Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer
The creators of the VA Foodies Instagram account shared an interest in exploring the kinds of food Richmond had to offer and often found themselves taking pictures of all of their meals.
The account was originally created by Victoria Nguyen, a senior studying health, physical education and exercise sciences, who later invited Helengrace “Gracie” Quilon, a senior studying biology, and junior HPEX students Saakshi Gunda and Srija Kothakonda to contribute to the food account.
“It’s a special art because the people who make food spend so much time and energy making it pretty and making it taste good, but as soon as people try it, it’s gone,” Quilon said . “It’s really special when people come together to eat food.”
Together, the VCU students bonded over their love of trying new foods and have since begun documenting the happenings of the Richmond food scene on their Instagram account, @thevafoodies.
“We all love food,” Nguyen said. “It’s a bonding experience, the love of food, so we just started posting and we went from there.”
The group met by chance through academic and extracurricular pursuits both at VCU and at their high schools.
“I met Srija through high school volunteering,” Nguyen said, “I met Saakshi through Srija, and Gracie and I met because we were organic chemistry lab partners.”
The students have been posting on Instagram since Jan. 10 and have since amassed over 1,800 followers on the app.
The sudden accumulation of followers throughout the past year has been shocking, but welcomed. Their followers have increased by 31.2% in the last 90 days, according to Kothakonda.
“It’s something we try not to take for granted,” Kothakonda said. “We know that people look to us and our page for input and recommendations, it makes us feel really special.”
The students adhere to a strict posting schedule which allows constant content for their followers, according to Nguyen.
“We have certain days that we all have to post,” Nguyen said. “We make sure that we post those days, and we have deadlines to post.”
The value of food is in the unity it brings and its ability to bridge the gap between people’s differences, according to Kothakonda.
“It’s always an easy conversation starter,” Kothakonda said. “If you’re sitting with someone and enjoying food, the easiest thing to talk about is the food and it can open up many other conversations about anything really — your upbringing, your childhood, your travels. It opens up so many doors.”
The students have documented their meals at a plethora of restaurants in the city, ranging from large chains like Starbucks to smaller local businesses like BoDillaz and Red Eye Cookie Co.
The foodies are well acquainted with Richmond’s local restaurants and frequent many of them, according to Nguyen.
“I really love Ariana Kabob in Carytown,” Quilon said. “They have really good Afghan food, it’s amazing.”
The VA Foodies credit the diversity of the Richmond food scene as a large part of the success of their account, as the city offers many local businesses for the students to try, according to Nguyen.
“Richmond is constantly bringing us a diverse and wide array of foods and we see it in interesting ways,” Gunda said. “It’s very unique.”
Gunda said restaurants like Soul Taco on Second Street and the variety of Greek restaurants like Greek on Cary and Stella’s help contribute to the diversity of Richmond’s food scene.
Kothakonda said that the students’ different cultural identities — Gunda and Kothakonda being Indian, Nguyen being Vietnamese and Quilon being Filipino — not only enhances the diversity of the foods shown on the account, but also the foods they eat in their daily lives, as they are more open to trying different cuisines.
“Saakshi and I come from the same culture, but even then she’s introduced me to new foods,” Kothakonda said. “Victoria and Gracie have put new foods on my radar that I’ve never heard of or never tried.”
Richmond business owner Angela Petruzzelli started her Southern Italian restaurant, Sprezza, which opens twice a month at The Coop in Carytown, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She credits the VA Foodies as an asset to her social media marketing.
“It’s one of the most important things when it comes to social media marketing,” Petruzzelli said. “If you reach out to foodies or even have foodies who notice what you’re doing it helps a lot to push your page. People trust them [foodies], they’re authentic, they’re people in town, and they’re part of the community.”
Petruzzelli said the students’ age makes them stand out among other foodies in the area. Gunda and Kothakonda are both 20, while Nguyen and Quilon are 21.
“Most of the other foodies in town are in their mid to late 20s or their 30s,” Petruzzelli said. “They’re so young that they attract a college crowd.”
Nicholas Barahona, a senior psychology student, said he met the members of VA Foodies through his own food Instagram account, as they followed each other on the app.
He said the account being a collaborative effort between four students is something that makes them stand out from other food bloggers in the area.
“I don’t know anyone else who has more than one or two people running their account,” Barahona said. “It brings a collective energy and a vibe of camaraderie and friendship.”
The number of account administrators also allows for diversity within the food the students post about and the restaurants they try out, according to Barahona.
“They have different backgrounds and are from different places in the world,” Barahona said. “That brings something different to the table.”