friends. After all, that's what Instagram was originally created for. The social platform, once exclusively an iOS app, began life as an avenue to share only the best, most artistic pictures. When developers finally released the app for Android, it was a mark of sophistication to indicate that your shots were made exclusively on an iPhone. Now, photos can come from anywhere, typically after a deluxe treatment of retouches in Photoshop, Lightroom, or one of the many free editing apps available on the market.
As he thumbs through the manual wheels on his DSLR, Alex reminisces on the first time he pulled out the big guns for the small screen. "It was a dimly-lit restaurant, and I wasn't able to get the shot I wanted with my phone. I reached for my camera because I knew that the lens would be good enough to handle the light."
As the way users interact with Instagram has evolved, so too has the platform's business model. Following Facebook's (then) unprecedented 2012 acquisition of the app for $1B, a lot of things have changed. Sponsored posts and verified accounts were just the first step. Most contentious amongst Instagram veterans was a shift from the chronological publishing of posts to users' feeds to an algorithmic prioritization. Both @eatfamous and @hypebelly felt it. Despite having deeply entrenched followers, each saw their engagement suddenly drop following that change. It took weeks to re-tune the way they crafted posts and tags to get back to baseline.
Most importantly, Instagram's acquisition signaled it as a viable, high-growth marketing platform. Which begets the question: are Ryan and Alex marketers?
Are you a marketer?
"I don't think I am," says Alex between bites of Beastwich. He identifies first as a creative, with @hypebelly merely a canvas for showcasing his passion for food. This fact shows in his work; his account's posts are a carefully curated collection of artistically framed shots. You'll find that the subjects will be as much about the people making the food as it is about the finished product. And there's a dash of Alex's other creative energies at play: street photography, Alex's travels, and portrait compositions are peppered throughout. Food is his passion, but he's not a one-note creative.
Ryan has a completely different perspective. @eatfamous enjoys real influence on the North American food scene. Ryan has several accounts of customers walking into restaurants phone in-hand as they order. On the screen: an @eatfamous post. Regular people notice - and so do the restaurants that they frequent. For Ryan, he is, indeed, an Instagram marketer. As much as @hypebelly's feed reflects Alex's artistic soul, @eatfamous reflects a distinct market focus. Scrolling through Ryan's feed will reveal a near-endless collection of meals perfect for the next cheat day. The burgers never stop piling, the cheese never stops pulling, and the toppings just don't stop.
It's then that dessert appears: a single sticky toffee pudding. A densely spongey pudding floating on a little puddle of toffee sauce. No one needs it (who ever needs dessert?), but we each take a couple bites. I ask my final question:
"What's next on the horizon for food creatives? If you had to rebuild your accounts outside of Instagram, where would you go?"
There's a pause in the conversation. Partially from the spoonfuls of insulin shock, but also from careful contemplation.
Both Ryan and Alex share a look, then answer in unison: "I just don't know."