ST. PAUL, Minn. -- During his third trip to Hy-Vee in a week, Ben Passer finally found what he was looking for.
On an end cap in the frozen-meals aisle, two boxes of limited-edition gingerbread spice Life cereal sat inconspicuously on the top shelf. Passer grabbed a box and photographed his find right in the middle of the store. Later, he shared it on his junk food-fueled Instagram account.
"Edy's has a new pumpkin spice latte flavor that might be here, too," he said, glancing at notes on his iPhone. "The fun but maddening thing is if I don't find it, I'll go to two or three more stores until I do."
Best known as @snackcellar to his 26,000 followers on Instagram, Passer has created what he calls a "classy place for not-so-classy food."
The 28-year-old lawyer works out religiously, then eats ice cream, chips, Oreos, Ding Dongs, M&Ms -- basically all of the foods that many people try to avoid -- so that he can review them for his thousands of followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his website snackcellar.com.
This would make Passer, in Instagram terms, a "micro-influencer." Because his posts theoretically influence his audience to buy the latest flavor of Pop-Tarts and Doritos, Passer has earned a seat at the snack food industry table. Food brands are increasingly relying on people like him to satisfy the internet's constant craving for more flavors of their favorite junk foods.
"1/8Influencers3/8 play a key role in cultural relevance and consumers' consideration process," said Brad Hiranaga, General Mills vice president of marketing. "The value of working with influencers is that their followers trust their opinions and see the information and experiences they share as personally relevant."
Recently, Passer posted a photo of Cinnamon Toast Crunch Bites that received 2,972 "likes" and 297 comments from followers expressing excitement and asking where they can find the product.
It's no wonder food companies and their PR firms court people like Passer. The payout is small, but the payoff is priceless.
"It's a unique and goofy niche that a lot of people get enjoyment from," Passer said. "Snacks are having a moment right now."
FREEZER FULL OF OREOS
Reviewing junk food might seem like an unusual hobby, but updating a website with hundreds of reviews and an Instagram account with thousands of fans is serious business.
The kitchen cabinets of Passer's upper-level St. Paul duplex are stocked with the latest snack creations: Dunkin' Donuts mocha Oreos, pumpkin spice Nutri-Grain Bars, cheeseburger Cheez-It crackers and Hostess Butterfinger brownies.
"We didn't always have 14 packages of Oreos in our freezer," said Passer's wife, Hailey. "In our old apartment, he started allocating room in our closet for the special-edition Oreos."
The dining room table serves as a makeshift photo studio, where Passer photographs new snack products and limited-edition flavors with an old Nikon point-and-shoot camera and a desk lamp he's had since college.
After taking photos of a 40-count box of pumpkin pie flavor Rice Krispies Treats, Passer peels back the foil wrapper and takes a bite.
"It's decent," he says. "To me, this tastes like a Rice Krispies Treat. The spice comes in at the end."
In a review to come later, Passer will go into greater detail about the snack's flavor, texture, price and nutritional content.
A sample: "These Cinnamon Toast Crunch Bites are salty. Like, 'Auntie Anne's pretzels that you buy at the mall because you're not gonna fit in that pair of jeans you want anyway salty,' " Passer wrote in one of his most popular reviews. He went on: "The fleeting sweetness from the filling almost instantly gives way to the overpowering saltiness of the dough, which has minimal cinnamon sugar flavor despite its outer coating."
Passer insists he isn't schlepping snacks (and calories) just for the social media "likes"; he's driven by the thrill of the hunt for something new, an excitement he can't explain, but one that he remembers from his childhood.
"I was always drawn to new ad campaigns," he said. "I remember in my teens there were new cleaning products that would come out. I was like 'Whoa, I have to get this new Spray 'n Wash.' "
THE THRILL OF THE HUNT
For Passer, this journey into junk food Nirvana started with special-edition Oreos.
When he heard about Oreo Red Velvet Sandwich Cookies a few years ago, he obsessively tracked them down. That excitement led to more quests for other new junk foods and eventually sharing his findings on Instagram.
Passer admits the indulgence factor of the high-calorie foods was a welcome diversion from his career as a lawyer at a local energy policy nonprofit and a way to offset the daily grind of working out and eating healthy.
"I needed more balance in my life," he said. "It's a point of enjoyment for me and a lot of other people."
In less than two years, Passer's Instagram account has grown to 26,000 followers who look to him for the latest junk food news. And with followers come freebies. Pillsbury, Keebler, Hostess and Ben and Jerry's send product samples for Passer to review.
"We know it's critical to reach people where they're at, which is often on social platforms," Hiranaga said. "Influencers can help uniquely build and amplify our brand stories, particularly if we work with influencers who are genuine fans of our brands."
A fan, he is. Passer insists he won't partner with a brand if he doesn't think the products align with what his followers want -- new, unusual, exciting, gluttonous junk food. And if he knows he's biased against a particular food (he can't stand candy corn) he won't review that, either.
To keep his followers happy, Passer tries to find new products as soon as they hit stores. But because his @snackcellar Instagram account is relatively new (he created it in 2016 with a post about Taco Bell's street tacos), he doesn't yet have any insiders to tip him off on new product arrivals.
Instead, after he's done working -- and working out -- Passer spends evenings and weekends snack-hunting. A few times a week, he makes the rounds to Walmart, Target, Cub Foods and Hy-Vee. He also signs up for company news releases and checks store websites daily, which will sometimes list items before they're on shelves. Other times he follows the lead of bigger junk food influencers, such as @junkbanter, another snack-obsessed Instagram account with 138,000 followers.
"There's a level of friendly competition when it comes to reviewing these products," Passer said. "We want to help each other grow our followings, but if you're first, people see you as the person to follow for information about their favorite snacks."
Late-night snack hunting is paying off. In May, Passer landed a big-time food sponsorship with Ben and Jerry's and a trip to the company's headquarters in Vermont, where he had dinner with co-founder Ben Cohen.
"That was an incredible experience," Passer said. "If you'd told me two years ago I'd be sitting down with the CEO of Ben and Jerry's at dinner, I would've laughed at you."
Passer hasn't given much thought to where he might want to take his newfound "instafame," but says he won't be leaving his legal job anytime soon.
"It's been a fun ride," he said. "Where it goes from here I don't really know."
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