How A Food Influencer Makes Money

Chicago food influencer Alex Jewell gives us insight into how the system works.

Alex Jewell is a Chicago-based lead software engineer in institutional blockchain, finance, and decentralized technology. But on Instagram, he's known as @bestfoodalex, and is a social media influencer here in Chicago specializing in food. He mainly covers local restaurants and occasionally reviews products and manages to maintain a loyal following doing so—he current has more than 32,000 Instagram followers.

His photos are full of hypersaturated colors, stretchy cheese pulls, dripping cheeseburgers, and brightly colored beverages. It's stuff that'll either have you salivating or wondering if you're hallucinating sometimes. But behind those mouthwatering images is a carefully calculated plan for not only keeping up the page, but monetizing it. I talked with Jewell on the phone to discuss the nitty gritty of just how this whole influencing thing works.

The Takeout: How did you start influencing?

Alex Jewell: When I started, the word wasn't super common yet. It was back in 2013, 2014, and I was just posting content of where I was. I was developing some hospitality relationships, and just posting naturally on Instagram about where I was going and what I was doing.

People around that time were moving away from traditional media sources and starting to follow people [on social media]. Hashtags were starting to blow up, and people were starting to look through specific hashtags and geolocations to try and find food.

Then Nev [Schulman], from Catfish [the TV show], came and spoke at DePaul [University], and I posted a picture of that, and he reposted that picture. I started getting followers that I didn't know, and it sort of, within that short amount of time, I suddenly had all these followers. And what they were engaging with the most was the food.

TO: Is that how it happens for other people?

AJ: I think it's changed dramatically. People are sort of creating brands for the intention of being influencers now, because they know the benefits of it, they want it so badly. That accidental thing isn't as common now anymore, it was a bit more common back then, an organic process, whereas now it's very intentional.

TO: How far in advance do you plan on posting stuff? Do you have a schedule?

AJ: It depends on what my agreements are. If I have sponsored content, there might be a timeline that I've agreed to. Post these three stories this date, post a Reel [Instagram video] this date, post the last three [Instagram] Stories on this date. Sometimes if it's part of a broader campaign, doesn't matter what my normal queue is, I have to follow that agreement. And then I fill the gaps between that.

So a lot of what I still post is still organic, what I want to eat, what I enjoy, so I post that whenever I want, and I filter that between the content that's expected. If I got a free meal somewhere and I really enjoyed it, and I want to post content from it, then I'm going to do that relatively quickly, so that the restaurant sort of sees that immediate return of having me there. And so that's a bit more freeform, filling in the gaps between solid dates where I have to post.

TO: Do you always get something in exchange for what you're posting?

AJ: Yeah, it's very common. Almost everything that I post is comped. And then if you see a post marked "ad" or see a "sponsored" hashtag, or an Instagram-official sponsored tag on the post, then that's where I get actually paid.

TO: I'm assuming those pay pretty well.

AJ: The one thing to know about pricing is that it's still somewhat of the Wild West, depending on which platforms you're posting to, and who the client is.

Sometimes they'll even come to you with what they're gonna pay and you have to decide whether that fits into your budget. Occasionally it's way more than what you would have told them. It depends on the situation.

TO: What's the low end, and what's the high end?

AJ: In general, it depends on your follower size, and even the time of year, when people are running certain campaigns. I charge anywhere between $600 to $1,200 for certain post packages.

That includes a feed post or two, a certain number of [Instagram] Stories along with it. Influencers of a similar size might charge three or four thousand dollars for the same thing. I know some who are maybe a little smaller who are charging quite a bit less, anywhere from $75 to $500. There's a range.

You might have a client like Panera, who's coming to you with a budget of $1,200 for two posts. You might have a client like Dunkin' who comes to you with even more. I worked with the Chicago Bears, who had a much larger budget, but there was a significant amount of extra work involved, and travel. So there's a lot of variables, but overall it pays pretty well for taking pictures of food and putting it up on the internet for likes.

TO: Do you approach people or do they approach you?

AJ: Some people [influencers] try to get the attention of advertisers, they sometimes reach out directly and say like, hey, I really like your product.

The reality is if you're posting good content, you're posting it consistently, advertisers see that some of your posts are doing really well. On Instagram not every post is going to do very well, but if they see consistent growth and consistent high quality content, you're going to be developing relationships with PR [firms].

To be completely honest, I say no to a lot more than what I say yes to, and it's a pretty constant stream of options when you develop those PR relationships. It's kind of taboo in my opinion to "cold-ask." If you're doing the right things, they'll be reaching out to you frequently.

TO: Is this an ethical code that good influencers follow?

AJ: There's different ideology camps. I would say it's probably a mixture of both. Personally, since it's a side source of revenue and I do it for fun, I don't need to constantly convert. So I can be a lot more picky, a lot more relaxed with not making as much money with all my content.

I wouldn't say that I hold it against everybody who does reach out to advertisers, but personally I think if you're doing the right things, you shouldn't need to.

TO: You want to create relationships with people you trust.

AJ: Exactly. You don't want to be the person who's always reaching out, asking to get paid for content. You want to be the person who's doing such a good job at what you create that they see you as a fit to the campaign.

TO: How many paid posts would you say you do on average?

AJ: In a month, I'm probably doing two or three. People who are doing it full time might be doing two or three a week, or more. It depends on how much you want to milk out of it, and how picky you are in terms of alignment.

I might say no to a lot of things that wouldn't resonate well with my audience. Then it's not even a good match in terms of what the return for the client would be. If they're trying to sell a protein bar, my followers don't follow me for health food [laughs].

You should want it to be a successful campaign for the customer. You want the client to see the return of working with you. You have to be picky no matter what.