When best friends and then-high school sophomores Bevan Cohen and Sabrina Epstein started snapping photos of their lunches around New York City, it just seemed like fun to post them to Instagram. They had no idea that they were on the road to becoming full-fledged Instagram influencers. But 3,700 photos and 313,000 followers later, @eastcoastfoodies has become a trademarked brand.
Now sophomores in college, Cohen — a Communication major at the Annenberg School at Penn — and University of Michigan student Epstein are juggling both college life and brand management. Since 2015, East Coast Foodies has been a registered LLC, and Cohen and Epstein serve as Co-founders and CEOs of the brand. What began as a playful way to show off some of their favorite foods and desserts gradually grew into a business that receives approximately 1,000 photo submissions a day from followers using #eastcoastfoodies in Instagram captions.
“It took about a year for us to really pick up momentum, but we stuck with it anyway,” Cohen says. “We would post three or four times a day, even when it felt like not very many people were paying attention. Once we hit a thousand followers, though, our fan base grew much more quickly.”
As the brand gained more attention, restaurants began to reach out to Cohen and Epstein. In exchange for advertisement on the East Coast Foodies account, restaurants and food companies have offered Cohen and Epstein financial compensation, free food and merchandise, and invitations to new restaurant openings. Through East Coast Foodies, Cohen and Epstein have had the chance to collaborate with companies like Oreo and Ben and Jerry’s.
“Ben and Jerry’s recently invited us to their factory in Vermont to meet their CEO and go to a networking event in a few weeks,” says Cohen. “We’ve collaborated with them twice so far, and I guess they’re happy with the outcome.”
In their transition into college, finding the time to manage East Coast Foodies has become more challenging for Cohen and Epstein. But despite long distance, busy schedules, and heavy workloads, growing East Coast Foodies still remains a priority.
“I’m definitely more committed to it now than I was a year ago because we are getting all these very cool opportunities right now,” Cohen says. “This year it really hit us that we need to be more diligent about this and figure out how to keep growing the brand’s reach.”
Annenberg Communication courses, like Children and the Media with Professor Amy Jordan and Media Industries and Society with Professor Joseph Turow, have provided Cohen with new insight on strategies to further develop East Coast Foodies.
“Communication is such a good major,” says Cohen. “I’m learning how to use skills like marketing, communicating, connecting with people, and appealing to different audiences. I’m excited to see what else Annenberg has to offer.”
In fact, one of Annenberg’s current Ph.D. candidates, Emily Hund, is studying Instagram influencers for her dissertation, focusing on the unseen industry behind the beautiful and seemingly-effortless photos.
“Influencers like Bevan have had remarkable impact on the broader cultural landscape—restaurants, clothes, artwork, and countless other things are now created with social media influence in mind,” says Hund. “Creating and maintaining an influential feed is an incredible amount of work—not just taking and editing the photos but navigating the constantly changing social media environment, sharing parts of your personal life, and making it all seem effortless.”
Moving forward, Cohen and Epstein hope to expand East Coast Foodies beyond Instagram. In addition to growing their website, they look forward to building engagement by attending more restaurant openings. For others interested in becoming social media influencers, Cohen thinks differentiation is key.
“I think it’s important to make yourself different from other people or brands,” she says, “because then you will find an audience that is attracted specifically to what you’re posting.”
For East Coast Foodies, the brand is a carboloaded combo of sweet, gooey, cheese-laden, fried, and chocolatey. It has a heavy emphasis on foods like pancakes, French toast, cake, pizza, donuts, and burgers. Posts typically get several thousand likes each.
“People definitely like seeing unhealthy food,” says Cohen. “We’ve tried posting salads and they just do not get as many likes as the other posts.”