February 25, 2024

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The Black foodie celebrating the Bay Area’s hidden gems: ‘our food scene is special’ | Food

Garlic noodles, french fries loaded with steak and shrimp, crab legs the length of an adult’s forearm – a brief scroll through the popular Instagram account of Bayareafoodz is enough to put you in a digital food coma.

In a region known as one of America’s culinary capitals and a playground for Instagram foodies, Darion Frazier’s page stands out. He amassed more than 126,000 followers not with slickly produced videos at the hippest restaurants but with homages to the taquerias, greasy spoons and small soul food joints.

“I live for wear and tear on furniture and menus at mom and pop restaurants. That tells you that the food is good as hell,” said Darion Frazier, the page’s owner, of the spots that hold a special place in his heart.

His playful personality and enticing images have drawn thousands who come to see Frazier eat, sometimes while donning a black Versace robe, and letting his followers know whether a dish is “bussin’” (really good) or a letdown.

A man in a black shirt looks down at his phone, a cityscape seen through a window behind him
Darion Frazier started the Instagram account Bayareafoodz where he reviews restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. Photograph: Carolyn Fong/The Guardian

Now, Frazier is expanding his dedication to small, local eateries with a food delivery service, Plate Pick, that will help home chefs and independent restaurants reach customers. Frazier says the site, which charges restaurants a 5% commission, is meant to be a viable alternative at a time when many restaurants are struggling with the costs of operating on platforms like Doordash, GrubHub and UberEats, which take a cut of 20% or more. Plate Pick also offers resources for home chefs to get legal services and marketing help.

The Oakland native spoke with the Guardian about his hopes for the new venture, the challenges of being a Black influencer, and why he wants to be a positive force in the San Francisco Bay area food scene and wider community.

‘Our food scene is something special’

Frazier, 29, first encountered the Bay Area’s rich food scene in the homes of friends. He grew up in a low-income apartment complex in west Oakland and says that sleepovers and playdates exposed him to new smells, tastes and cultures.

“We all were living in the same poverty, but at the end of the day, everybody is going home to a different dish,” Frazier recalled. “I would spend the night at my Filipino friend’s house and eat adobo, fish and lumpia. Or I’d be at my African friend’s house another night, and we’ll be eating fufu.”

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Travelling to France, Mexico and Thailand in his early adulthood also helped him appreciate the Bay Area’s food scene. “We’ve got some of the best tacos on Earth, and then you can go to another place and get the best burgers you ever had in your life. You can get Chinese food, Indian food, Moroccan food, jollof rice,” Frazier says. “The Bay Area has something special.”

With this in mind, Frazier launched Bayareafoodz in late 2014 to shine a light on the mom and pop businesses that have fed residents for decades and were losing business due to gentrification. “Spots that have been around for multiple years that locals know about don’t have their regulars any more, so I wanted to help.”

Barring the occasional selfie, Frazier rarely showed his face until he was two years deep into Bayareafoodz. But since he’s become more front-facing, the page has grown into a place where people go to hear Frazier’s unfiltered opinion. “My personality is the secret weapon,” he says.

Toriano Gordon, the chef behind Vegan Mob, an always-busy Oakland restaurant that serves plant-based barbecue, soul food and Creole dishes, agrees that authenticity is a central component of Frazier’s appeal.

Three men work on laptops inside a large room
From left, Darion Frazier, Andrew Fede and De Jesus Libran are the co-founders of Plate Pick, a food delivery service that helps independent restaurants and home chefs reach customers. Photograph: Carolyn Fong/The Guardian
A man shows a woman something on his phone
Darion Frazier, right, talks to Lulu Safi, left, at her restaurant, Maya Halal Taqueria in Oakland, California. Photograph: Carolyn Fong/The Guardian

“He ain’t trying too hard and that’s why he is doing so well. His posts are always entertaining, but you can tell it’s the real him,” says Gordon. “He’s a guide to Bay Area food, instead of going to Yelp, you’ll have better luck with Bayareafoodz.”

Gordon was familiar with Frazier’s page by way of the Bay’s larger food scene and the pair met in late 2019, shortly after Gordon opened Vegan Mob’s brick and mortar location in Oakland. Before they began a professional relationship Frazier would post videos in front of the location and promote new menu offerings. Then once they got a chance to talk, Gordon and Frazier found common ground in their love of food and dedication to lifting up and supporting others as they climbed the ladder of success.

“I’m big on unity, it’s imperative to support each other,” Gordon adds. “I may inspire him but he inspires me too, what he’s doing is innovative and special.”

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The challenges of being a Black creator

That success has built slowly over the last few years. At first, Frazier says he never saw the page as a way to make a living. But as its popularity grew, a $3,000 offer for his page, combined with restaurant owners telling him about the sales boosts that came immediately after a post, caused him to reconsider.

Frazier chose not to sell the page and in 2017 began charging for food reviews. His first paid restaurant visit was for $25 at a San Francisco deli. Now he charges up to $700 for a review, and generates income from sponsored posts from food and beverage companies and Facebook advertisements.

And recently, he decided to quit his day job at a Kaiser pharmacy to focus on his burgeoning food businesses. “I realized that if I built Bayareafoodz with a portion of this time, I figure I should go all in on something I enjoy doing,” he said.

A man hands another man a takeout order
Derreck Johnson, right, founder of Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant in Oakland, hands a takeout order to Darion Frazier. Photograph: Carolyn Fong/The Guardian

But he says there have been plenty of challenges along the way, especially as a Black creator on Instagram, which Frazier and others have said can pose barriers to their work. In recent years Black social media influencers on Instagram, TikTok and other platforms have waged strikes and digital campaigns to call out pay disparities and alleged limitations that silos their content based on their race and stifles their exposure.

During the protests and racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, Instagram said they would examine potential racial biases in the algorithms they use, but there’s been little news about progress since.

“Algorithms can guess the race of users and when they start to associate it with Black content they might put it in a corner,” said Kalinda Ukanwa, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Southern California. “There’s an assumption their content won’t have a broader appeal which creates an issue with monetization because they’re not getting that exposure.”

Frazier says he is experiencing this phenomenon first-hand. “I’m the only Black foodie that I know of in Oakland and I worked really hard, but these algorithms can make it difficult to grow a brand,” he says, “but I have to roll with it.”

A platform for home cooks

With his next venture, Plate Pick, Frazier is looking to leverage his social media fame to support home chefs in Alameda county. The county recently established a program that allows people to run a business from their kitchens, after California made these types of operations legal in 2018.

A man and woman sip on a drink outside a restaurant with a mural of a woman in a hijab
Darion Frazier enjoys a fresca with Lulu Safi in front of Maya Halal Taqueria in Oakland, California. Photograph: Carolyn Fong/The Guardian

Frazier became the co-owner of the business in 2021 alongside the tech CEO Andrew Fede. In addition to bringing Bay Area restaurants such as Vegan Mob to the website, Frazier and his team organize “legal nights” with staff from the county health department and attorneys who can help people get the permits and certification they need to sell food from home.

He hopes the business can succeed without charging home chefs the exorbitant rate taken by other delivery companies. “I want to make sure we do the best that we can to help everybody in our community,” Frazier says. “We’re here to say, ‘You can do this! But be legal.’”

Even with his business goals for the Instagram page and delivery service, Frazier says his ultimate motivation is to be a positive influence in the Bay Area and a role model, especially for young and impressionable residents. Aside from his food work, he has organized scavenger hunts that drum up business for local restaurants and is increasingly speaking out on local issues such as gun violence.

“There are plenty of talented people in the Bay, especially young African American men and women. But the youth only see where the light shines and sometimes it’s on things that aren’t fully positive like guns, drugs, and alcohol,” Frazier says. “I wanna let people know that you can be a designer, you can be an author, you can be a photographer, and still be popping.”