In the new world, Jenn Baluch believes, restaurant critics may well be replaced by food influencers.
“I don’t think people go out of their way to find restaurant reviews anymore,” says the award-winning founder of Tastes of AZ, a webpage devoted to marketing restaurants. “People are reading what’s on Yelp or turning toward personalities they can trust. It’s why I turned away from journalism. I saw that social media is taking over, and I saw the power of video.”
The look on someone’s face when she’s eating an empanada is what people want today, Baluch says. “With a food review, you don’t know the person writing the article or what they like for food. With a social media platform, you get to know the person who’s eating, and you see their facial expression, and you can tell if the food is good.”
Before she made a name for herself as a promoter of tostadas, Baluch was a project coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. Furloughed last year, she launched her webpage and a TikTok channel devoted to promoting little-known local restaurants. Success came nearly overnight, thanks in part to COVID.
“I created Tastes of AZ in February 2020, and the pandemic came in March,” she remembers. “Restaurants were struggling during the pandemic. I brought them business.”
She now has more than 100,000 followers on TikTok, where her handle is @tastesofaz.
She knows it’s gross to be grateful for a murderous health crisis. “I can truly thank COVID,” she writes on her webpage. “Which seems twisted.”
It turned out that being a food influencer was Baluch’s calling. “People liked my personality,” she explains, “and seeing my face in front of the camera let them trust me. Once you gain trust, you become an influencer, and the trust keeps building up, and hopefully, you don’t break it.”
Being trustworthy has led to a big year for Baluch, who’s been named Influencer of the Year by something called @arizonainfluencer. She’s also appeared in a clip on the Cooking Channel’s Food Paradise.
The key to her success has been knowing what her audience wants. “Mine loves tacos,” she explains. “When I post about tacos I get three times the likes and comments and views as when I post about a salad.”
Baluch provides her taco lovers with video-friendly commentary in a language they recognize. Food is often “amazing,” and “legit,” and is more frequently “bomb,” as in “I found a bomb Salvadoran place, their pupusas are bomb.” Or: “The fried tacos here are frickin’ bomb.” And “Y’all, doesn’t this pizza look bomb?” Viewers like that Baluch can’t pronounce “pappardelle” and that she makes a joke about it.
She’s generous with her choices, and her commentary is jam-packed and punctuation-free, allowing her to cram as many exclamations into Tik Tok’s super-short videos as possible. Baluch knows it’s enough to say that something is “the best,” and not to say why. This is the 21st century, where promotion trumps criticism, where commercials have replaced critical thinking, and telling us what you ordered is what viewers want.
But Baluch is no stranger to cuisine. After a year of culinary school, she did kitchen time at Ariel’s Grotto during an internship at Disney’s California Adventure. Later she headed to ASU’s School of Journalism, where she earned a Bachelor’s in sports journalism.
Influencing is hard work, harder than chopping vegetables in the kitchen of a restaurant named for an imaginary mermaid. Baluch isn’t taking anything for granted, and she’s hardly resting on her laurels.
“I kind of have five jobs,” she admits. “I run social media for a PR company and two restaurants. Then I’ve got my TikTok channel, and I babysit.”
At first, she reached out to restaurants she wanted to cover; soon enough, they were writing to request coverage. She’s devised a system for selecting her next restaurant profile.
“I look at Yelp for a couple of hours every night. I look at the photos and if they speak to me and the place fits into my brand, I go there. I try to make sure I don’t just do one area, so I go all over the Valley, Tucson, Prescott, Flagstaff, all over.”
Sometimes she spots her next client from behind the wheel.
“One time I was in Queen Creek visiting my sister and I saw this little yellow shack on the side of the road. I was like, ‘What is that?’ I went in and the food was amazing. Sometimes if you don’t have a sister who lives in Queen Creek, you’re not going to find these small places.”
Those little shacks by the side of the road are Baluch’s favorites.
“What makes me stand out is I’m not going to the top spots or the new places like other influencers. I focus on the spots you wouldn’t set foot in, that you’ve been driving past for 30 years. That’s my niche.”
Baluch isn’t hogging all the fame for herself. She sometimes takes her followers with her when she’s checking out a new restaurant. “They want to meet you, and it’s cool to bring them along and let them see the excitement of being an influencer for a day,” she says. “I’ve grown numb to the whole going-out-to-eat, free-food thing, so seeing the excitement on a follower’s face lets me rethink how cool it is that I get to do this.”
She says she isn’t a food critic, she’s a collaborator, working with restaurant owners to promote their business rather than commenting on whether their chef is any good at his job. Her job is telling people what is bomb, not to promote herself.
“In the end, it’s about the restaurant, not about me. If I am worried about the number of likes or followers or views I’m getting, I’m not doing this for the right reason. Yes, it helped me get on TV and I get to do things I’ve always wanted to, but what I really want is for the restaurants to succeed.”
Under Baluch’s watch, many of them are doing just that. “What I’m about is helping,” she explains. “One really small taco shop I went to, they sold out of meat the next day.”
She pauses for effect. “Eighty pounds of meat,” she says. “That’s a lot of meat.”