Mike Chau is at his home in Queens, one of his three Instagram-famous children yelling in the background, when he says it: He’s been losing followers for months. The 38-year-old Queens native, better known by his social media handle @foodbabyny, has been posting photos of his children napping in Hunan restaurants and strapped into car seats with buckets of fried chicken for the past eight years. And for the most part, it’s gone pretty well. “I’ve gained at least one follower every single day since I started this account,” Chau says, more than 300,000 followers later.
Last year, his account went into “free fall.”
Chau, who works full-time as a software developer, monitors his and other food influencers’ profiles using Social Blade, a website that collects data on social media accounts across platforms like Instagram and Twitter. He first noticed he was losing followers a little over a year ago (although the website indicates his account has been on the decline since before the pandemic began). Anywhere from one to one hundred people are unfollowing @foodbabyny each day, he says. The losses totaled some 7,000 followers in the last year alone.
“At first I was really disheartened,” Chau says. And then he realized it’s happening to food influencers across the city.
A decade after Instagram unseated Facebook as the internet’s dominant platform, social media’s tectonic plates are shifting again. TikTok, the short-form video sharing app your parents are already using is upending the landscape, causing companies like Instagram to switch up their algorithms and launch their own versions of the app. Now Chau and a generation of early food influencers are fighting to stay relevant.
“TikTok is where Instagram was in 2016,” says Emily Schultz, a social media manager at Bento Box, a tech company that consults on restaurants’ online presences. “A year ago, the question was, ‘Do we need to be in it?’ Now it’s, ‘How do we get in it?’”
Like many of the city’s dominant Instagram food influencers, Chau started on the app in 2014, when square, heavily edited photos flooded the app, but most people were starting to suspect that the Buenos Aires filter might not actually look good. He started @foodbabyny because he was trying to avoid being “that person” who only posts food photos, or only shares pictures of their kids, he says. Instead, he aimed to become one of few people on the app to do both at the same time.
There were only a handful of local food influencers on Instagram at that time, but certain trends were already taking shape. “People liked seeing over-the-top photos of delicious-looking food,” Chau says, citing the Black Tap milkshakes that plagued Instagram feeds in 2015. “It wasn’t necessarily good food. It was just things that caught people’s eye.” His account didn’t hold back: @foodbabyny became an online shrine to gravity-defying noodle pulls, melty grilled cheeses, and just about anything that could be cut in half and shoved in front of a camera.
The next era of food influencing is headed in a more casual direction, driven by TikTok. The video-sharing app made its debut in the United States in 2017, hitting 1 billion monthly active users last fall. Most social media apps never reach that milestone, and in Instagram’s case, it took more than eight years to achieve. Now, legacy influencers are grappling with a shift to video on their home court.
Greg Remmey and Rebecca West-Remmey, the husband-wife influencers behind the Instagram account @devourpower and its 1.5 million followers have watched the app contort itself to compete with rival social media companies for years. The platform added video in 2013 — an answer to the late, lamented video-sharing app Vine — followed by Instagram Stories in 2016, a shameless copy of Snapchat’s “stories” feature that allows users to share videos that expire after 24 hours. And then came Reels, Instagram’s clunky TikTok replica.
The prioritization of video on the app has been tough for some influencers, who just a few years ago were more preoccupied with figuring out the right angle to photograph a corn dog. “Before you could just post a picture of yourself holding this crazy burger, and it would get 20,000 or 30,000 likes,” says Remmey. “Now you have to tell some sort of story. You have to give a little personality.”
The shift has coincided with a drop-off in likes and followers for many of the city’s legacy food creators. Caitlin Sakdalan, the 25-year-old influencer behind the food and travel account @befatbehappy, has lost more followers than she’s gained in 10 of the last 12 months, according to Social Blade. Jeremy Jacobowitz, who ran the @brunchboys account before renaming it after himself in 2021, is down more than 13,000 followers year over year.
For full-time influencers, those numbers are more than a matter of pride. Most of the money food influencers are competing for is still tied to Instagram, Sakdalan says, in part because many of the independent restaurants they work with have yet to establish themselves on TikTok. Sakdalan, who consults for a handful of New York City restaurants, including the small chain of Migrant Kitchen restaurants, still pulls in over $30,000 a year from Instagram partnerships. It’s a figure that’s remained steady despite TikTok looming large, but she wonders how much longer she can count on that.
“Part of me doesn’t want to create TikTok content,” Sakdalan says. “Part of me feels like if I don’t do this now it will be too late. If Instagram dies, my brand effectively dies.”
Remmey and West-Remmey are among the few early Instagram food influencers to have successfully made the shift. Their three-year-old TikTok account, which currently sits at 1.6 million followers, overflows with videos of smash burgers and chicken over rice. Remmey, an upbeat bro with a swoosh of Johnny Bravo hair, narrates almost everything, offering context about restaurants, putting questions before viewers, and generally describing what’s happening on screen. “Every single post has to be a story within itself,” he says.
That conversational style is critical on TikTok, where a crowded field of younger influencers is covering local restaurants, and racking up thousands of followers in the process.
Maeghan Radice and Audrey Jongens are the co-founders of the @theviplist, a food-influencing duo the Rolling Stone described as one of TikTok’s “most loathed” accounts last year. Similar to Chau, who started @foodbabyny in the early, filter-filled days of Instagram, Radice and Jongens arrived on TikTok in April 2020, at a time when few accounts were posting local food content in New York City. “It was a very niche part of TikTok,” Radice claims. “No one was doing food reviews.”
Their sarcastic reviews of high-end Manhattan restaurants have helped fill that void. In their videos, she and Jongens pan over dishes with a handheld ring light — when restaurants aren’t pleading with them to put it away — and refer to viewers as “peasants” using a scripted voice that toes the line between trust-fund baby and Mean Girls antagonist Regina George. (Their words.) The schtick has earned them close to 400,000 followers.
“We’re doing a completely different form of reviewing,” Radice says. “It used to be all about pictures, but sometimes pictures look different than the real thing. People want visuals. They want voice-overs. They want the entire experience.”
In other words: Instagram could never.
To Chau, it all “feels like a chore,” he says. Food Baby does, let the record show, have a TikTok account. It’s just that the occasionally bleak videos don’t do very well.
Part of the problem, Chau says, is that a viral following on one platform rarely guarantees success on another, and at this point, he doesn’t feel like starting over. The influencer, who posts on Instagram anywhere from one to three times a day, likens TikTok to a “lottery” that encourages users to post as often as possible with the hope of going viral. (A spokesperson for TikTok disputes that characterization, and claims that consistency is more important than post frequency.)
In any case, Chau can afford to complain about TikTok: He runs @foodbabyny while working as a software developer full-time. Losing followers is “embarrassing” on some level, he says, but he’s never relied on the account as a source of income.
With only the loss of clout hanging in the balance, Chau says he’s sticking with what’s worked so far, even if it’s unlikely to work in the future — or even in the present. “It’s probably too late for me,” he says, a captain going down with his ship. “I plan to keep having fun.”