It definitely feels a little meta to watch On Tap’s assistant editor Trent Johnson take photos of @dcfoodporn’s Justin Schuble taking photos of Brothers and Sisters Pastry Chef Pichet Ong’s ornate The London cake at the LINE Hotel. This feeling is only intensified by the fact that our subject is on the stairs by the LINE’s iconic, off-kilter mirror – perhaps one of DC’s most Instaworthy spots to date – so there’s two camera-wielding Schubles and two mouthwatering, crepe-stacked cakes in every photo.
All self-referential insights aside, we decided to meet up with DC’s most successful food Instagrammer – with 246,000 followers and counting – at his location of choice so we could see him in action. The LINE has been high on his wish list for some time, so we pop down to the impossibly trendy AdMo hotel one afternoon in August to pick the 23-year-old’s brain about how he turned his college hobby into a booming millennial business.
The Instagram influencer is soft-spoken and thoughtful, an adept multitasker who is constantly searching the room for the best angles while still giving us his full attention. He approaches food photography – and his entire @dcfoodporn brand – as a curated experience, bringing an artistic element to every shoot. A steady stream of decadent desserts keeps coming from Erik Bruner-Yang’s kitchen, the final one in the hands of the pastry chef himself, who chats with us for a few about photography on the LINE’s front steps.
Schuble moves deliberately during the shoot, selecting a new location in the hotel’s lobby for each dessert and experimenting with countless angles. When he is sure he has enough options, we sink into two oversized armchairs and begin to talk shop – from his creative process for keeping his content engaging to how he grew his account from 100 followers as a Georgetown freshman to hundreds of thousands of followers as the owner of a profitable business.
BEFORE THERE WAS @DCFOODPORN, there was @freshman_foodie. After growing up in a Potomac, Maryland household that rarely ate at home – save for takeout – and with zero interest in subsisting solely off of Georgetown’s dining hall options, it made perfect sense to Schuble to eat out a lot. And as millennials often do, he began snapping photos of his food and posting them to his personal Instagram account.
Countless food posts later, he created the @freshman_foodie handle and a food-only account. By the end of the year, he had 100 followers and decided to rebrand with his current handle, which has now been used as a hashtag on Instagram in almost 272,000 posts.
The business school student bought a camera that summer and taught himself some photography basics, like how to manipulate lighting. He remains a self-taught photographer even now, crediting his natural eye for knowing what elements need to come together in a successful post.
Schuble has experienced steady growth since launching @dcfoodporn, reaching the 10,000-follower mark within a year. As his account became more popular, his plans to pursue a career in finance or marketing – real estate and working on Wall Street were among his considered paths – began to dwindle until he decided to try the Instagram influencer lifestyle out for one year. Fast forward to a little over a year later, and he’s running a successful media company through the @dcfoodporn brand.
“It is crazy,” he says of his rapid rise to local fame. “I think I got really lucky with timing. I was lucky that I got to experiment with this in college. That really allowed me to let the passion drive the account and its growth. I was set up for success because I had the flexibility to do things that maybe weren’t going to work, and there was no financial pressure because I was in school.”
But now that he’s in the real world – Bethesda, to be exact – he defines success by a new set of metrics that includes being able to answer questions like, “Can I pay my rent?” in the affirmative.
It wasn’t until brands began courting Schuble that he realized @dcfoodporn was a potentially viable business. Sweetgreen was one of the first to reach out soon after the 10,000-follower benchmark, a geek out moment for him since the chain was started by three Georgetown business students. As more brands hired him for projects, he became more selective and set a standard rate for his services.
“A lot of what I’m doing recently is paid work with brands. They’ll send me a product, and I’ll have to shoot it and do all of the creative and figure out the style and what I want to pair it with, which I love. I think that’s more fun than going to a restaurant where the chef does all the creative work and I just have to do my best to make it look good.”
A National Tequila Day-themed post with a bottle of Jose Cuervo nestled among fresh avocado halves and tortilla chips, a Potbelly Free Shake Friday promo filled with neatly stacked Oreos surrounding an Oreo milkshake, and a drool-worthy picnic shot for Voss water are among his recent brand projects.
WHILE SCHUBLE LOVES TRYING his hand at art direction for brands, a huge percentage of his feed is still devoted to the local food scene.
“It’s always different. Everything about what I do is different. There’s no typical day and no typical photo shoot, which keeps it fun. I love that.”
Whether the visit is planned or impromptu, he says he always asks to be seated by a window with natural lighting. He inquires about the best items on the menu – although he usually researches options in advance – and proceeds to order both what he wants to photograph and what he wants to actually eat. This of course begs the question: how much of what he photographs does he consume?
“I’m actually very healthy, so I don’t necessarily eat every single cake or whatever it is that I post,” he says. “I do prioritize my health. If I can bring someone along with me to help eat the food and be an extra set of hands, that’s always great. I’ll usually take a couple hundred photos at each restaurant. Then I’ll eat a little bit, pack up a ton of leftovers and bring them with me.”
When he’s not saving a ton of money on groceries and eating like a king from his couch, Schuble strikes a balance between promoting hip spots he likes and maintaining a visual aesthetic. He often has to make a Sophie’s Choice between a dish that photographs beautifully but is lackluster in comparison to an unphotogenic plate of nosh that piques his palate. Another crossroads he frequently encounters is whether or not to post about an amazing spot where the food is off the charts but doesn’t have Instaworthy presentation, or the interior is void of any decent lighting options.
It’s evident he takes the role of accurately representing DC’s food scene very seriously, and as a fellow local who has watched the District transform into a burgeoning foodie city, I truly appreciate that. He makes an excellent point that while the DMV has long been home to a myriad of authentic ethnic cuisines, the ambiance was often less than optimal for foodies back in the day. But with a trendier, more millennial-driven food scene on the rise, ethnic flavors are becoming more approachable as they’re being presented in hipper locales.
“I think it’s a lot easier now for people to be exposed to so many different things while still staying in their comfort zone. I also think it’s great that people in other cities actually see DC as a real food scene. It’s been cool to grow @dcfoodporn during that same time that DC has grown. When I started, my list of places to check out was not nearly as long as it is now just because every day, something new is popping up.”
ULTIMATELY, Schuble wants locals to recognize his brand. He’s proud of his DC following, and even notes that someone recognized him in the LINE’s lobby while he was waiting for our interview and asked if he was “that
@dcfoodporn guy.” On the flipside, he says he never takes advantage of that recognition when stumbling upon a new spot; instead, he prefers to fly under the radar as a paying customer.
When we start chatting about the road ahead, he says he’d love to reach a million followers.
“I think it’s nice to have huge goals that you can strive for. And if you don’t get there, don’t beat yourself up.”
In the meantime, he’s been expanding his brand to include more lifestyle and travel content.
“I posted a photo at the airport the other day and it got more likes than any of my food photos this week. I think people are hungry for different types of content and for me, it’s about playing around with that and figuring out what people want to see, what I want to post and how it relates to @dcfoodporn. How can I elevate the brand?”
As for how long he wants to stay on the influencer career track, that’s TBD. While he loves having a profitable outlet for his creative side and enjoys the perks of frequent travel and friendships formed with other media personalities, he’s also realistic about the burnout rate of this type of gig and says that at some point, it’d be nice to settle down and keep a normal schedule. He’s even toying with the idea of starting another media company – something related to food, but the next step.
“I do love the food scene, but for me it’s more about full experiences and being creative. I think food lends itself to that, but there are other areas I’d be interested in.”
For now, Schuble is committed to growing the @dcfoodporn brand, even leading social media workshops around the DC area to teach local Instagrammers how to tell their stories in a more engaging way. Don’t miss his next class at Rosslyn-based pop-up The Alcove (19th and N. Moore Streets) on Wednesday, September 11 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. Learn more at www.rosslynva.org/pop-up.