Photos by Maria Ponce
Samantha Roby never set out to be an influencer. In fact, no one even talked much about Instagram when she first posted back in 2012, and snapping pics in restaurants began as a hobby while she worked days as a supply chain manager. But as Roby built up her feed under the name
@chicagofoodauthority, and the likes racked up, she learned one thing quickly: People love looking at food. Especially beautiful food.
They love it so much that six years later, Chicago Food Authority has 198,000 followers, more than any other Chicago food influencer. (Other popular food feeds @mushroomstew and @adamsoko hover around 45,000 followers.) Roby’s followers all came to her organically, and a typical post gets around 1,500 likes.
The 29-year-old has long parlayed her social media success into a full-blown business, taking photos at local restaurants as well as in her home studio, where she shoots products from food and drink brands that pay for her expert eye and reach. Needless to say, Roby quit that corporate day job long ago. She credits her rise through the Instagram ranks to her love of Chicago’s smaller, under-the-radar restaurants, and her eagerness to share them.
“It used to be that nobody would post about the hidden gems, but people really want to see those small places… where you can get affordable but still really good food. That’s how I started growing,” says Roby. “Today I’m consistent with posting new restaurants and strive to get the best-quality photos to really give people a great idea of what they have to offer.”
One thing Roby doesn’t do: negativity. She only posts about restaurants she loves and wants to support, like her recent posts about the tacos at Little Bad Wolf in Andersonville.
In a city as vast as Chicago, it isn’t hard to find places worth featuring. But in Roby’s restaurant history, that wasn’t always the case. She grew up in West Bloomfield, Mich., the daughter of two working parents who defaulted to eating out nearly every night due to their busy schedules. But most of the time they went to chain restaurants, so when Roby moved to Chicago, she wasted no time getting to know its independent gems.
Early on, Roby connected and forged fast friendships with other ’grammers and bloggers through attending events and reaching out online. Today, her besties include Erica Eckman of @everythingerica, Brett Firdman of @hertastylife, Erin Byrne of @312food and Shai Chung of @drunkonshoes. They rely on each other for advice and support. “There have been multiple times when I’ve texted Sam at, like, 7 a.m. and we’ve ended up planning a massive food crawl all over the city,” says Eckman. “She’s one of the most spontaneous and fun foodie friends I have, [and] s has always been such an inspiration.”
Armed with just an iPhone 7 Plus, Roby is self-taught in photography. But she’s no longer a one-woman show; she has a team that goes out to style and shoot, which is how she’s managed to scale her business and keep time for herself, however scarce. “One thing about being an entrepreneur is that I’m always working, checking my phone, checking email. Even when I get massages I can’t seem to turn off my brain,” says Roby.
While she rarely appears in her Chicago Food Authority photos, she recently started a second Instagram account called @sosimplysam that’s much more personal. “It’s a place for me to post about my life and interests beyond food,” she says.
Those interests include decorating, thrifting and doting on her dog, Jagger, a Maltipoo pup. Other fun facts about Roby: She’s a self-professed makeup addict and lives with her boyfriend, DJ and real estate agent Daniel Dejman, in the West Loop.
Truth be told, Roby’s hobbies are much like anyone else’s, and her outgoing demeanor and easy laugh make her feel like a friend you’ve known for years. You just have to stop and remember: She has an impact like few others. “Anytime Sam puts something up on our restaurants, we see a huge boost in business,” says Josh Iachelli, owner of Homeslice (our cover shoot location), The Happy Camper and the soon-to-come Paradise Park. “To have her vouch for you — it’s a big deal.”
With so much success under her belt, Roby has plenty of advice for aspiring Instagrammers — and it turns out, it applies to any industry. “The key is to follow your passion. Take what you love and run with it,” she says. “That’s how I got where I am today. I pick places I want to go. I work with people I really enjoy. That’s what life’s all about. Follow that path and you can’t go wrong.”
5 food photography tips from an Instagram pro
Shoot on textured surfaces. The variance in color and dimension adds visual interest.
Vary the serving ware, if possible. Different shapes, different sizes, and the more color the better.
Order a variety of dishes, grabbing from all over the menu to show an array.
Create equal spaces between each dish so everything is laid out evenly. For best results, create triangles of space between dishes.
Always, always use natural light. Ask to sit by the window to get the perfect lighting. “I’ve even taken tables outside to shoot,” says Roby.