The Instagram account Ann Arbor Eats pulled me from my complex distrust for food accounts into a new city’s food scene. As I continue to eat through Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Eats guides me every step and bite of the way. 

As shown by my long-defunct, pun-ridden Instagram, I was a pre-teen foodie. After years of proving that every meal I ate looked perfect, I realized I had lost some of the joy of tasting and sharing a meal. My cronut obsession and table-reorganization habit were not worth some hundred followers and a few friends commenting empty “yums.” I fell into a pit of shame. Food Instagrams democratized the exclusive world of food reviewing and reporting. They soon came to represent waiting in line for overhyped desserts, neglecting diverse local food for “trends” or advertising unattainable “clean” eating. Today, with the fear of being “cheugy” and trying too hard to be trendy, people aspire to an effortless yet effortful posting standard. “Foodie” pages thrive off of impossible aesthetics, long lines and yearning audiences that want their picture-perfect food (though it is just perfect in the picture). 

In a cynical future, people think of Instagram hype rather than eating for the sake of eating. Yet, as I walked into Ann Arbor hungry for new experiences outside of the few standard recommendations and microwave college eats, I looked to Ann Arbor Eats. They showed me a diverse array of foods from every culture, not focused on aesthetics and cherishing the unique stories and offerings of each vendor. Their Instagram inspired me to explore Ann Arbor beyond the surface. 

In 2018, five years after Ann Arbor Eats’ last post, Jordy Richman, a 2020 LSA graduate, took over the account for an alum cousin. At the time, the page had around 1,000 followers and nothing distinguishing it from the oversaturated world of food Instagram. Richman saw an opportunity to explore the Ann Arbor food world and take students along on her journey. 

Inspired by her sister, the founder of now-massive Nashville Eats, Richman informed partnerships with local culinary businesses. These partnerships allowed Jordy to find new Ann Arbor favorites and learn from unique entrepreneurs. 

Ann Arbor Eats shows off new finds and hidden (to students) local favorites: massive spreads at the new downtown Evergreen Modern Chinese and Bar, action-packed popups at YORK Food and Drink, glittering cocktails at The Last Word and fresh seasonal specialties at Juicy Kitchen. The account features Ann Arbor classics of all cuisines framed in a new, celebratory light. A recent TikTok takes viewers behind the scenes of Zingerman’s Bakehouse and rainbows of Bahn mi and pho or call us to Ginger Deli. Close-up shots make Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger look like fine dining and snaps of Blank Slate Creamery ice cream flight photos display unique local flavors.

The 2022 account administrators, LSA juniors Jenna Frieberg and Lila Rubenstein, now post daily and keep a “master calendar” of openings, events, festivals and meals with restaurant teams. Frieberg searches local websites to keep constant tabs on community happenings. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Frieberg discussed the world waiting for students to explore. “If you try for maybe 30 minutes, you can dig into a hole of … crazy local chefs (that) all follow each other,” Frieberg said. “Our main goal is … connecting students like us with the Ann Arbor community … switching up from … the typical restaurants everyone goes to.”

Starting in 2018, Richman contacted Ann Arbor businesses offering promotional packages of stories, posts and business-specific content. She provided follower demographics (with an estimated 90% of followers living in Ann Arbor) and an explanation of the account mission before requesting a comped meal. Especially during the pandemic, as small businesses fell behind, the comped meal concept grew increasingly controversial. However, this system allowed each Ann Arbor Eats influencer to explore the menu and showcase their and the chef’s favorite dishes. With the comped meal, they can capture a variety of content and get their classic full-spread aerial photos and close-up pictures of favorites. “At first … maybe half of the restaurants were interested, or maybe even less,” Richman said in a phone interview with The Daily. “As more and more time has gone on, and they’ve seen … the impacts of our account … Jenna and Lila have probably worked with a large majority,” Richman said. 

Richman first spread the account through Facebook groups for each college class. “(Freshmen) were a big area where we’d get followers,” Richman said. “Because everyone was excited to see … where they can eat on campus when they arrive and all that fun stuff.” Since its revival in 2018, the account has gained over 22 thousand followers and a trusting fanbase. “It comes from … the consistent posting,” Rubenstein said. “We post daily. And we have a lot of content and we find new places that no one else has really heard of before, it makes people more intrigued to follow the account.” 

The account is never monotonous, with thousands of posts, hundreds of dishes, dozens of local business features and creative photos with clever captions. Ann Arbor Eats attends every popup, grand opening and special event in the Ann Arbor scene. They have expanded beyond restaurants into the interconnected world of local food vendors, including farmers at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, chefs at the traveling Bao Boys food truck and artisan entrepreneurs at Bon Bon Bon Chocolates. “It’s a whole world,” Frieberg said. “We’re just starting to even scratch the surface.”

Today, businesses reach out to Ann Arbor Eats to reach a broad student audience. “As students, if we want to find a cool restaurant, the first thing we do is look at their Instagram,” Frieberg said. Ann Arbor Eats provides this social media promotion. 

Businesses from Beyond Juicery+Eatery to Quickly Boba Cafe to Chapala Mexican Restaurant attract new and returning students with generous Instagram giveaways. Other businesses, like Knight’s Steakhouse, highlight student discounts. The account’s simple, beautifully shot photos, however, speak far more than a promotional caption.

Ann Arbor Eats does not stick to classic indulgent dessert shots or “that girl” healthy and aestheticized eats. They show real, interesting food, and make every meal look exciting and worth celebrating. “I just have the kind of eye for what looks good on the camera … where the lighting hits,” Rubenstein said. Like other oft-mocked foodies, Rubenstein and Frieberg re-set the table to get a beautiful shot. “The positioning is the key to photos … we will take a table … even when we’re hungry, it’s like a painful 10 minutes.” But with Ann Arbor Eats, it’s worth it. Their work doesn’t benefit a social media ego, it benefits a business excited to share its work with others.

The relationship between Ann Arbor Eats and local businesses is far more communal than transactional. Frieberg and Rubenstein reflected on the eclectic and eager chefs and waiters who share stories, laughs and plate after plate of their proudest work. “Most of them have either heard of (the account) or are … excited to learn,” Frieberg said. They form consistent relationships and collaborate with local entrepreneurs throughout the year. Businesses like Side Biscuit, Joe’s Pizza and Fresh Forage use the Ann Arbor Eats platform to share new and exciting happenings: seasonal menus, events, giveaways and deals. 

Jordan Balduf, who opened Side Biscuit in 2020, told The Daily that influencers like Ann Arbor Eats are true “business drivers.” “We’ll have like a TikTok person … then we’ll have a line of five people the next day, so it’s definitely a good return,” he said. Ann Arbor Eats, since their first meeting with Balduf in April, featured a wing and biscuit feast, a weekly special promotion, dripping wings and maize and blue t-shirts for a major giveaway and a summery produce special.

Through Instagram Reels and TikTok, Ann Arbor Eats immerses followers in a local restaurant experience. Rubenstien and Frieberg’s TikToks and Reels feature gooey and saucy food zoom-ins, unique restaurant interiors, outdoor entertainment and seating and behind-the-scenes kitchen footage (including an intense scene at the Side Biscuit wing fryer). 

Side Biscuit, which sits on the edge of family and student neighborhoods, hopes to become a local staple, bringing in new classes of student eaters and consistent repeat business. Ann Arbor Eats promotes both. “Once people get in the door … then they can’t stop eating or telling their friends,” Balduf said. 

In a town with constant festivals and parties, fresh local produce and a young entrepreneurial spirit, there is always a new “hidden gem” to be found. In a town rich in tradition, people can always return to their old favorites for comfort food or, when they taste something new that they cannot get enough of (like a hot wing and a seasonal buttermilk biscuit), find a new classic where they least expect it. 

Ann Arbor Eats stays true to the student and the greater Ann Arbor community. During the pandemic, they slowed down posting and promoted restaurants in need while highlighting modified dining plans. In April 2020, they collaborated with Joe’s Pizza to raise thousands of dollars and donate hundreds of pies to Ann Arbor’s frontline workers. The account captures what college students care about: deals, massive drinks, exciting new trends, healthy eats and classic comfort foods. They focus on businesses’ priorities: promoting their proudest work and welcoming in new and old customers. They partner with brands like Goodles mac n’ cheese and Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels, quick snacks for college students on the move. And because they are regular students, sometimes they ask for the best places to fuel up, especially after game day (receiving 50 responses last time). They always “check in with followers,” Rubenstien said, keeping their audience happy and hungry.

“What sets Ann Arbor apart is … it’s not necessarily a tourist destination,” Richman said. “We’ll always gain those followers of new students … but I kind of feel like what makes our account special is that our followers … all have a really special connection to Ann Arbor … (we) make sure that we’re maximizing our resources and partnerships to show them the best food around.”

Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at kginsky@umich.edu.