It’s not often you can combine your passions with a profession, but Ben Hon has done just that. He’s turned his love of food, hospitality and photography into a successful career as an influencer on Instagram. He’ll be covering Root to Table’s Night of Fire & Ice and sharing the Shenandoah Valley’s locally sourced ingredients and renowned regional chefs with his followers.
Meet Ben Hon
Hospitality and good food have always been a part of Ben’s life. He grew up in his mom’s restaurant in New Jersey. And while he worked in many capacities at the restaurant, Ben never cooked. “I had some dreams about becoming a chef,” says Ben, “but I knew how hard it was. The hours are long, you don’t get to see much of your family, and the pay isn’t that great until you reach the executive level.”
But growing up in that restaurant gave Ben a tremendous appreciation for good food and the chefs and restaurant owners who make it happen. And the lessons he learned about human nature stayed with him. “Working in the restaurant taught me how to deal with people and how to handle stressful situations and multiple personalities,” says Ben.
Another lifelong passion of Ben’s is photography. He says, “Photography has always been a hobby. I’d travel with a point and shoot Cannon and take pictures of landscapes. And I’ve always taken pictures of food. It’s like a photo memory of what I’ve eaten.”
If you take a look at Ben’s Instagram account, StuffBenEats, you’ll find mouth-watering food photos. “I started with my flip phone, literally pointing at the food, taking one shot and then eating. Now, it’s 40 shots (with a professional camera) and cold food,” Ben jokes.
From Finance to Food Influencer
Ben’s journey to becoming a popular food influencer on Instagram took a dual path. While between jobs in the financial world, Ben had an opportunity to open up a pop-up dessert shop. He learned the power of social media the first week the shop was open. “We had an artist come into the shop, wanting to display her work,” says Ben. “She put photos of her display on Instagram and the next two days we had like 80 customers.”
And in 2016 Instagram was the perfect place for Ben’s food photography. “I started “StuffBenEats” without any intention of becoming famous or getting free food,” explains Ben. “For me, Instagram was a way to take my food photo memories and make an online album.”
In just nine months, Ben had 9000 Instagram followers. In 2017 Refinery 29 featured Ben as a top New York City food Instagrammer. “It gave me validation that my photos were pretty good,” says Ben. “From that point on, I wanted to be a better photographer. I started learning more about composing a shot and knowing all the rules of photography – so I can break them.” Following Refinery 29, Food Network named Ben as one of the top food Instagrammers to follow.
Passions Build a Profession
Ben’s success as a food influencer on Instagram took hard work. These days, Ben is in demand and receives 10-15 invitations a day to dine. “The way it started out,” he explains, “was with a lot of restaurants hosting events and inviting influencers. You have to go to these events to make connections and build content – whether it’s a new cooke, an ice cream flavor drop or a cafe introducing a new sandwich. That’s what you have to do when you start out. Now I’m in a pretty lucky situation to be invited to a lot of restaurants.”
But for Ben, his work on Instagram is more than just beautiful food photos. His understanding of just what it takes to put together a memorable dining experience impacts his coverage. “Some influencers treat food photography like it’s a hobby and don’t care much about the chef or the story,” he says. “I want to know more about the story. It has so much more meaning rather than just going and eating.” It’s this story that helps determine where Ben dines and who he covers. “I choose the ones that have food I’m interested in, which is a wide range, as well as the story behind the restaurant. These are the places I’m interested in these days.”
And Ben knows just how hard it is for small restaurants to garner publicity. “The cool part is having relationships with the chefs and restaurant owners and being able to help them in some way, “ Ben says. “They don’t have the money for PR or social media. It’s cool to help them out and provide some sort of exposure.”
After leaving the world of finance, playing the New York real estate market, and doing the pop-up dessert shop, Ben decided to make freelance food photography his full time profession. In addition to being a food influencer on Instagram, he also handles social media for many of his friends who own restaurants.
Taking “StuffBenEats” On the Road
Great food – and the great stories behind it – aren’t just found in the big city. Ben enjoys traveling to smaller places and checking out the local food scene. “More places like this (the Shenandoah Valley) need coverage because of what the chefs are doing. I want to promote their interpretation of food and hospitality,” says Ben.
As a food Instagrammer, Ben is seeing the growth of locally sourced products on menus across the country. “It’s been happening for a while,” says the photographer. “There’s a lot more focus on locally sourced and reducing the carbon footprint.” And the movement is not just limited to the countryside. “Chefs are growing things in rooftop gardens. Once I went to the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle where they had their own beehive and made honey vodka.”
Root to Table’s Night of Fire & Ice is all about showcasing locally sourced ingredients and renowned regional chefs and Ben is looking forward to covering the event. “I’ll be in a different part of the country that not a lot of people are familiar with as a food destination. I’ll get a little taste of what the area is all about,” says Ben. “It’s the last culinary event of the year with all these wonderful chefs doing this really cool thing. It’s like a big party. I love when chefs get together and collaborate.”