The Wild, Wild West of Philly’s Food Influencer Scene

Longform

The recommendations of TikTok or Instagram are what Philly diners use to spend their money. It’s the democratization of food criticism. What could go wrong?

From top left, clockwise: Chicken and waffles from City Winery (by Josh Moore); @PhillyFoodLadies at Temple graduation (courtesy Josh Pellegrini); Chicago-style pizza from Hook & Master; Josh Moore at Southern Cross(by Josh Pellegrini); Cassandra Matthews in Cira Green (courtesy Cassandra Matthews); dan dan pasta at Han Dynasty by Josh Moore; a cocktail at Rex At the Royal (by PhillyFoodLadies); dan noodles at Han Dynasty dan noodles at Han Dynasty)

Josh Moore uploaded a seven-second video on TikTok on May 4, 2022. It was just like he does every other day. The clip begins as a sped-up rendition of Daft Punk’s “Around the World” plays. The screen is filled with waves that rippling in Delaware River below the Ben Franklin Bridge. The text box says: “Things to do in Philly, Liberty Point.”Next, a southern-facing shot of the river shows the part of the sky that has already turned pink. Turn slowly and create a frozen tie-dye swirl with red and yellow booze in an old plastic cup. The cheesesteak should be held aloft, all blotchy, and spotted with provolone. “Great vibes, drinks, & food right on the Delaware River,” a new text box declares. “The ultimate summer destination in Philly!”

Moore’s Liberty Point video has been viewed 12,400 times on TikTok, the popular social media app that lets users upload short videos paired with trending audio clips. This is just one of hundreds of similar videos that capture the newly opened waterfront spot. It is said to have been the largest restaurant in Philadelphia’s history. “Who’s excited to check out Liberty Point on the Delaware River Waterfront in Philly?” Moore’s caption reads. Commenter: “I’m there.”Another chimes in: “I see all the Philly influencers were at the same spot.” 

@josheatsphilly Who’s excited to check out Liberty Point on the Delaware River Waterfront in Philly? #thingstodo #thingstodoinphilly #philly #philadelphia #phillycheck #phillytiktok #phillytok #phillyrestaurant #delawareriver #outdoordining #drinks #spring #summer #summervibes ♬ оригинальный звук – нася

In 2022 Philadelphians will discover local restaurants on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. These diners, who are typically between 18 and 34 years old, scroll through videos of restaurants with happy hours offering $6 frozen margaritas and patios decorated in bright flowers in search of their next Friday night. These diners are not guided to small businesses or reviewed by journalists, but by a new, democratic breed of influencers. Armed with handheld lights and looping autotuned background sounds, TikTok and Instagram restaurant influencers are reaching hungry new audiences and encouraging younger generations of diners to explore their city at a time when all restaurants — even the longtime ­classics — are eager for customers. 

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It may not be obvious, but behind the scenes lies a seldom seen reality for food influencers as well as hospitality PR agencies. The ethics of local restaurant coverage are compared to the ethics behind paid content production in this ecosystem. Video posts are exchanged for free meals — or in some cases thousands of dollars. The success of a restaurant experience is a condition of work. In many cases, posts are agreed before the influencer even eats. Publicists host grand opening parties, where they invite guests who will help them paint a picture of the restaurant. The world of Philly influencer marketing is new, ever-­changing and unregulated. It’s giving power to those who know how to harness it, and it’s messy with questions about the dynamics that exist off-screen. But when you’re scrolling online, you may only catch the part that lights up your phone. 

When I meet Josh Moore at Café La Maude in Northern Liberties, we order the same breakfast: a platter with soft scrambled eggs, curly-greasy bacon, white toast, and two hash-brown patties that taste like glam cousins of the frozen variety sold at Trader Joe’s. Moore has agreed to share a meal with me without any content production. Moore says that if he had come to take photos and videos of food for his TikTok or Instagram accounts, he would have chosen a pancake meal or a tower with French toast. “When I go to a place for content creation, I don’t order what I actually want to eat. I order what I think will do well.’”

Moore goes online @josheatsphilly — a local food influencer interested in tacos, cocktails colored so vividly they might have electricity running through them, and miraculously non-drippy ice-cream cones. In real life, he is a financial analyst. He’s sunny-sweet, Jersey-born, earnest and professional. He speaks with the same gravitas that any CEO or business owner when describing his social media side gig.

Moore joined Instagram in 2011, a year before he would download TikTok a few years later. He created his account as a brand-new Philadelphian, hoping to make friends by going out to as many restaurants and bars as he could, posting about his experiences, and fostering online connections as he shared his world in ­photos. One day, Moore’s brother gave him the idea to treat Instagram like a personal blog. Moore began to record his favorite Philly restaurants via still photos tinted with sepia filter (as was the custom). Soon, the account was a trusted resource for many strangers. They often used it to send direct messages asking Moore for honest restaurant reviews or if he could recommend a spot for a date night in Center City. Moore changed his social strategy to prioritize videos in 2019 and 2020. This allowed him to tell the story about a restaurant better than a single picture of a dish. Suddenly, restaurants — new ones and tenured spots, all struggling to fill seats in the age of ­COVID — came knocking. 

“Because of the following I’ve amassed, I’ve had a lot of restaurants reach out to me,”Moore: “and they’re like, ‘Hey, can you come and feature us, we’d love to have you.’”Moore, a restaurant owner who prefers to remain anonymous, reached out last spring to seek advice. The owner had just opened a sushi shop on Market Street and wanted to attract people to the relatively remote location. After Moore recommended online exposure, the owner offered a complimentary meal in exchange for a promotional TikTok video and an Instagram Reel on ­@josheatsphilly. Moore had never been to this restaurant before he agreed that he would work with the owner. Moore arrived, ate his sushi, and filmed his footage. He also had a consultation with the owner about how to best present the food to his @josheatsphilly followers on Instagram and TikTok. Moore has a total of 25,700 followers on TikTok, and 72,800 on Instagram. Moore’sTikTok video of this meal has been viewed approximately 9,500 times.

Christina Mitchell, a Philly influencer, said that the expectation of receiving free meals and collaborating with a restaurant via social media is unspoken. “If you’re actually being invited,”She explains. “there is more pressure to make the video better.”Sometimes these pressures are contractual. “I won’t say what specific restaurant this is,” Mitchell’s dining partner, Rebecca Neckritz, tells me, “but we were invited to a restaurant and then given a list of words we couldn’t say about the restaurant. I remember we couldn’t say the phrase ‘meat sweats.’” 

Neckritz and Mitchell are behind this local. TikTok Instagram@PhillyFoodLadies. After the two were assigned as first-year roommates at Temple University in 2017, it didn’t take long for them to find something in common: Both grew up in the Philly area wanting to be food critics. As a kid, Neckritz was an obsessive reader of Craig LaBan’s restaurant reviews in the Inquirer. “I want that to be my job,”She recalls thinking. “But there’s only one of them, and he already has the job.”The roomies formed a shared bond during their first year at college. food Instagram account with long diary-style captions, just for fun — a way to keep track of their various Philly meals and tell friends about them. After posting a photo, their favorite Vietnamese restaurant offered them free pho. “We were like 18 years old, and we were very excited about this,” Neckritz says. “I remember they were the first ones to ever offer us anything in return for posting.” 

Neckritz and Mitchell turned their attention to TikTok and growing their Instagram accounts after campus social life was cut off by the pandemic. They set out on a mission to highlight Philly’s best happy-hour deals, rooftop views, and bars with unique elements like mini golf or board games. They strategically followed local restaurants and other food influencers online in hopes of getting the coveted ­follow-back. They reached out to Philly businesses for collaborations and were quickly inundated with free products in the mail — everything from ice cream to cold-brew concentrate. Their online community grew beyond the Temple’s initial reach. The @PhillyFoodLadies TikTok Instagram account had more than 15,000 followers by the time we spoke this spring. 

Though both women wanted to be food critics in childhood, neither considers herself a critic now — not even with a following of Philadelphians watching their restaurant recommendations. The distinction between online restaurant critic and food influencer is much more complicated than most critics would like. Mitchell and Neckritz have the title of “online food influencer” when we discuss this topic. “critic” literally, pointing out that they’re not critics because they only post positive reviews. These days, though, restaurant reviews largely follow the same uplifting-takes-only model as the influencer’s work. The most important distinction between restaurant critics and restaurant influencers is payment.

While Mitchell and Neckritz say they often receive free meals in exchange for creating online content recommending restaurants, they’ve also been paid for their work by local restaurants, big brands like Dunkin’, and the Center City District, for coverage of Restaurant Week. Their ambitions for the accounts have little to do with cash flow, however, since their @PhillyFoodLadies income isn’t currently “self-sustaining” and they’ve both accepted full-time jobs after graduating from Temple earlier this year. (Mitchell works as a public health researcher and Neckritz in social media marketing. “Our goal is to uplift small businesses,” Neckritz says. “We want to help out restaurants.” The money they’ve made through influencing mostly comes via working with big brands rather than restaurants themselves. “You need a lot of followers to make this into an actual full-time job — at least a couple hundred thousand,” Mitchell says. Mitchell says.

Influencer marketing is still relatively new. There are no standards for payment and the per-video rates in Philly vary widely. “I’ve heard people say their rate is $200,” Mitchell says. “I’ve heard other people say their rate is $1,000 per video.”The Philly Food Ladies are only paid “a couple of times”Local restaurants. They tell me that those eager to work with influencers are typically smaller businesses looking to boost their customer bases and can’t always afford to pay in cash rather than free food. 

Moore and the Philly Food Ladies made it clear that not all Philly restaurants featured on their accounts welcome them in for free meals, or paid content creation. “I think there’s this misconception that influencers get everything for free,”Moore: “Some people see the number of followers I have, and I think they just assume I get everything for free and that I’m getting paid to post, and that’s not the case.” The local businesses that Moore promotes organically — that is, without complimentary meals, event invitations or payment involved — don’t know he’s coming. He often pops into restaurants with his ring light — a small handheld device that illuminates the table and lends a high-contrast, flashy quality to the footage — in tow. For those visits, Moore typically requests a table in a dark corner where he won’t bother anyone. He’s used to being yelled at by other diners: “I’ve had people glare at me. This one lady was like, ‘You’re disturbing my day.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m working right now.’”

Recommending restaurants that he isn’t being paid to promote allows Moore to “maintain authenticity”He says this on his account. In part, authenticity is displaying his identity as a Black queer male and promoting restaurants that reflect his background. He notes that he’s still working through the ethical balance of posting about restaurants he visits on his own (and wholeheartedly approves of) and videos that result from restaurants offering to work with him for free food or compensation. Moore has never been invited to a restaurant, received a complimentary meal, and then decided not to post a TikTok or Instagram Reel — even if the restaurant experience has its bumps. When the food tastes great but the ambience or service isn’t commendable, Moore says, he’ll feature the meal on his page and write something of a disclaimer to his online audience. (“Just be aware you might have to wait, things get really busy there.”) If the reverse is true — if service goes off without a hitch but the food disappoints — Moore will choose a dish he likes and focus his energy there. 

Taking payments from certain restaurants in exchange for content — in addition to receiving free food — further complicates the overall transparency of Moore’s page authenticity: “I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to, like, Café La Maude, ‘Hey, pay me $500 so I can post a Reel.’ I can’t expect that from every single restaurant, for one.” If a restaurant does compensate him for a post, Moore says, he tries to offer an additional service — social media consulting, say, or photos he takes with his professional camera rather than his iPhone. “Influencer marketing is still the wild, wild West,”He says. “It’s still so new, especially here in Philadelphia, where I feel like not everyone gets it yet. So it’s hard to say to restaurants, ‘Here’s my rate,’ and then the next day post something for a restaurant that didn’t pay me. What value is the restaurant that paid you getting?” 

Moore states that when Moore contacts local PR reps to inquire about an invitation they seldom ask about rates. “I think from their perspective, they’re working with hundreds of influencers in the city. If I say no, someone else is going to say yes.” When it’s an individual restaurant seeking exposure, he says, it’s different — “I feel like they want me, they want my story, they want my storytelling. I feel like it’s a more personal connection.”

The influencers in this story all agree that a viewer is more likely to engage with a restaurant video that appears to be coming from a heartfelt place of recommendation rather than one that reads like a restaurant ad — even if that video is quite literally an ad without the audience knowing it. (Instagram’s and TikTok’sBranded content policiesWhen posting branded content, users must toggle on a paid partner label. Instagram defines branded material as “a creator or publisher’s content that features or is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value.”In practice, Philadelphia influencers posting videos about free meals or paid job opportunities are unlikely to follow these rules. For instance, Moore’s TikTok of the sushi place doesn’t disclose that it’s promotional content, even though he notes that his Wawa Instagram Reels(Advertisements are included in the captions. These influencers say their most-watched TikTok videos and Instagram Reels videos feature hyper-local, visually-exciting spots that are unique to Philly. 

Returned to the Luis Tuz realized he had a talent in the mid-’90s. Tuz was a server at Tequilas RestaurantHe discovered he could balance a cocktail on his head and bring it to a table in Center City. Even before the dawn of viral TikToks and Reels, regulars loved Tuz’s cocktail trick. Two decades later, that trick is bringing a new, younger customer base to the restaurant, Tequilas owner David Suro-Piñera says: “People say, you know, obviously they saw that on social media, or their friends told them about it. They ask for it: ‘We hear there are some servers that bring the cocktails on their heads.’”

Suro-Piñera has owned the Mexican restaurant since the day it opened in 1986. It’s set in a historic building, with architectural details that date back to the 1860s. Suro-Piñera and his kids, David Jr., Elisa and Dan Marcos, now run the business together, with Elisa helping out with bookkeeping and reaching out to influencers to invite them to visit. Suro-Piñera says the team doesn’t currently pay any influencers to create content: “Yeah, we don’t see the need yet.”They may offer a few appetizers or a round of drinks to those who are active on social media.

Suro-Piñera will be the first to tell you he doesn’t quite understand social media. But he’s got no complaints about the new diners finding his business through TikTok and Instagram videos of his servers carrying cocktails on their heads. “It’s something that adds to the casual, very unique atmosphere of the restaurant,”He says. “We are a formal-dining, tablecloth restaurant. But we still have fun.” Suro-Piñera and his team recently redesigned the interior, in part to appeal to new generations of customers. “It’s very interesting,”He says, “to see the social media really help us present that to this new, young audience.” His happy hours draw in the crowds, but slinging discounted drinks isn’t always profitable. Suro-Piñera says it’s worth it to get younger customers in the door, since they might order food or come back again. 

Kory Aversa thinks You can find out all you need to know about influencers. He thinks about how they post, who they are, which ones are receiving invites to his parties and which ones aren’t. Aversa owns Aversa PR & Events (a local public relations company) that hosts more “media and VIP”Events at local restaurants outperform any competitors in the market. According to Its websiteAversa PR has 125 clients in the area, including Dim Sum House, Garces Group, and Uptown Beer Garden.

Aversa’s interest in social media influencers increased “5,000-fold,”He says that Reels and TikTok gained popularity in 2020. He saw a potential use for people who were active online in the early days of the pandemic. “The media outlets sort of shifted gears,”Aversa said. “They were covering more important and larger pandemic topics.”This left a gap in the “what he calls” “micro-stories,” or reporting on individual restaurants’ offerings: a new brunch, a revamped happy hour, an opening. Aversa PR’s media gap was filled by the help of Instagram and TikTok influencers. They could capture a restaurant’s frozen margarita or spacious outdoor patio more dynamically than a press release ever could, particularly in the age of what Aversa describes as “vibe dining.” A 10-second TikTok of a new restaurant shows how diners are dressing or interacting — even what the bathroom looks like. “These days,”Aversa: “you literally could know every single thing about a restaurant before you get in.”

Soon enough, Aversa began inviting Philly influencers to client restaurants’ parties so they could capture content before the public got to check the spots out. “PR parties used to be more media-based prior to the pandemic,”He says. “Now we have clients that, you know, they want their media, but they’re separating it where media might come on a different day or are treated differently. There are entire events that are just for influencers and content creators.” Aversa might invite 100 influencers to a single event — and each invitation comes with directives about posting. Some are written down; some aren’t. 

@phillypublicist Hey besties 👋 Philly Tok came out ready to party at Liberty Point #phillytok #phillyeats #phillyfoodies #phillyinfluencer #foodies #grandopening #phillycheck #influencersinthewild ♬ original sound – averyloro

Aversa PR events invite influencers to post a minimum of one grid post and at most three stories. Aversa states that these guidelines are explained prior to the event. “If you’re coming to this event and you like it and enjoy it and you want to share it, here’s what we’re looking for.” (These party-posting parameters aren’t unique to Aversa PR events. The magazine hosted an event for influencers over the summer. Local influencers were given a free ticket and encouraged to share the experience via posts, stories or both. If an influencer isn’t impressed by an event or a meal, Aversa wants to hear about it privately rather than see the sentiment expressed online: “Let’s learn from it. Let’s fix what’s wrong, and let’s have you back another time.” He says he isn’t shy about changing up the guest list. Aversa recalls one instance when he dropped an influencer because she didn’t adequately describe an event. “authentic chip”at a Mexican restaurant. He claims that she posted a TikTok, describing her disgust for the chip and not providing context or education about it, as the restaurant staff had offered her during her meal.

Despite the control Aversa attempts to exert over influencers’ content, he considers them collaborators rather than contractors: “I’d say we’re partnering with them.”In less than 5 percent of cases, he pays influencers for attendance at events or TikTok posts. “I want them to come because they love food, they feel passionate about it,”He says. “This goes to the Kory TikTok side of me and being an influencer myself. I want people like me, like Philly Publicist.” 

That would be Aversa’s personal TikTok account. @PhillyPublicistJust happens to be the most viewed TikTok video in Philadelphia history — a clip of two hippopotamuses catching pumpkins in their mouths at the Zoo that went viral in 2021, with 54.4 million plays. He has 97,800 followers on his personal TikTok account — more than twice as many as Moore and the Philly Food Ladies combined. He posts videos of himself at restaurants and takes photos of the places he visits. He also promotes the restaurant clients he does public relations work for. He also uses the account for PR defense. In July, a Philly ride-share driver posted a TikTok relaying an allegation he’d heard from one of his riders: The rider’s boyfriend had recently been roofied at a popular restaurant. Aversa used @PhillyPublicist to refute the accusation and commented on the ride-share driver’s call. “You’re causing drama against a business.” He didn’t mention that he was working for the restaurant.

FCM Hospitality Group and Avram Hornik, the owner of Liberty Point, hired Aversa PR to make sure a big opening with lots of online buzz. Liberty Point was to be billed as Philadelphia’s largest restaurant to date, capable of seating 1,400 people at a time. “The new ­outdoor-indoor concept features three main levels, five bars, food, drink, live entertainment, beautiful landscaping, lush plants, blooming flowers, unique vibes and the best views of the waterfront,”Aversa’s May 4th press release. Aversa released a press release a few months before the official press release. Posted a TikTokHis personal account promoting the new restaurant. It shows him on the ground floor of Liberty Point with Dua Lipa’s “Love Again”Playing as text flashes over his head: “When you are about to announce another brand new restaurant and it’s the biggest one in Philadelphia history. Here we go all again.” In the video’s comment section, Aversa included a link for viewers to apply to work at Liberty Point, which in turn attracted more than 50 staff applications. Elsewhere in the comment section, he pinned a message encouraging viewers to enter a contest to win tickets to Liberty Point’s media party, making sure to publicly respond to specific influencers’ comments that they should watch for invites coming soon. “Best party ever!”He wrote. “Stay tuned!”

@phillypublicist Philly’s largest restaurant in history is coming and I’m the PR! #phillyeats #phillyfood #phillyrestaurant #newrestaurant #phillytok #foodpr #foodie ♬ Love Again – Dua Lipa

Aversa invites influencers for content, but @PhillyPublicist is the man behind it. Aversa is paid to do his job and enjoys the social benefits associated with being an influencer. “It’s a great way to get out the word about my clients in a different way, and I love being able to share the news of all these openings and give people an insider view,”He says.

The power Aversa has over Philadelphia influencers rests on the willingness of those who want to follow his rules. Many of them do so in order to remain on his guest list. Cassandra Matthews doesn’t.

It wasn’t long ago that Matthews said to Aversa that she had a negative experience at one of his restaurants, and was uncomfortable sharing about it on her popular blog. TikTokOr Instagram accounts, @cass_andthecity. Matthews states that she was removed by Aversa PR invitation list. She adds that Aversa didn’t warn her or communicate why she’d been dropped. Aversa disagrees with this claim. “We collaborated with her on a partnership and we hadn’t heard back. We gave her space to finish the content, and we communicated several times along the way, in writing and on the phone. As soon as the partnership was finished, we regrouped and moved forward with opportunities that were a fit for her and our clients.”

In the early days of the pandemic — two years before she had heard of Kory Aversa — ­Matthews was at home, just like everybody else. Her steady job as assistant director of a local gym gymnastics seemed less promising as she watched the world collapse. Matthews used social media to distract and connect. She downloaded TikTok, and discovered a Philadelphia lane for spotlighting small businesses and restaurants. “I saw a couple of New York City TikToks pop up on my page, and I was like, ‘Huh, nobody is doing this in Philly, and there is so much here.’”She decided to give it a try, sharing her Philly lifestyle and favorite spots with anyone who might be looking online.

Matthews began to make sub-30 second montages while driving to local businesses wearing a mask. In October 2020, Matthews posted her first post. She highlighted the Cheesecake Lady in Elkins Park, a small Black-owned bakery owned by a mother-daughter team. The video’s voice-over, paired with a dinging harmony that behaves like a meditative video-game soundtrack, explains that the Cheesecake Lady’s colorful cakes sell out every day the place opens. You have to be there early and hope for the worst in order to get one. She thought it was perfect for TikTok. Her videoAbout that “hidden gem” has 688,000 views — more than 10 times as many as any other video posted about the business. 

Matthews often chooses Philly restaurants run by women or people of color to be amplified, noting ownership details via hashtags and captions. “I was showing things that people might not have known were there,”She says. She identifies as tri-racial — Black, Pacific Islander and white — and speaks openly about her identity on her pages. Matthews continued posting videos titled “Cheecake Lady TikTok” after the success of her video. “Favorite Places Around Philly,”a visit to Pizza Jawn in Manayunk or Prince Tea House Chinatown. Instagram Reels joined the party eventually, and she gained a following of 170,200 followers and 82,600 respectively.

Influencing is now Matthews’s primary source of income; she recently retired as Captain of the Flyers dance team. She’s signed influencer contracts with Wawa, Dunkin’ and Pepsi, created an LLC, hosted giveaways, and launched her own line of merchandise. “I’m bringing in a higher income than I ever thought I would earn in my life,”She says. A percentage of that income is from local restaurants — ­restaurants that, she says, “understand there will be an influx of business revenue, social media exposure”Her work is inspiring. Despite having slim margins, these restaurants spend a lot on influencer marketing and communications.

In February of 2022, the team at Twenty Manning in Rittenhouse contacted Matthews about featuring the restaurant on her feed in hopes she’d highlight the newly redesigned space and a few specialty items on the menu. Twenty Manning certainly wasn’t new to the dining scene — Audrey Claire Taichman opened the joint in 1999, and It was eventually sold.Rob Wasserman was part of a restaurant company that also includes Rouge and Audrey Claire. It is now Charley Dove. The business also did not revamp its concept. Matthews states that the business was trying to increase its customer base and let people know about the remodel.

During that initial ask, Matthews says, the restaurant team didn’t offer to pay her. Matthews responded: “I knew they had [money]; they have multiple restaurants. And I also knew that they blew me off when I reached out for collaboration in the past.”After a month of back and forth, Twenty Manning agreed on a payment plan. $1,500 for a TikTok posting, $1,000 for an Instagram reel, and $100 for each story. Matthews then sent the restaurant group an invoicing for $2700 for a TikTok post, a Reel, and two stories. (Her rates have increased over the years. Matthews had full creative control over her posts at Twenty Manning. Matthews also paid a 20% tip for her meals. 

Matthews’s Instagram ReelTwenty Manning was shared as a collaboration post by @cass_andthecity with Twenty Manning (meaning it would appear in both pages), and accumulated 90,800 hits. That figure represents roughly 83,000 more views than every other Reel on Twenty Manning’s page. “It did pretty well on TikTok,” Matthews says — 60,800 views. “You never know with TikTok’s algorithm if things are going to do well or not. I believe their following, like, probably doubled just for my posts about them within 24 hours.”

Twenty Manning hasn’t reached back out to Matthews, though. “They’ve been working with some other foodie influencers since then,”She says. “You never know­ — if those other people are doing it for free and they like working with them, then they’ll work with them more.”

Matthews believes other influencers should ask for compensation from large restaurant groups that can afford to pay for marketing efforts rather than simply accepting comped meals or gift cards — a form of currency, multiple sources say, that the Starr Restaurant Group is particularly known for offering. “PR has become the middleman for a lot of influencers, especially locally,”She says. “There are some PR companies that I don’t think have our best interests at heart.” Matthews tells me she no longer receives invitations to most PR companies’ events these days.

Matthews does not like press parties. “Influencing is heavily dominated by white women. … There aren’t many minorities at these events.”It is difficult for viewers to see the homogeneity of those who are attending these parties from the other side. Just as hard to discern, perhaps, are details regarding which videos are sponsored and which aren’t. Sometimes the fantasy ends when TikTok does. 

The Liberty PointTikTok promised me a lot. I saw the Delaware River and a pink-orange sunset through the sky. The videos signaled that when I went, I’d be drinking colorful booze and helping myself to sliders and soft pretzels stacked in little mountains.

The Liberty Point that I met on a hot Tuesday, June 2, is somewhere between a subdued frat club and an airport lounge with its ceiling up. The bouncer informed me that the deck had the best views live on the day I visited. I tried crab dip that tasted like whitefish soup gone awry. I had a frozen daiquiri, with mango syrup drizzled down the sides. My experience was simple and didn’t have the glamour or side effects of being treated like a VIP at an event. Liberty Point is a 1,400-seat bar disguised as a 1,400 seat restaurant. It would be difficult to feel like a VIP among 1,399 people trying to figure out when their soft pretzel orders are ready.

Even though a TikTok influencer may proclaim that they have the best restaurant experience in the city – real restaurant visits are not guaranteed. Meals may vary based on the server’s mood after being denied a wage increase, perhaps, or due to the weather, or maybe to a cook who forgot to properly soak the beans because she was burned out from covering another cook’s shift. (This is partly why formal restaurant reviews are best published after multiple visits, although even that system is not perfect. 

Josh Moore says it’s not uncommon for people to reach out to him about a disconnect between what’s on his TikTok and Philly’s dining reality, where staff shortages run rampant, margins are thin, and vibes can’t always be immaculate. He posted about an event that a PR company hosted in recent months. “I had people DM me afterward commenting that, ‘Hey, I went there, the wait was two hours. I had this negative experience,’”He says. He hasn’t nailed down where his responsibility lies when creating videos for public consumption. How could he possibly anticipate someone else’s experience walking into a restaurant months after he did?

In real life, Liberty Point isn’t an apocalyptic disaster. Nor is it guaranteed fun: It’s ultimately an unimaginably large place at which to drink outside in the summertime. I wouldn’t personally suggest spending $20 to park at Penn’s Landing to have drinks there, but you could easily end up at a destination in Philly with worse rum and no view of the Delaware. 

As I sipped my daiquiri in an area designated for walk-ins — furthest from the bar but closest to the bathrooms — I noticed the couple next to me take a selfie with the river and a big blue sky in the background. They looked at the photo, discussed their dissatisfaction with it, and decided to move to another section with better views to try again. Watching them was like temporarily living inside the space between the internet and real life, the one that’s unpredictable, fast-moving, and full of equal amounts of cash and disappointment. You can’t take a video of that space and share it with your followers. You’ll just have to feel it for yourself one day.

 

Editor’s note:This story was printed with a typo in it that altered the meaning of Kory Aversa’s quote. It has been fixed here.

Published as “Under the Influencers”In the September 2022 issue Philadelphia magazine.


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