On a chilly night a few months ago, Sarah Phillips opted for white ceramics upon which she set olives, meats, cheeses and a baguette, all juxtaposed and angled just so. Sauces were not in their store-bought containers but spooned into tiny identical dishes with tiny identical spoons. There was orzo and broccoli rabe on the matching white dinnerware. Olive oil was ready to be drizzled from an unmarked glass bottle. Candles were lit, strategically set in the center of the table. The only items strewn thoughtlessly on the table were iPhones, three of them.
A pre-meal photograph is traditionally a family ritual, a modern-day version of saying grace. But an exception was made to the household rule of "Don't touch your food until a picture has been taken," even though the setting was picture perfect. That's because another rule supersedes it: "Don't post more than two photos a day." And Phillips, 61, had already posted twice that day to her feed @food. There was a photo of Indian corn and pumpkins shared with her more than 330,000 followers, perfect for early fall. (It garnered about 4,500 likes.) The other photo showcased a strawberry mousse cake topped with Chilean strawberries; 6,900 likes.
This night was different from all other nights because, for a change, the Eswein-Phillips family just went ahead and ate dinner.
Phillips is the matriarch of what may be called the First Family of Instagram. In addition to the @food handle, she has another account, @baking, which has more than 27,000 followers. Her son, Tom Eswein, 29, is behind @realestate, with its modest but growing following of 3,800. (Until recently, he worked on @food with his mom, but they recently decided to separate their @interests because family is complicated.) Her daughter, Liz Eswein, 25, is the force behind @newyorkcity, which has 1.1 million followers. Liz Eswein is also the executive director of Cycle, a division of a social media talent agency. Cycle represents influential Instagrammers and tries to help them make money from their feeds.
Aside from the fact that family life revolves around a social media app, there is something decidedly normal about the Eswein-Phillips crew. They are not downtown, loft-living scene-searchers. Tom Eswein, who recently married, lives on the Upper East Side. Until recently, Liz Eswein lived at home with her mother and stepfather in their midtown apartment.
They are a close family and sit down often together for meals. Around well-dressed, perfectly lit tables, Phillips espouses important family values.
"Stick to your brand," she chanted on this particular night. "Stick to your brand, stick to your brand, stick to your brand," she repeated as her children rolled their eyes.
As even adult children are wont to do, they bristle at their mother's advice. This dynamic is particularly electric between mother and daughter. Phillips calls it the "prom dress thing," referring to a time when Eswein as a young girl would ask for her mother's opinion and then proceed to do the opposite.
"Liz will say, 'Mom do you like this one or this one?'" Phillips said of a prospective photo. "And I'll say, 'This one,' and she'll go with the other one! And it's like, 'OK, so why did you ask?'"
But Eswein seems to take to heart her mother's big-picture Instagram lessons. "My mom says to me, like, 'You just have to have smarts and be strategic in the decisions that you make,'" she said.
Her feed is filled with pictures of skyscrapers and iconic locations of New York; cafes, parks, scenes from inside a yellow taxi cab. Her most popular images seem to be the ones that represent the Hollywood version of the city.
Like sticking to the brand, lighting is also a big family issue. When they eat at home, Phillips can dim or illuminate the chandelier that hovers above the dining room table. (The perfect background is provided by the Empire State Building, which is visible from the windowed dining room.)
But when they're dining out, they're at the mercy of others. Sometimes, that's a factor that needs to be addressed.
"You know, if the light isn't right at the table we're sitting at, I'll ask to move tables," Phillips said between bites.
Her children looked up from their iPhones and groaned in acknowledgment.
"Yep," a voice from the living room chimed in. It was Reed Phillips, Phillips' husband and the Esweins' stepfather. "She makes us move tables to a place where the light is better."
"That's true," Sarah Phillips said, unapologetically.
"A few times," her husband added.
"The light has to be good always," she said.
Reed Phillips, an investment banker, has an Instagram account but does not much use it.
"That's their thing," he said, looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
And now the family dogs are getting in on the action. There is a new Instagram account started by Sarah Phillips for Duke and Coco, the clan's doxies. The feed has more than 80 followers - a tiny sum by family standards, but the Esweins and Phillips have not yet thrown their promotional might behind the canine account. Still, in the family tradition, brand, brand, brand is being stuck to. The feed features Duke and Coco exclusively. This week, Phillips posted a photo of Duke and Coco, both outfitted in matching red holiday outerwear.
"The redcoats!" said the caption, which helped to elicit a healthy 35 likes. With 80 followers, that's about a 40 percent rate of liking - a very engaged dog audience, indeed.
The family passion began in early 2011, when Liz Eswein learned about the photo-sharing app called Instagram, which had been publicly started a few months before. She registered the handle @newyorkcity and suggested that her mother and brother join as well.
Phillips had been quick to adapt to the Internet back in the 1990s. She understood the concept of "domain squatting" - registering for simple dot-com addresses and figuring out what to do with them later. She created an online baking business in 1995 that she maintains to this day. In the beginning, she said, her friends would tell her she was crazy for investing her time in the passing fad of the Web. But Phillips listened to her gut.
Relying on a similar instinct, Phillips heeded her daughter's call. She grabbed the @food and @baking handles. Tom Eswein chose @realestate. He worked on @food with his mother as well.
The family that posts together makes money together, although no one will say how much. Liz Eswein has taken photos for large mainstream brands like Kate Spade New York and T-Mobile, and her current job as an agent was born out of her own success as an Instagrammer.
While Liz Eswein took a more solo approach with her account, Tom Eswein and his mother teamed up. Phillips took creative control. From the outset, she was meticulous. She wanted only classic, well-lit images of perfectly styled food.
Her son tended to monetization. He would meet with restaurants and food retailers and try to explain the value of Instagram to businesses. The easiest way, he said, was to describe the app as a modern-day billboard.
"I can't guarantee likes or comments, but rather than putting a billboard on the side of the highway, I can guarantee you it will be seen by the eyes of 200,000," Eswein said, in revisiting the elevator pitch he would give to marketers and restaurateurs interested in aligning with the food account. He ultimately scored deals with various restaurants and even the supermarket chain Fairway.
But tensions grew between mother and son. "All of our conversations went from typical mother/son to always talking about Instagram," Eswein said. "After a while, it consumes your daily interactions."
Often, they weren't seeing eye to eye.
"Fights, make up, fights, make up," this was the pattern, Phillips said, for once agreeing with her son.
Eswein couldn't ever win an argument without feeling as if he was being disrespectful. "I'm still his mom," Phillips said.
During their collaboration, Eswein was juggling a non-app life, too. While working full time as project manager at Cava Construction & Development, he helped plan his wedding and returned to school, studying for a master's in real estate at New York University.
Mother and son mutually decided that Phillips would take full responsibility for the food account. "It's hard to work with family," Eswein said. Now he is trying to build a larger following for @realestate.
His sister is his agent. She is helping to promote his feed: a natural collaboration, they both say, because what says New York City more than expensive real estate?
A few weeks ago, she posted a photo of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza against the backdrop of Rockefeller Center's art deco buildings. "Checking out New York City's most iconic Christmas tree with my brother @realestate!" she wrote as a caption.
It generated 37,000 likes and resulted in a few hundred new followers for Tom Eswein's feed.
In this family, there could not be a better holiday gift.
© 2015 New York Times News Service