Food Influencers Are Still Gramming, Pandemic or Not

But DCFoodPorn's Justin Schuble says he hasn't made a penny in weeks.

DCFoodPorn, run by Georgetown grad Justin Schuble, has more than half a million followers on Instagram. Photograph courtesy Justin Schuble.
Coronavirus 2020

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Justin Schuble has more than half a million followers on his @DCFoodPorn Instagram account and has been making a full-time living off of sponsored travel and food posts since graduating from Georgetown University in 2017. (Read our profile of him here.) With restaurants closed and travel discouraged, we asked what he’s ‘gramming, how he’s getting by, and how influencers will survive.

Where are you right now?

I am hunkered down in Boca Raton with my family. I’ve been here for the last couple weeks and probably for the foreseeable future.

What are you posting pictures of these days?

It’s definitely been tricky from the influencer side, especially not being home, so I can’t even get stuff delivered to shoot. I’ve been a posting a combination of recipes and old content and trying to make it relevant and resourceful and make sense given what’s happening. It’s been a balancing act of getting out information, keeping people entertained, and doing all of that without being able to leave my house.

I don’t know if you know about TidBit [a social-networking restaurant app with which Schuble partners]. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff on there, creating lists of places that are doing takeout and delivery and updating that every day.

Is there anything you’ve cooked for content while you’re down there?

I barely have any pots or pans or anything here. I’ve been able to do a few super simple things. I want to do my banana bread recipe and do a video of that. There’s this place in Miami called Midtown Creamery. They do some really cool stuff, and I’ve been posting videos from there to try to encourage people to recreate them at home.

Have you been ordering takeout with the purpose of feeding your following?

A combination of feeding my following and feeding myself. I’ve been trying to be more curated, talking about how to help instead of singling out individual restaurants. I know that can be tricky because everyone needs help. I only post once a day, so I have to use that post to help as many people as possible. I did a post for Little Sesame. They were donating meals for every $10 in gift cards that you bought from them. So I donated myself and posted about that.

Is that sponsored content?

No. I have not made a penny in weeks. Definitely everything is organic and trying to help. Nothing is sponsored right now.

Are any brands paying right now?

Right now, everyone is trying to figure out the best way to move forward in a way that’s not insensitive. Even partnerships that I had slated for this time have been put on hold.

Are you actually getting more likes and views now just because everyone’s home and staring at their phones all day?

It’s been weird. It’s gone up and done. The first few days, crazy views on stories and on posts and video views. It was way up because everyone was on their phones, and then I think everyone started to oversaturate social media. So then I was like, ‘How can I take a step back and figure out what makes sense to post, what doesn’t?’ I think it’s kind of mellowed out. People are on their phones a lot, but they’re also finding other ways to fill their time.

Do you think there’s any particular kind of content that does really well on Instagram right now?

That’s the million dollar question. I think the problem is different people want to see different things. Certain people are very interested in who’s doing takeout, where can I order food from. Some people are afraid to even go near all of that and just want to cook at home, so they just want recipes. Other people want content to not even mention this and be a distraction. It’s hard to navigate all of that. I’ve been trying to kind of provide a little bit of everything and remain sensitive to what’s happening with each and every thing I post.

I know you are friends with a lot of other food influencers around the country. What kind of conversations are you guys having?

We’re talking every day. I feel like this changes hourly, what’s ok to talk about, what’s happening. We went from eating out and being careful to doing carryout and delivery so quickly. In between, it was like, what’s the right advice to give people? We’re not health care professionals. Do we encourage people to eat out because that’s what’s best for restaurants? Or do we encourage people to stay home because that’s what’s best for everyone’s health and safety? I think our audiences helped us determine that. You’d post something and you’d get a certain reaction and realize, ok, this is how people feel.

You make your living off of your social media and these industries—restaurants, travel—that have been devastated. Do you think being a food influencer will still be a viable career when this all shakes out?

It’s obviously something that I’ve thought about. I know my situation and my friends, we’re definitely not making any money right now. Luckily, we don’t have employees, we don’t really have overhead, we don’t rent space, so we can get by for a little bit. But in the long run, it’ll definitely be interesting to see how this will play out.

I know certain brands and certain people are doing just fine. Like a lot of alcohol companies and a lot of other people outside of restaurants are definitely ok. A lot of us don’t make the majority of our money through restaurants. We make it through other brand partners, and restaurants are really just kind of the everyday content that people want to see, and we either pay for it or we get free food.

So I don’t think in that sense it’s totally scary. I think it’s really just a matter of when can we get back to normal and be able to go to restaurants? And will restaurants still be around? And the way people eat out, is that going to change?  But it’s definitely not like, oh, I’m cutting this off. It’s more like, how else can I diversify? What else can I be doing?

When you say you’re trying to do more outside of Instagram, are there other examples of that?

Nothing really set in stone right now, but I definitely have my mind going on other things I can do. I’ve always wanted to do that. I think this has just been a push to start thinking in that direction. You can’t rely on one platform or one thing for my entire business.

How do you think the influencer community in general will change because of this crisis?

I have a lot of friends that are travel influencers, and they’ve definitely been hit really hard by this. I think this will definitely change the way people perceive travel and the way they do things. Right now, restaurants are struggling, but when this all dies down, I don’t think people are going to be scared to go eat out in restaurants. But they may be scared to travel all around the world.

I think influencers are always looked at really closely in times like this. People dissect what we’re saying, how we’re reacting. They look to us to get information, but also to be entertained and also to say all the right things. It’s just a lesson to all of us that in times of crisis, we have to use our influence for good. It just has us all thinking a little deeper and beyond the perfect world of Instagram.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.