Kim Ly Curry positions her cellphone just inches from the barista’s face. He eyes her nervously as he steams milk for a latte, but she just grins and keeps shooting video on Instagram.
When her coffee is ready, she hunts for the perfect light to take more pictures, and finds it halfway up the stairs. She sets two whipped-cream-topped mugs on the landing at Dunn Brothers in downtown Minneapolis, squatting next to them to get the ideal shot, while other patrons maneuver around her.
If they assume this human roadblock is just another Instagrammer taking pictures of the morning brew, they’re wrong.
With more than 30,000 followers, Curry is a celebrity of sorts in the local food scene. She is an Instagram influencer — a social media user who receives free goods and money from companies in exchange for posting flattering photos of their wares on the photo-sharing app.
A petite woman with long, black hair and a perpetual smile, Curry has no formal training in social media, photography or the culinary world. In fact, the youthful-looking 39-year-old New Brighton woman works at a Twin Cities hospital as a heart monitor technician.
What she does have is passion, persistence and “food porn”-quality photos. Her posts have proved so popular that she’s invited to local bars and restaurants to do dozens of tastings a month. She’s included in events once reserved for food critics. And her days off are filled with restaurant hopping — hours of trying new menu items, touring kitchens, watching chefs prepare dishes and, of course, perching over plates of food with her iPhone.
On her Instagram account — which is bursting with pictures of sugary doughnuts, crisp bright salads and dripping burgers — she calls herself Lil Miss Foodie, but she’s better known by her handle, @kimlycurry.
“Am I food-obsessed? Yes. I just love everything food,” she said. “I have a blast with it.”
Curry got to enjoy only a few sips of the Dunn Brothers concoctions before she was on the road again. Her afternoon would include three more stops: lunch at a fast-casual salad place and two happy hours at downtown Minneapolis restaurants, where she would be plied with more free food and drinks.
Sprout Salad Co. invited her to try some new dishes. At McKinney Roe, she taste-tested two cocktails and three appetizers, including one the restaurant was experimenting with.
At Eastside, she was recognized by an up-and-coming Instagrammer.
“I’m so jazzed you’re here!” said Ashley Grossman, who goes by the handle @minnesotamunch. “Your account makes me hungry all the time. I love following you.”
By the day’s end, Curry had taken 552 photos and consumed hundreds of dollars’ worth of food and drinks for what would become three Instagram posts and dozens of Instagram stories.
Before she went to sleep that night, she set up an automatic post for the next day. It took her about a half-hour to select the best photo from among the dozens she took at Dunn Brothers. She also added just the right filter and all the appropriate hashtags. Then she wrote a brief, exclamation-point-laden description, calling the coffee drinks “dessert for breakfast!”
“It is work,” she said of her Instagram gig. “It’s time. You pay for parking; you pay for gas. It’s like a second job.”
Curry joined Instagram in 2013 as a way to catalog her food photos, long a passion for someone who collected cookbooks and Bon Appetit magazines just for the pictures.
As she learned better photo techniques (using natural light, taking lots of shots) and honed her signature style (up-close, at a slant), her Instagram following began to build.
In late 2015, when she had 2,500 followers, folks at FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in downtown Minneapolis invited her to a free dinner in order to meet her. Then, in June of last year, a video she took of baked Alaska at Oceanaire in downtown Minneapolis got 280,000 views. Her ascendance had begun.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ”
As her following grew, she spent more time at food-tasting appointments, and more of them were paid. Now, when restaurateurs invite her to try their food, she asks, “Will this be a paid partnership?”
About 30 percent of the time, it is. Along with the complimentary food also comes a check or an American Express or Visa gift card.
Influencers such as Curry are one of the hottest trends in marketing.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s happening locally, nationally and internationally,” said Steve Lynch, the director of connections strategy at Mono, a branding agency in Minneapolis. “It’s absolutely growing, and it’s growing in terms of importance to use influencers as part of your marketing strategy.”
According to MediaPost, an advertising and media company, Instagram influencers around the world will make an estimated $1 billion in 2017. And businesses generate about $6.50 for every dollar they spend on influencer marketing. Top-tier influencers with a national following can make as much as $15,000 to $20,000 per post.
For Curry, the coffee was on the house at Dunn Brothers, which mailed her a gift card along with a $100 check.
“And that’s cheap,” she said. “Some people have paid $350 for a post.”
With her tens of thousands of followers, Curry is top dog among Twin Cities Instagram influencers who focus on bars and restaurants. (There are only a few dozen influencers who have 3,000 or more followers.)
But influencer marketing is fairly new in the Minnesota food scene. In Minnesota fashion, lifestyle, cooking and baking, there are plenty of influencers who have hundreds of thousands of followers.
The Federal Trade Commission has made an attempt to regulate influencer marketing. In its latest endorsement guide, it recommended that influencers disclose when they receive monetary payment or goods as a gift in any associated posts.
Curry, who generally posts a single photo every day, adds the hashtag #sponsored or #ad when she’s being paid for a post.
If she doesn’t like the food, “I don’t post it,” she said, although she can’t remember the last time that happened.
Perhaps that’s because Curry — who posts food pictures from places high-end (Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis) and everyday (Davanni’s Pizza) — seems to genuinely enjoy almost all food.
“I’m not a food snob,” she said. “I do like nice things, but I can appreciate junk food. I love to eat Lay’s Beer ’n Brats potato chips.”
Making it work
An hour into a tasting event at Eastside, the table of food was still untouched.
A small crowd of influencers hovered around the gourmet spread, but instead of eating, they were taking photos.
Restaurateur Ryan Burnet — who also owns Barrio and Bar La Grassa, among others — intently watched the influencers he had invited to Eastside.
Burnet has long dealt with traditional media, but this evening — a spring menu preview — was his first experience with Instagram influencers.
The tasting was “a way to show off the food and drinks to a lot of people in a short period of time,” he said. “Whether we have a jump in top-line sales because of it is yet to be determined, but it clearly hit home to a certain demographic.”
Many local restaurants also are holding influencer events, which result in a burst of Instagrams from those locations.
But branding expert Lynch sees a problem with that approach: It’s too obvious.
“It’s a quantity play. They’re just trying to get as many people talking about it as possible,” he said. “But people of a certain generation have gotten really savvy on Instagram. They can see through when it’s a plug.”
To use influencers effectively, Lynch recommends building relationships with a few influencers who post about their products sparingly and in ways that seem spontaneous.
Josef Harris, who owns creative and branding firm Bodega LTD and handles PR for Upton 43 in south Minneapolis, said he avoids influencers altogether.
“You can’t control the content,” he said. “You can’t control the engagement. There needs to be a mission beyond just the numbers — the reach, the followers, the exposure.”
Harris has had influencers (not Curry) reach out to him and offer to stop by and dine, for $50 per post.
His answer? No, thanks.
“If you call yourself a foodie, someone who loves to document the food scene, this is the place you should want to be,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to sell it to you.”
A shared vision
The food came, and instinctively, James Curry shoved everything on the table aside, creating a blank canvas for his wife.
Kim Ly squinted at a small window nearby to assess the lighting. It was raining and the sky was getting darker. Still, she aimed her iPhone at the dish of bucatini and clicked away.
“Want this on a tilt?” James asked. She nodded, and he positioned a napkin under one side, angling the bowl toward the camera.
“You want to twist it around the fork like this?” he inquired, snagging a forkful of pasta artfully.
“Oooh, yeah!” she replied.
“Set dressing,” James said with a chuckle. “That’s what I do.”
This night, at Mucci’s Italian in St. Paul, was not an assignment. The Currys weren’t there at anyone’s invitation. Aside from a couple of drinks the restaurateur picked up, the meal came with a bill.
But Kim Ly Curry was working, just the same.
Before the couple could eat, she knelt on the leather banquette and lifted the dish into the air, trying to make use of the last of daylight.
“Nope, fail,” she said. “But I did get that guy in the background that’s staring at me like I’m crazy.”
When she’s at a restaurant for a tasting, Curry often takes so long to shoot that she jokes she never eats warm food. To get the best light, she’ll stand on a chair, cram herself into a tiny corner or lie down on the ground.
“I have no shame,” she admitted with a laugh.
When she’s out eating, she’s often with James and her 15-year-old daughter, Ella. The social media world never sees them, however, because Curry feels a fierce need to protect her family.
Still, she can’t stop herself from capturing images of food and sharing them with the world. She hopes one day to make Instagramming a full-time job. For now, though, she’s happy to click away at dinner and watch the likes pour in.
“I pinch myself all the time,” she said. “I still can’t believe I have more than 100 people following me.”
Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115