How former MMA fighter Keith Lee became one of America’s hottest food influencers on social media

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 11, 2024 5:36 AM EDT
Keith Lee. Photo credit: Keith Lee

Keith Lee sits in front of the camera, explains where he got the food, and the cost of the dishes and rates each item on a scale of 1 to 10. This straightforward style has earned the food critic over 15 million followers on TikTok and nearly two million followers on Instagram. His viral food reviews have created remarkable sales opportunities and publicity for numerous restaurants across the country.

But Lee’s ascent into fame was far from social media and content creation. He was an MMA fighter who was let go by Bellator MMA, one of America’s biggest combat sports promoters.

“I felt very expendable after I lost my contract with Bellator. I promised myself I’m going to build something that no one can take away from me, and that’s me being me. Completely separate from anything else I do. It’s just me and you can’t take away who I am,” Lee recently said.

After dedicating his life to fighting, Lee received his walking papers from Bellator MMA in 2021. He had to find a completely new avenue to provide for his family and was torn on what to do next. Through all the frustration, Lee decided to create a sustainable career that wouldn’t necessarily rely on the whims of others. Little did he know that he would soon become a viral internet sensation.

While he was still a mixed martial artist, Lee started a TikTok account to deal with his social anxiety and become more comfortable doing interviews with the press. He talked very fast in his first videos but eventually learned to slow down and speak articulately. Lee started with family-focused content and cooking videos. He got his big break from sharing his wife’s pregnancy cravings on TikTok.

“I originally started doing TikTok to get more comfortable with doing interviews for MMA. Because at the time, all I was doing was MMA. Within that, it was about me learning how to slow myself down, how to speak at a more monotone tone. I usually speak this slow anyways but when I get excited or I get nervous, I talk real fast,” Lee said about why he began doing TikTok.

He was consequently invited to appear on People vs. Food, a popular YouTube channel with more than 12 million subscribers. To capitalize on that appearance, Lee came up with a format that would keep people coming back to his own account. He began making consistent food reviews in late 2022 and became known for giving his honest opinion on food. Lee reiterates that he goes into every review unbiased and that he isn’t bashing the restaurant.

Influencing or the ability for individuals to generate visibility for businesses through social media interactions has been an ever-growing phenomenon since the thick of the global coronavirus pandemic. Many experts agree that it has transformed the business landscape and will further shape the future of marketing communications.

Lee has used his platform to make a difference with small businesses around his home in Las Vegas and across the country. He doesn’t charge these businesses and always pays for his own meals even though some owners refuse to charge him. Lee has discovered some real hidden gems while at lesser known restaurants and so have his followers. Nowadays, businesses struggling in the extremely competitive restaurant market tag Lee to gain traction.

Notably, his excellent review about Frankensons Pizzeria pizza, wings, and garlic knots elevated the spot’s popularity. The video was seen over 30 million times brought the pizzeria a new clientele. In the case of 303 Food Truck, Lee got tagged in their video, visited the food truck and made a review of their offerings. Consequently, people came from all over the country to check out the place, with the business reporting outstanding sales months after the viral review video.

“I did a review for a place called 303 Food Truck. I got tagged in an original video he did about a cheesecake sandwich with mascarpone cream in the middle. I tried it and that video within the first 24 hours was at like 6 million views. He called me back and he said, ‘The line is out the door.’ It’s a food truck so from their parking lot to two parking lots over of huge lines of people. That’s crazy!” Lee said about how one of his reviews helped the sales of a small business.

Lee has since become an industry standard. He visits restaurants across the country, generating a whirlwind of business for exceptional businesses. His reviews and experiences have been at the forefront of several online debates. Lee has formed a partnership with Chipotle following a viral review about a custom-made quesadilla and dipping sauce from the brand. His “Keithadilla” will soon be available at Chipotle restaurants.