Most restaurants are usually thrilled to have Keith Lee review their food.
With more than 14.5 million followers on TikTok alone, Lee brings exposure that has helped turn some businesses around, with lines out the door and praise from grateful owners.
Then Lee came to Atlanta.
His visit brought viral videos, death threats, responses from Grammy-winning artists and what some say is a long overdue reckoning for the Atlanta restaurant scene.
Restaurants typically welcome ‘being ‘Keith Lee-d’
Lee is a 27-year-old former MMA fighter who has found so much fame reviewing eateries that it’s now a full-time gig.
Unlike some food influencers who get paid for their reviews and opinions, Lee says in his videos that he pays for his own meals and even sends family members to pick up his orders so he’s not recognized and given special treatment.
The everyman reviewer, who lives in Las Vegas, has a trademark style: He eats the food in his vehicle and records his reactions, while always encouraging his followers to not go by his experience alone and to try out the establishments themselves.
Lee also tries to dissuade his followers from being negative on social media towards the businesses whose food he hasn’t rated highly, often pointing out that any company can have a bad day and to bear in mind that people depend on their business for their livelihood.
His focus on small businesses and food trucks — often Black owned — has endeared him to the eatery owners who have gotten good reviews. Having him taste your food is referred to online as being “Keith Lee-d.”
So there was initially a sense of excitement when Lee’s followers discovered he was visiting Atlanta as part of a food tour he and his family have undertaken across the country.
In recent years Atlanta has become a culinary hotspot, with multiple “Top Chef” contestants and several celebrity-owned restaurants. The city even recently scored its first Michelin-star restaurants.
Mike Jordan has been covering the Atlanta culinary scene since 2009 and told CNN the city is a natural spot for the industry to thrive given that in Georgia “we eat everywhere we go.”
“I mean, gas station food is big in the South, and Atlanta strip clubs have not just food, but very good food,” Jordan said. “I remember when people used to say, ‘Oh my gosh, why would you ever eat at a strip club?’ And we’ve gone to the point of now it is a well acknowledged thing that Magic City (a legendary strip club in Atlanta) has very, very, very good wings.”
But when Lee started trying to get food from some Atlanta-area eateries, things didn’t go so well.
‘I pay for my food just like everybody else,’ Lee says
Lee initially agreed to be interviewed by CNN and then changed his mind, requesting that some of the establishments he visited be given the opportunity to speak instead. But on his social platforms — he has another 1 million-plus followers on Instagram — he shared a story saying he was unable to get service at The Real Milk and Honey in College Park, a community south of Atlanta.
According to his review, when Lee’s family tried to order food the staff told them the restaurant was closing early for a deep cleaning — despite the doors being open wide and other customers picking up orders.
Lee said he opted to go in himself and when the staff recognized him, they offered him service, which he declined.
“I pay for my food like everybody else. I walk up in spots like everybody else,” Lee said, explaining why he was doing a food-less review. “We are all normal people. Respectfully, if you’re not going to do it then, don’t do it now.”
Lee said he believes he also received special treatment when he attempted to try the food at Old Lady Gang, an Atlanta restaurant owned by Grammy-winning songwriter, singer and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Kandi Burruss.
Lee said he sent his family into the eatery and they were told there was no carryout on the weekends and it would be a wait of more than an hour. But Lee added that once again he went inside, was recognized and then told they could be seated right away.
The TikTok creator said that when he asked how his group could suddenly be seated so quickly he was told that the people on the list ahead of his family had not responded when their name was called, creating an opening. Again, he declined service.
The two businesses had different responses to the attempted reviews.
The Real Milk and Honey initially posted a video on social media in which an unidentified man asks, “Who is this Keith Lee?” The video was met with almost immediate backlash and was deleted.
The restaurant then posted a statement on its Instagram account to “address a recent incident that highlighted a review from a high profile food blogger.”
“In no way were we trying to discredit anyone, if the comments came across as such, kindly accept our apologies,” the statement reads. “It’s crucial to always take feedback and make improvements, for the success of our business and our community.”
For her part, Burruss posted a video on her Instagram account saying, “I just really want to say, I do appreciate Keith Lee for stopping by our restaurant and trying to show us love.”
“It is very unfortunate that we couldn’t serve him and his family,” she said. “On the weekends, we get a lot of community support, people in our city that show up for us, as well as a lot of people from out of town. So, with that being said, we don’t want to overwhelm our kitchen by having to, you know, have such long times for the people who are actually at the restaurant, plus having to do to-go orders.”
CNN has reached out to both The Real Milk and Honey and Burruss for additional comment.
Lee’s experiences have stirred some on social media to share their own complaints, among them that Atlanta’s restaurant scene is littered with places that care more about their social media presentation than their food and service.
Such spots have inconsistent hours, food and customer service, along with policies that are not always customer friendly — such as not allowing takeout, according to many complaints.
The conversation went so viral that rapper Cardi B, who has a home in Atlanta, went live on social media and shared her own experiences, saying “I feel like Atlanta restaurants, they don’t like to make money,” and noting that she has sometimes had members of her team drop her name in an effort to get better service.
“I feel bad for Atlanta residents,” she said. “Thank you, Jesus, I’m famous, but even me being famous, it’s like a hassle!”
But Jordan, who is now a senior editor for the Black culture team at Atlanta’s newspaper of record, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sees positives in what happened.
“I think sometimes it takes an outsider to vocalize what is on a lot of people’s minds. And the fact that when he did this, there was such a viral reaction across the board from diners, from influencers, from the media, from the restaurant owners — that just shows you that this has really been bubbling under the surface for a long time,” Jordan said.
“And he (Lee) was just the conduit to really open up this conversation,” he added. “I think his outsider status made this something that where everyone could finally let loose, because I think we’re also a very nice city, we’re a Southern city. So I think that clearly everyone had been feeling this way … (but) they needed someone else to step out and say it first.”
One restaurant owner says the episode has been ‘a nightmare’
Not everyone appreciated Lee’s feedback on his Atlanta visit, however.
Devon Green is a part owner at Milk and Honey, a restaurant west of Atlanta that is known for its brunches. His restaurant is being mistaken for The Real Milk and Honey, the place Lee attempted to review.
Green told Atlanta’s 11 Alive his business has been inundated with threats from some of Lee’s followers who are confusing his restaurant with the one Lee talked about.
“A bomb from negative comments, death threats, threats to blow the building up, threats to end our business,” Green said. “We started getting bad reviews on Yelp. People were calling our phones. It was a nightmare.”
CNN has reached out to Green for comment.
Lee also appears to have felt threatened by the online fracas surrounding his Atlanta visit.
After the uproar he posted a video telling his followers “I can’t win for losing” and explaining that most of the time he reviews restaurants that have been suggested to him or he’s been requested to. Lee said he’s never malicious when it comes to his reviews.
“I understand everybody gonna have an opinion on the situation. You can disagree with me. You can not like what I say. Completely understand,” he said. “I’m ok with that. But when my safety and my family safety are coming into play, that’s where I draw the line.”
‘The food scene in Atlanta is going to have to elevate’
Miguel Hernandez is one Atlanta restaurateur who was hoping Lee would stop by.
A co-owner of Rreal Tacos, a local chain of fast-casual eateries, he has an appreciation for food influencers and said that during a recent trip to Dallas he used TikTok to find someplace good to eat.
“I think that these influencers, they know the power that they have. They’re not doing it to tarnish restaurants by any means,” said Hernandez, who added that he has worked with social media influencers to get the word out about his own brand.
And while he says he understands that people are passionate about both their city and its restaurants, he sees no reason to go overboard when it comes to Lee’s reviews.
“It does give restaurant owners and people in the food scene in Atlanta the opportunity to maybe get better,” Hernandez said. “Atlanta’s known for music. Atlanta is known for starting trends. And I think that the food scene in Atlanta is going to have to elevate as well.”