Taylor Shabazz loves well made food, and she wants you to love it too. As a military wife who grew up in the foodie restaurant culture of the Pacific Northwest, she’s realized just how much food can help communities connect, and she’s using her love of all good things to eat to build a brand that can travel with her.
Shabazz professes that she is outgoing and enjoys getting to know everyone she meets, greeting me with a hug when I joined her for a restaurant review. So when her now-husband was the one to approach her while they were both living in California, she was intrigued, and fell in love. Like many military couples, they have a story of a whirlwind few years of marriage, separation during Army training, and becoming parents. As their young family settled into life at Ft. Bliss a few years ago, she struggled not only to develop a sense of community, but also not knowing where to go to get good food.
Finding her calling
If you are a foodie in a military family, you know it can be both a blessing and a curse. You get to move around and try different regional delights, but you also lose all of your “go-to” places for take-out, date nights, or comfort food. She knew a city of El Paso’s size had to have a burgeoning food and restaurant culture waiting to be found, but wasn’t finding online reviews–often out-dated, paid for, or borne out of one bad night–particularly helpful, so she made a decision to start a Facebook group for fun called “Foodies of El Paso & Surrounding Areas.” It encourages people to share their favorite places, reviews in real time, grocery specials, and pictures of home cooked meals. At the time, she never imagined that she might have found her calling, she just wanted to know where to go out to eat.
The page grew and grew into a thriving community with over 11,000 members – longtime locals, tourists, and military families. There are giveaways from local restaurants and bakeries, threads on food opinions, and opportunities for members to meet and giveback, all because one military spouse saw a problem and worked to find a solution.
From idea to execution
One night, while cooking, Shabazz realized that she wanted to use the time she was putting into the page to build her own following and perhaps, a career. She knew she wouldn’t be in El Paso forever, but maybe she could take the magic of this community with her. She thought about her relationship with food as she cooked, and her love of weird food combinations: “I add, takeaway, mix it up.” She went to the computer, with a name in mind, and with all of the food bloggers out there, it was still available. She worked to develop her own Facebook and Instagram pages almost immediately, going by her preferred public name, Taylor Alexis. “My Crazy Plate” was born.
As she paused in her story to stand on a chair and get a good shot of the gorgeous food coming to our table, she fawned over the food exclaiming, “I’m so expressive…I love what I can capture,” noting her life changed when she got her camera and began to learn food photography. Inspired by her grandmother who worked in the food industry, Shabazz admits that she’s learning as she goes and knew she would need to make up for what she lacked in experience and education with tenacity and a willingness to learn. She professes to be a lifelong learner, and while she has faced pushback from people who know more about the industry than her, she says she works from a philosophy of “if you have knowledge, you should share it.”
She got up the courage to bring the Facebook group from a small online community to one that functioned in the real world, asking a local business owner if they’d like to donate a gift card to promote their food on the page. After getting her first yes, the word got out that this was an avenue of marketing for local food businesses. Writing letters and making phone calls, she told owners about the community of those eager to spend hard earned dollars on food, and page members began mentioning to restaurants where they had heard about the business.
When discussion on the page brought up the opening of the Melting Pot in El Paso, Shabazz, thinking about what she could bring in terms of unique perspective to the food blogging world, realized “that’s my opportunity” and contacted the management”. She was invited to come to a pre-opening ‘Friends and Family Event’ as a food critic. For a night, she met staff, took in the food, asked questions and live-streamed her first real time review, a video with now over 3,000 views. Shabazz focused her reviews on sharing the experience with her online following, rather than an edited, technical look at the food. Followers leave comments and questions as she shows off the atmosphere, menu, and service–like a friend giving you an honest, real time experience you could enjoy from the comfort of home.
Watching the food blogger in action
I joined Shabazz as she visited St. Augustine’s Artisan Pizza + Craft Beer, watching her work as she tried food, spoke with staff, and interacted with followers online for a portion of the night. At one point she asked those tuning in on my behalf, what is it that you love about this group? There were of course mentions of the giveaways and honest restaurant reviews, but strung throughout the comments was the theme of community, and how the page allowed people to connect with those all over the city through recipes, learning each others food traditions and preferences, and supporting local businesses.
That’s not to say this has all been easy. As she curates My Crazy Plate, like many people attempting to break into a freelance business built on hours of work and reputation-building before promise of pay, Shabazz is straddling the line between hobby and career as she tries to figure out where to go next, working her way into opportunities for possible income streams from videos and photography, and becoming a brand ambassador for food products. While she may have a long way to go, at 26, her enthusiasm and positive outlook is encouraging for military spouses of all ages.
Using social media as a tool, she notes that the “bullies come out” and she’s having to learn how to respond professionally. On the other hand, the page has given her, and local foodies, a chance to give back using their love of food. Recently, a local food pantry called You Eat I Eat was in danger of shutting its doors, but through the network of the page, Shabazz helped to organize “Pack the Pantry.”
The event raised food items, cash, and toiletries from individuals and businesses, attracting media attention for both the foodie group and charity. When asked about the event, it’s obvious in Shabazz’s voice that this is a point of pride and she notes that throughout the circumstances of her own life she knows that the “food someone gives you could be a blessing,” whether it’s a physical or emotional need. Her role is one of making connections between restaurants, vendors, suppliers, charities, and the people looking for those businesses to support.
At the end of our meal, she noted over a bite, good food “hits you not where it hurts, but where it loves.”