Food bloggers change the way you eat
It's Saturday morning and, under a sky the colour of dirty wool, Kalliana Kong is photographing her breakfast.
The light isn't quite right for the artistic shot she wants, so the 27-year-old jiggles the plate of smashed avocado and toast around. Less than a minute later, everyone from Stockholm to Tanzania can see the artfully arranged, now lukewarm, breakfast Kong is about to scoff.
Kong is one half of Wellingnoms, female food bloggers who've racked up around 10,000 followers since publishing their first Instagram post in August 2015. They're part of the growing band of food bloggers/influencers whose skill is to make you want what they're having.
There's nothing these social media wunderkinds won't eat, drink or cook without telling the world about it.
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Most are young, many are female, almost all share a love for exclamation marks and an allergy to spell-check.
But in the brave new media world, that matters little. Over the past few years, food (and fashion and beauty) blogging has become a powerful disrupter that has democratised the media landscape, allowing anyone with a phone and an internet connection to become an authoritative voice with a loyal and often large fan-base (Molly Yeh, one of the US's leading food bloggers, has 228K followers who daily devour her mouth-watering photos and restaurant recommendations).
And where the cool kids go, so the marketers have followed.
"With more than 200 million pieces of content a minute, it's essential that brands find a way to beak through the noise," says Kirsty Sharman of online marketing agency, Webfluential. "Influencer marketing is a proven way to do this."
That's why bloggers are invited to restaurant openings and product launches, given free meals and lavished with everything from chocolate to alcohol. Increasingly, they'll also collaborate with food companies/eateries to advertise their products (for which they're paid).
In return, they'll spend hours creating content, engaging with their followers and passionately sharing their mainly positive views, thoughts and interests (most bloggers don't trade in negative reviews).
Such is the power that food bloggers wield, a restaurant in New York was recently designed with the best "Instagram moments" in mind. "We had to consider where to put the tables and what kind of lighting to use so that guests could capture the best photos," the architect was reported as saying.
We spoke to four local food bloggers/influencers to find out what they're doing, and how they're doing it.
Yum yum, Wellingnoms
Until a few years ago, Kong's main interest in food was in eating it. The first generation Cambodian New Zealander grew up in a food-oriented family where the focus was on traditional home cooking. "Both my parents drive taxis so we didn't eat out very often but we did a lot of cooking at home," says Kong, who now lives with her partner Sam.
When she started work at a government department, Kong gravitated towards colleague Hannah Megennis (26). "We were the only females in our team, we're around the same age and we bonded over our love of food and eating out," says Megennis.
Naturally, they started photographing the lunches they bought each day.
"We realised we had lots of food photos and nowhere to put them, so we started Wellingnoms."
Megennis, whose partner John owns Memphis Belle cafe, has seen first-hand how hard people in hospitality work. "Wellingnoms is a way for us to get people to try different cuisines and to support local bars and restaurants."
The pair put their success partly down to the fact they're anonymous - "We don't have our names or faces out there, so we can be as honest as we like" – and partly because they were one of the first in the Capital to jump on the Instagram bandwagon.
"People love seeing photos of food but New Zealand is definitely behind the rest of the world when to comes to food blogging. We got in at the start and now there are lots of others doing it, which is great."
They try to post at least once a day, usually what they're having for lunch, dinner or coffee breaks, and estimate they spend around $200 a month each eating out.
"But we try to focus on things like daily specials, so two-for-one deals or $10 cocktails because, like our followers, we're also on a budget!"
They're invited to launches/openings on average once a month ("not as often as people think") and have been involved in a couple of collaborations to date, including working with AllBirds shoes and Garage Project beer.
So are there any downsides to being food bloggers? "The damage to our waistlines," they say in unison. "Both of us go the gym several times a week but we can't lie to our personal trainers anymore because they can see from our Instagram feeds what we've been eating."
The Baker Gatherer
When Dane McGregor hit on the idea of combining his two loves – a lolly log and a cheesecake – he had no idea it would lead to a career as a social media influencer.
But when The Edge radio station spotted McGregor's lolly log cheesecake, his trickle of followers turned into a flood.
Fast forward two years and Hamilton-based McGregor, who goes by the name Baker Gatherer, has a loyal and committed following on Instagram (3,000) and Facebook (7,000). His website gets a respectable 6,000 hits each month.
In 2016, McGregor was signed to an Auckland agency which brokers sponsorship deals between himself and major companies such as Chelsea Sugar, Edmonds and Kenwood.
"I use their products to come up with new recipes and write sponsored posts about it," says McGregor (30).
No-one is more surprised by his success than McGregor, who runs Baker Gatherer around his day job as a kindergarten teacher.
"It started so simply – I love lolly cake and cheesecake and couldn't believe no-one else had put them together before," he says from the home he shares with his long-time partner, Jared.
Combining different Kiwi classics has become somewhat of a signature for McGregor who refers to it as "Frankensteining recipes".
"I trained as a graphic designer so love to channel that creativity into the kitchen. My whole thing is about experimenting and seeing what happens."
Cue a social media feed featuring doughnut cakes, beer and bacon brownies and Afghan cupcakes.
McGregor admits he'll often spend all weekend in the kitchen, testing various combinations and painstakingly styling and photographing the results. He usually takes the spoils to work as his partner doesn't have a sweet tooth.
He believes his popularity - mainly 18-24 year-old females – is because he's "a tattooed guy who bakes".
"That's something different for New Zealand. But I really enjoy the feedback I get, especially when someone tells me how much they enjoyed making one of my recipes."
McGregor, who took up kindergarten teaching after volunteering with five-year-olds in Mozambique, says as much as he enjoys working with children, he'd like to parlay his success into a full-time career.
"If I could bake all day, I wouldn't be too sad..."
Sourcing affordable gluten free food
When a pot of boiling oil exploded, burning Ashleigh Burgess' face, chest and arms and putting her in hospital for two weeks she, understandably, had no desire to return to the kitchen.
But a few months after the accident, which occurred while she was making chips, the then 17-year-old realised she loved cooking – and eating – too much to avoid the kitchen.
Four years ago, when Burgess (now 28) and her electrician partner Casey moved to Christchurch from Rotorua, Burgess discovered she was gluten intolerant.
"We'd just bought a house and didn't have much money," she says. "Gluten free (GF) food is so expensive and I couldn't find great recipes, so I started creating my own."
In mid 2015, a friend suggested Burgess start an Instagram account, the Food Nest NZ. It didn't take long for people to notice her concoctions, including gnocchi made with rice flour, dark chocolate almond tarts and rosemary and chia seed crackers.
A Facebook page and website soon followed and today Burgess' followers (mainly Kiwis and Australian women aged 22-35) number around 3,000 (Instagram) and 1,400 on Facebook, while her website attracts around 5,000 visitors a month.
"Growth has been organic but the main thing for me has been connecting with a community of people who want great tasting, but economical, GF food. People tell me I've made their lives easier, which is the best feedback you can get."
Burgess recently starting working on sponsorship deals with brands such as Equal Sugar.
The former regional TV presenter spends around 20 hours a week testing recipes, styling and photographing them before uploading them to her various social media channels. This is fitted around her full-time job as a marketing co-ordinator.
"Sometimes I'll spend most of the weekend in the kitchen, but Casey doesn't mind as he gets to eat everything I make!"
It can get expensive, especially when recipes don't work out. "I've had some real disasters, such as GF bread and hot cross buns, which I tried three times and then gave up. But I think that's why my followers like me because I'm honest about what does and doesn't work. My aim is to be as authentic as possible."
To be an influencer
Victoria Bostan and Alana Hepburn hate the term 'influencer'. But there's no denying the influence the 23-year-olds have over their followers (7,500 on Instagram and around 1,000 website visits a month).
As is obvious from the stampede the Wellingtonians caused just before Easter when they discovered a cafe was serving coffee in chocolate Easter eggs. The pair, who blog under the name CapitalEats, tried one ("the coffee melts the chocolate and it's basically like a thick hot chocolate," says Bostan), posted a picture of it on Instagram and within hours there was a line of customers round the block eager to sample the pair's recommendation.
"The cafe owner told us business had exploded and it was all because of us," laughs Hepburn. "But that's what CapitalEats is all about – sharing cool food experiences and places for people to try."
Boston was born in Romania, but moved to Whangarei when she was eight; Hepburn was born in Perth but also relocated to Whangarei as a child. The pair didn't know each other growing up but met when both were living in Victoria University's Weir House.
Five years on, they share everything: from a love of good food and their adopted city to an apartment and the identical Tiffany necklaces they never take off.
As with all the best enterprises, CapitalEats started with a need that wasn't being filled. "If you wanted to know where to get the best smoothie bowls in Wellington or the best five-spice chicken, there wasn't anywhere to go."
In August 2015, the pair set up their Instagram account; images of brunches, lunches and dinners soon appeared, as did their followers.
The blog was started last year, mainly as a way to provide more in-depth reviews of restaurants. They estimate they spend a few hours a day on both social media channels.
"But we never stop thinking about food, places or things we can recommend," says Hepburn. "We especially love being the first to discover a new product or cafe."
The pair eat out five times a week, mostly at economical restaurants. "We like burgers and curry, we're simple girls at heart," jokes Bostan, a public servant. That still puts their dining bill at around $200 each a month.
"Everyone has to eat to stay alive, but food is our hobby and compared to how much some people spend on their hobbies, $200 a month isn't too bad."
Bostan and Hepburn get their fair share of invites to launches and openings, in return for positive reviews ("If something's bad we won't mention it"). They've also worked on a sponsorship deal with Wellington's Library Bar, where they attend menu launches and give away drinks/meals to their followers.
But probably the biggest win has been for Hepburn, a former PA, who recently landed her dream job at Sputnik PR.
"I'd met the Sputnik team at various events and they liked what were were doing with CapitalEats. Lots of their accounts are food and beverage related so it's the perfect job."