The Cake Out Maryland bakery in Columbia was a labor of love for sisters Sade and Azia Castro.
Between traveling nurse gigs, Sade Castro would take orders over social media for the sweets otherwise found only in the Philippines, advertising flavors from ube flan to chiffon cake with a milky caramel glaze. But few outside their community knew of the shop.
Castro saw foodies on Instagram in videos that garnered thousands of likes and followers. More people had to be searching for “Asian tastes” in Maryland and Virginia, she thought. Why couldn’t her cakes be the next viral sensation?
So she reached out to a food influencer.
Over the last few years in Baltimore, the practice of connecting restaurants and burgeoning food businesses with social media personalities has become increasingly common, according to public relations executive Dave Seel, who has built an arm of his Blue Fork marketing firm for the task.
“There can be a dearth of coverage for certain subsections of the city,” he said. “Influencers have taken up that space and used it to build followership.”
Baltimore is a small city, especially in food media. There is no Eater, Infatuation or Michelin Guide. People are thirsting for creative, diverse angles, Seel said.
With the rise of food influencers in Baltimore comes an opportunity to provide platforms to communities, voices and cuisines that have been traditionally alienated. But this wave of restaurant marketing has also raised questions about the authenticity of social media tastemakers and where the quest for that viral video leaves small businesses, many of whom are fighting for survival following the pandemic.
Marketing is an extension of community building, Seel said, and to that end, some restaurants have modified their aesthetics to attract new customers over social media.
Seel cited BLK Swan in Harbor East as a prime example for its well-advertised community events and “selfie walls.” Customers cannot visit Gunther and Company on Toone Street without taking photos by its “Instagram-worthy living green wall,” he said. At times, he has recommended that restaurants invest in a “particularly ooey, gooey picture-worthy” dish.
It does not always go viral or attract the attention needed to generate business, but it’s an increasingly popular strategy.
“Has it eclipsed all other strategies? I don’t necessarily think so. … But do [influencers] have a seat at the table? Absolutely,” Seels said. “You can’t ignore it.”
‘It’s a marketing job’
Tim “Chyno” Chin always dreamed of hosting his own television show about food.
He grew up an army brat, born in Germany and shuttled between bases before landing in Sandtown-Winchester, a Baltimore food desert. It was not “lavish,” he said; food was utilitarian and purchased with food stamps. There was no one like him on TV: Black, Chinese and gay. But as Chin remembers, he had a “charisma” that allowed him to persevere.
Chin now considers himself part of a “freshman class” of influencers who rose to foodie fame before the local restaurant industry came to embrace the world of social media marketing. Until about six years ago, eateries looking for publicity were beholden to legacy media platforms. The big players trusted to show Baltimoreans where to eat were radio personalities like Downtown Diane and Dara Cooks, he said.
“We slowly started replacing that,” Chin said. “They didn’t understand [social media] was going to catch on the way it did.”
Chin had worked in kitchens and as a server, so he believed he could relay the importance of a social media presence to the old guard of small businesses. He started by running the social media of the former Pinch Dumplings in Mount Vernon Marketplace, and then shooting food pictures at the Joe Squared in Power Plant Live in exchange for free meals.
“I would post something and then a restaurant would sell out of it,” he said, calling it “the Chyno effect” — a byproduct of his time hosting a YouTube show. He’s now garnered followers as “The Baltimore Foodie” and “The Boy with the Blue Beard,” building a more-than-135,000-person Instagram following and appearing as a host for the “Fresh, Fried and Crispy” show on Netflix.
“I’ve got an Emmy waiting for me somewhere,” he told The Banner.
To show restaurants he was serious, Chin drew up a rate sheet for his services. “A lot of influencers have it,” he said. The sheet explains an influencer’s cost per post, Instagram reel, links, video and stories. “Everything has a monetized value.” Chin did not say how much he charges, but as his audience across platforms rises, so does his value.
“People don’t understand this is hard,” he said. “You have to constantly evolve with technology, learn algorithms, follow these trends. … It’s a marketing job.”
TikTok celebrities like MMA fighter turned foodie Keith Lee, who recently made news for a video critiquing the service at an Atlanta restaurant, can change an eatery’s reputation with a single post.
Anybody can call themselves an influencer, Seel said, but “it doesn’t mean they have a core following or an engaged following that really creates the marketing effect that can get restaurateurs that return on investment.”
‘It’s such a difficult thing to decide what you’re worth’
The world of social media marketing is still largely uncharted. The Federal Trade Commission has codified guidelines on sponsorship transparency for influencers, going as far as to issue $50,000 penalties for failures to adequately disclose paid partnerships.
According to estimates from Insider Intelligence, more than $6.1 billion is expected to be spent nationwide this year on influencer marketing.
Local influencer Rachel Lipton learned about rate sheets herself in 2017 when 7-Eleven offered her $100 to post its iced tea on her “like the tea eats” Instagram page.
“My wife pulled me aside and said, ‘I think you should be charging these large businesses,’” said Lipton, who already had a full-time job. “It’s such a difficult thing to decide what you’re worth.”
Her pricing varies. Video content took far longer to edit, so she charged more. Her rates also went up depending on the size of the company inquiring about a post. She also is particular about who she will work with — or not. She said she will never post about Chick-fil-A due to their alleged culture of homophobia. And since news broke in 2020 of Ouzo Bay allegedly discriminating against a Black woman and her son, along with follow-up complaints against the owners, Atlas Restaurant Group, Lipton has promised not to promote dining at their restaurants.
Kimberly Kong, the creator of a series of food photography pages known as Nomtastic Baltimore and Nomtastic D.C., has amassed more than 100,000 followers, in part, for making a point of dining at Asian-inspired small businesses in Maryland and Virginia.
“I let [businesses] know that you’re only going to get featured if I genuinely like your food. And it’s going to be disclosed that I was invited and food was comped,” Kong said. Yet she cringes at the “influencer” title and the lack of authenticity it evokes. A large number of her posts were not paid for, she said, and were born out of an interest in wanting to try new spots.
Kong also does not charge small businesses for promotion, citing pandemic-era losses as a reason for many of them to be skeptical of investing in the world of social media marketing. Chin and Lipton also said they offered reduced rates to try and boost local spots.
“I understand the restaurants’ point of view with how slim the margins are and how tough it is right now,” Kong said.
‘Every time we posted something, it just got sold’
Sade Castro never met the Instagram celebrity that sparked an interest in her Maryland shop.
Neither did her sister and business partner, who repeatedly called Castro “crazy” for inviting someone with more than 100,000 followers to sample their cakes. For three years, the two-person bakery had sold the desserts almost exclusively to a group of Filipino moms over Facebook — and even then, they struggled to meet demand.
“I trust that you really believe in your food recs and that you’ve actually tried and loved every food post,” Castro wrote to Kong on Sept. 9. “With that, I would like you to try our Filipino-style cakes.”
Shortly after, Castro was leaving a sampler of nine cakes at Kong’s door.
On Sept. 21, Kong posted footage of her digging into a gooey can of chocolate cake and slowly slicing into the ube flan’s purple center.
“I was at work when my phone started to go off,” Castro said. Within a day, the video had gone viral. The number of people viewing the bakery’s Instagram page rose by over 900% in a matter of hours, and then again by another 2,000% by the end of the week. About 3,000 new people had followed their rarely updated Instagram by the end of September.
“Why would you do this?” Castro remembered her sister asking. “It’s just the two of us, we’re baking from home, and we have full-time jobs.”
The bakery that had provided roughly 120 cakes each year catering to their Filipino neighbors had received hundreds of orders in a matter of days. “We were messaging people saying we don’t have [the cakes],” she said.
Unable to meet demand, they started a lottery. By the end of October, the attention faded some, with viewers of their content down by 42%, according to Castro’s Instagram analytics. Still, the success of the post presented an opportunity for Castro’s self-proclaimed “side hustle.” “Every time we posted something, it just got sold,” she said.
But a restaurant has to be ready. Seel explained that influencers will often receive a tailored experience: sampler cakes, private dining and even custom sandwiches. The business has to be able to execute at the same level for the regular customers, too.
In October, Fells Point eatery Little Donna’s claimed to be “screwed” after a New York Times critic placed the business on the paper’s list of most exciting places to eat. The now-shuttered Local Oyster also faltered in the spotlight after an influencer-promoted sandwich spurred high demand and community backlash, forcing it to be 86ed from the menu.
“All of a sudden, there can be an onslaught of people and it’s hard to keep up,” Seel said.
Castro has no regrets about Kong’s effect on her business. As of November, Cake Out is searching for ways to increase output and serve the Filipino neighbors who had leaned on them for their traditional holiday treats. Plans to move to a larger kitchen are in the works, due to the support from new customers, Castro said.
“For now, we are grateful.”
This story has been updated to explain Tim “Chyno” Chin’s first social media partnerships with local eateries.