PICTURED ABOVE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Aarti Sequeira of the Food Network. Photo by Bruce DeBoer | Jenna Cooper Hudson. Photo by Glynnis Christensen Photography | Joy Caracciolo of Joy Eats World. Photo by New Depth Creations | Tom and Rachael Sullivan, authors of “Meals She Eats.” Photo by Kelley Jordan Schuyle | Cheyenne Levinson of Triangle Families Explore and Little Oak Creative. Photo by Glynnis Christensen Photography
Local influencers share the region’s hottest spots, eats and activities
BY MELISSA WISTEHUFF
The word “influencer” has taken on new meaning over the past decade—especially when applied to social media. The redefined concept’s origin actually goes back to 2005, when Google launched YouTube so everyday folks could share funny videos. A number of artists and musicians also started releasing music on YouTube as a way to kickstart their careers. By 2009, bloggers were using the platform, increasing its influence.
Then along came Instagram in 2010. This popular platform allowed influencers to expand their following—and pick up new followers—via cross promotion. Since then, social media influencers have continued to build their reputation for knowledge and expertise on specific topics via YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and—beginning in 2017—TikTok.
Local influencers make regular posts on their preferred social media channel(s), and generate engaged followers. Restaurants, businesses and brands seek them out because they know these trendsetters have the power to encourage followers to buy the products they promote.
Influencers who spotlight a specific town or region can also quickly become local favorites of small business owners, because they help bring credibility to their products. It’s no surprise, then, that the Triangle has become a hotspot for countless social media influencers, each with their own focus on popular places to dine, shop or have fun.
We sat down with some of the region’s most prominent influencers to chat about their favorite brands, foods and hotspots. Needless to say, we quickly fell under their spell.
Aarti Sequeira’s journey as an influencer began with her win on season six of “The Next Food Network Star” in 2010. That same year, she began hosting her own cooking show, “Aarti Party,” on the titular network. Now viewers can tune in to see her judge some of the network’s most popular contestant-based shows, such as “Guy’s Grocery Games.”
She has written three books: “Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen With an Indian Soul” (2014); “My Family Recipe Journal: With Prayers & Scriptures” (2021); and most recently, “Unwind: A Devotional Cookbook for the Harried and Hungry” (2023), which releases this month. Her QVC line comes out this fall.
Originally from Dubai, Sequeira lived in Los Angeles with her writer/actor/director husband Brendan McNamara for two decades before moving with their daughters, Eliyah (9) and Moses (7), to Raleigh in early 2020. “We wanted a better lifestyle for our daughters, quite simply,” Sequeira says. “We’ve always loved visiting the North Carolina mountains and my husband has family nearby, so it seemed to be a good fit for us.”
Though moving cross country at the beginning of a pandemic posed challenges, Sequeira says she and her family fell in love with exploring the area. From trying out new restaurants to shopping at local farmers markets, Sequeira says Raleigh is starting to feel like home.
In the social media sphere, Sequeira has a broad fanbase with international followers. Producing top-notch content comes naturally for her—she trained as a reporter and started her career in 2000 by producing and editing her own segments for CNN. Facebook was just beginning to skyrocket when Sequeira won “The Next Food Network Star.”
“I had 45,000 new ‘friends’ overnight,” she says. “I’d always dreamed of being in front of a camera as a reporter, which means delivering objective facts. It took me a while to get used to being able to express my own opinions, which is both good and bad, as far as social media goes.”
The popular TV host moderates the time she spends on social media by taking occasional breaks, and shutting down technology every Sunday. “It keeps me grounded,” she says.
Some of Sequeira’s favorite spots in the Triangle make frequent appearances on her Instagram account. She says her family’s perfect day might include coffee at Jubala, followed by visits to comic book stores, a walk around Lake Johnson and a slice of derby pie at Bittersweet.
Other local favorites include the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, Logan’s Garden Shop in Raleigh, ice baths at Triangle Chiropractic & Rehabilitation Center, and dinner at Prime Barbecue in Knightdale. (She says Prime’s Triple Threat Wings are worth a weekly trip!) She also raves about the Carrboro Farmers Market, calling it “the quintessential small-town market.”
“Social media used to be the cherry on top for putting your name out there, but now it’s the cake that you have to invest in, because it’s a big part of brand-building, messaging and profits,” Sequeira says of the importance of social media as it relates to one’s personal brand management. She does, however, advise aspiring—and established—influencers to take occasional breaks. “It’s imperative for your mental health to recharge,” she says.
Joy Caracciolo topped off her collegiate basketball career at Boston College and the University of Delaware with a master’s degree in strategic communications from Queens University of Charlotte. Entering the influencer realm seemed like a natural step for this self-proclaimed “big-time foodie.”
Caracciolo, a single mother, saw an opening during the pandemic when some of her favorite restaurants were hurting financially. The Durham resident made it her mission to order takeout from as many small and minority-owned restaurants as possible. “It became a passion project for me,” she says. “I wanted to help as many places as possible, and it grew into a wonderful addition to my life.”
Her influencer gig comes in addition to her “day job” in public relations with a global tech company, making it necessary for her to carefully curate what she covers on social media. “I work remotely, so I am able to make restaurant visits during lunch hours, and when possible, I bring my son or my sister, Jasmine, to evening or weekend events,” she explains. Jasmine is behind the camera for many of the photos posted on Joy Eats World. “She knows my best angle,” Caracciolo laughs.
Caracciolo hosts annual events, such as a Juneteenth celebration featuring food trucks, and an ugly Christmas sweater party at Boxyard RTP. “I’d love to host more get-togethers so I can meet more people,” she says.
As for life in the Instagram spotlight, she admits that she has to set limits for herself, being careful to choose things that are the most meaningful to her. “If I could be a part of every restaurant or small business opening, I would—but there are only so many days in a week,” she says.
Caracciolo includes “world” in her blog name because she loves every type of food. Some of her favorite Triangle spots include Juju in Durham, Boricua Soul on the American Tobacco Campus, Taverna Agora in downtown Raleigh and TrySeafood in Cary.
Joy’s son, Julius (7), often accompanies her to kid-friendly events and restaurant openings. “He’s turning into quite the little foodie himself,” she says. Some of Julius’ favorite things to do and places to dine around the Triangle include eating pizza and ice cream on the Golden Belt Campus in Durham; and visiting Frankie’s Fun Park in Raleigh, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, Urban Air Trampoline & Adventure Park in Raleigh and Morrisville, and Mezcalito Grill in Durham and Apex.
Fans of “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor in Paradise” might think Jenna Cooper Hudson’s time on both shows in 2018 came before her start as a social media influencer—but it’s actually the other way around. “I’m an OG influencer,” Cooper Hudson says. Her job title while on the popular shows was social media manager. “I actually signed up to go on the show as a way to increase my social media following,” she says. Looks like it worked!
Originally from Indiana, Cooper Hudson has lived in Raleigh with husband Karl and daughter Presley (3) for several years now. While she mostly focuses on fitness-related news at @jennacooperfit, her @theraleighreview page is solely hyper-local, featuring reviews, giveaways and popular spots around town. Her sister, Peyten, helps make the videos and reels, and also engages with followers. “Social media can get really stressful as far as trying to maintain it, but having a team certainly helps,” Cooper Hudson says.
The Hudson family loves staycations. “We did one at The Mayton in Cary, which is so cute and unique,” she says. They also enjoy going to Pullen Park, or for a walk around Apex Community Park. “It’s so beautiful! It’s one of my favorite places to go for a relaxing walk and to watch the ducks,” she adds. Tai chi and yoga at Body & Brain—perfect outlets for the fitness-minded influencer—are also on Cooper Hudson’s list of favorites. And her pet pig Pearl is also a social media influencer! “She’s just like a toddler,” Cooper Hudson says. “She’s moody, eats a lot and makes a big mess, but she’s sweet.”
PICTURED: Princess Pearl Pig. Jenna Cooper Hudson added Pearl the pig to her family in 2019. Pearl is on Instagram at @princesspearlpig and has 21,000-plus followers. Photo by Jenna Cooper Hudson
When Rachael Sullivan was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) a few years ago while hoping to become pregnant, her husband, Tom, decided to take a holistic approach by creating homemade gluten-, dairy- and refined sugar–free meals. The Raleigh couple wanted to avoid medications, which doctors were suggesting for PCOS—a condition in which the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of androgens, and can cause missed or irregular periods and ovaries that are large or have many cysts—instead of focusing on foods with properties known to regulate hormones.
As a way to document his recipes, Tom created an Instagram page called @mealssheeats—unbeknownst to Rachael. Once she found out about the page, she made a TikTok about “how cute I thought it was,” which went viral. Shows like the “Rachael Ray Show” and the “Today” show contacted them about their story. And then? “We had no idea that this Instagram page would blow up the way it did,” Rachael says. “I think it just goes to show how many women were desperately looking for resources to help with their own PCOS journeys.”
Tom and Rachael say this is how social media can be used for good. “I love this side of social media—bringing together communities, whether it’s women with PCOS, specialists like dieticians, nutritionists or doctors,” Rachael says. “Our place isn’t to give medical advice. Our place is to share our experience and help others not feel alone.
Their first book, “Meals She Eats: Empowering Advice, Relatable Stories, and 25+ Recipes to Take Control of your PCOS,” was released in April. It quickly rose to the top of the Amazon.com and New York Times bestseller charts. “It’s all mind-blowing,” Tom says. “Here I was, just wanting to keep track of recipes and pictures of the meals as a way to document what foods worked for her symptoms, as well as what she liked or didn’t like, and now we’re authors,” he muses.
Now that Tom and Rachael have a daughter, Sutton (1), the Sullivans have added another title to their resumes: parents.
PICTURED: Photography and cover design of “Meals She Eats: Empowering Advice, Relatable Stories, and 25+ Recipes to Take Control of your PCOS” by Kelley Jordan Schuyle.
Mom to Oliver (9) and Sawyer (4), Cheyenne Levinson saw the need for connecting parents to fun things to do around the Triangle. “I kept hearing people say, ‘There’s nothing to do with kids in Raleigh.’” So, she created Triangle Families Explore, a website and Instagram account. “Plus, I was looking for a creative outlet, and I didn’t see anyone else posting fun, engaging video content of family-friendly adventures,” she adds.
While Raleigh is home base for Cheyenne and her husband Caleb, the Levinson family frequents nearby towns like Carrboro and Hillsborough for family fun. Some of their favorite things to do are mountain biking around Harris Lake County Park, exploring Prairie Ridge Ecostation, hiking at William B. Umstead State Park and hanging out at kid-friendly establishments like Bowstring Pizza and Brewyard. “We love being outdoors, so we’re always searching for fun things to do outside,” she says.
Levinson recently opened Little Oak Collective, a children’s clothing consignment boutique in Raleigh’s Village District. She plans to keep the Triangle Families Explore Instagram page running seamlessly with the help of additional team members. “I’ll split my time between the new store, with my children being part-time shop kids, but I’ll keep exploring the Triangle with them as much as possible—both for fun and for Triangle Families Explore,” she says.
PICTURED: Cheyenne Levinson with Oliver and Sawyer outside Little Oak Collective. Photo by Glynnis Christensen Photography.
THE HOLDERNESS EFFECT
In March, Triangle Family featured Raleigh’s Kim and Penn Holderness, internationally known influencers and winners of the 2022 season of “The Amazing Race.” Read the story online at midtownmag.com/the-holderness-effect.
Amazing Race photo courtesy of Michele Crowe/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
TAKE STRESS OUT OF MEALTIME
On September 24, Food Network star Aarti Sequeira’s latest book, “Unwind: A Devotional Cookbook for the Harried and Hungry” (DaySpring, 2023), will be released. The book’s purpose is to bring rest and peace to meal preperation and the dinnertime rush. Learn more at aartisequeira.com.
Photo by Bruce DeBoer.