New York City data scientist Chris Buetti claims to have cracked the code on how to receive free meals from local restaurants. He claims to have scored free or discounted food from local restaurants in exchange for positive reviews and posts on his Instagram account — an entirely artificial page run by a self-coded robot.
According to BuzzFeed News, Buetti devised an Insta-robot that runs Instagram accounts such as @beautiful.newyorkcity, which has amassed 28,000 followers through automated posting, liking, and following methods. Though the account primarily reposts Manhattan city shots taken by other people, Buetti says he started it with the intention of growing a big enough following to score free meals at his favorite restaurants. “I’ve been dining at restaurants, sandwich shops, and other eateries for free ever since,” he says in a recent Medium article.
Though he never mentions the name of the restaurants he’s dined in, the account shows several posts marked as “sponsored” content — including from French brasserie Boucherie, pita chain Miznon, barbecue joint Mable’s Smokehouse & Banquet Hall, Italian restaurant Gran Morsi, and French bistro Marseille. Food from Italian restaurant Olio e Piú and Korean barbecue spot Yoon Haeundae Galbi were also recently promoted.
But he tells BuzzFeed he’s not the one behind that account anymore, having handed the log in information over to a friend. He also says he’s given “some of these meals away to my friends and family” because there were too many for him to get to.
In his Medium article, Buetti, a Hell’s Kitchen resident, admits to coding his way to influencer status without ever really logging onto the account. “Not wanting to give up the dining experiences I enjoyed so dearly, I decided I’d create my own currency to finance these transactions,” he writes. “Since its inception, I haven’t even really logged into the account.”
He says a big Instagram following is a valuable currency — one that restaurants seeking publicity are willing to accept in exchange for unfalteringly positive reviews.
Under normal circumstances, it’d take a human user months or even years to amass such a following, which requires hours of engagement like liking and commenting on other people’s posts on a daily basis. Buetti’s Insta-robot also follows and unfollows people automatically, a surefire way to quickly gain followers that’s been heavily criticized by influencers and brands alike. Instagram itself has also warned users against the spammy trick. He says he’s created “a number” of robotic accounts that do the same.
Yet even though humans don’t helm these accounts, these NYC restaurants have deemed them capable of influencing (or convincing) others to dine there, too. In the Instagram influencer market, most brands judge an account’s success by its engagement rate, based on the numbers of likes and comments that aren’t just emojis — but these restaurants seem to be ignoring those metrics. A recent @beautiful.newyorkcity post about Mable’s Smokehouse, for instance, received 484 likes and three emoji-filled comments that could be robot-driven, or less than 2 percent engagement. That’s pretty weak turnout for such a big account.
Certain restaurants seem fine with all of this, though. One owner who asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News, “I guess in the end we were satisfied because it’s still an ad posted and showing us to their followers.”
Correction, March 21, 2019: This article has been updated to state that Chris Buetti has handed the account named @beautiful.newyorkcity over to a friend and is no longer accepting free meals.