While COVID-19 has left local foodies floundering, food bloggers and influencers in Phoenix are working around the pandemic to keep their businesses up and running.
“The challenge now is that there are no more food events,” said Scottsdale resident and founder of AZ Food Guy, Kay Tea.
“Prior to COVID, there were festivals, parties, influencer meetups like every week, so it was very easy to have a lot of content,” Tea said. “But now, I can’t prepare as much content in advance because content is in short supply.”
Arizona Foodie founder Diana Brandt has covered restaurant openings, events and news on her blog and Instagram pages since 2014. She echoed Tea’s sentiments.
“It hurts to see all the different struggles restaurants continue to have to go through at this time, on top of having to see them close,” Brandt said.
But neither influencer has stopped posting content to their social media pages – and, in Brandt’s case, she appears to be exponentially growing a following.
Brandt is one influencer who is mastering pandemic challenges in the saturated space of food bloggers, Instagrammers, and Youtubers.
Brandt has uploaded hundreds of photos of the meals to her popular food-themed Instagram account @azfoodie, where she constantly showcases dishes from restaurants around Phoenix. The account has more than 122,000 followers.
“When I started Instagram, there was no such thing as this being a job or being an influencer, that didn’t exist yet, so I wasn’t striving for that. It was a normal part of my life to go out and try food or make food and then share it on my social media,” she said
Arizona Foodie has since grown into a large hub of like-minded foodies with over 97% of followers located in Phoenix and surrounding Valley cities.
In each caption, Brandt lists the name and location of the restaurant, the name of the dish, and an in-depth review of the food.
For restaurants, like the Instagram-friendly brunch hotspot Hash Kitchen, food bloggers and influencers are a key player to growing their business.
“The food influencers and foodies have organically helped Hash Kitchen grow from one location to five locations throughout Scottsdale and Phoenix with another location underway coming to Peoria,” said Hash Kitchen co-founder and executive chef Joey Maggiore. “Each time they share their Hash Kitchen experiences, they are tapping into new customers.”
While Brandt does receive sponsorships, she said she finds the majority of the restaurants she endorses by dining on her own.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown, Brandt has been mainly posting about restaurants she’s eaten at previously that are still open for carryout. Brandt, who is still living in Phoenix, said she is trying to use her influence to help local businesses stay afloat.
“When everything happened in March and when I talked to my friends in the industry, I knew I couldn’t sit around and do nothing and watch the community crumble,” Brandt said.
Brandt has created a unique way for to offer support to dozens of local restaurants that are struggling during this tough time. Not only does she have T-shirts for sale for $25, but Brandt has also created a virtual tip jar in amounts from $5 all the way up to $500.
The document allows Metro Phoenix food and beverage industry workers to add their names and Venmo, PayPal or CashApp usernames to the list. Then anyone can send out-of-work bar and restaurant staff a “tip” directly into someone else’s account.
“We have an amazing and caring food community, and I was able to tap into many of those people that wanted to help and raise that money. Currently I’ve been giving out $1000 tips each week and we’ve given out $10,000 to unsuspecting people in the food industry,” Brandt said.
The food blogger says she loves being able to give back.
“People don’t know how to respond — a lot of people are like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Brandt said. “It’s been incredible to experience.”
Since March, Brandt has raised over $46,000 for local restaurants.
Despite the pandemic, Brandt remains optimistic about the future of food influencers and said she is certain careers such as hers will be “beneficial no matter how things shake out.”