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If it exists, there’s an Instagram account for it.

The beauty of the internet is that if you are into something, there is someone else who is into it, too. Instagram is full of accounts with relatively small but devoted followings: not the Kim Kardashian Wests of the world, with hundreds of millions of followers, but people with tens of thousands of followers who are specifically interested in whatever they are posting about: Design. Puppies. Pictures of themselves.

For Maggie Michalczyk, the thing is pumpkins. Michalczyk runs the blog Once Upon a Pumpkin and has 26,400 followers on her Instagram account of the same name. This year, she wrote a pumpkin cookbook, which is filled with pumpkin recipes. Her dog, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, is named Pumpkin.

Last fall, she left her full-time corporate job as a dietitian in Chicago to focus on what had been her side hustle. “I felt like if I just had a little bit more time to dedicate to this, I could do some really cool things that would allow me to partner with brands and really showcase pumpkin in different ways,” she says. “I just really wanted to explore how much more I could push the pumpkin envelope.” A year in, she still works one on one with clients and takes on nutrition consulting projects. The rest of the time, she is all about pumpkins. She is officially a pumpkin micro-influencer.

Confused and intrigued — I have never talked to a pumpkin influencer before, and also aren’t pumpkins seasonal? — I reached out to Michalczyk to talk about pumpkins, as a food, a flavor, and a calling. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Sugar

I haven’t counted, but you have more than 2,000 posts on Instagram, and the vast, vast majority of them seem pumpkin-related. How did you realize there was even an opportunity here? It’s not an obvious job, like doctor, lawyer, firefighter, pumpkin influencer.

Maggie Michalczyk

The first time I can really remember being like, “Pumpkin is my thing,” was in high school or college, in one of those get-to-know-you icebreakers. I think the question was “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever eaten?” I was like, “Well, my name is Maggie and my favorite thing that I ever ate was pumpkin.” I forgot what the thing was, exactly. It may have been pumpkin ice cream — just something really standard at the time. But then for the whole rest of the year, everyone just remembered that I liked pumpkin-whatever-it-was, and they remembered me that way.

And then as the first wave of major pumpkin products were hitting Trader Joe’s, I just remember being so excited to go there and then post about all that stuff on Instagram. I think pumpkin yogurts were really big when the first pumpkin craze started happening and it was like, “Let’s put pumpkin in everything!”

Rachel Sugar

When do you locate the first wave of the pumpkin craze?

Maggie Michalczyk

This was 2015. At the beginning, [my Instagram feed] was really, really simple, just me posting products I saw, mainly stuff at Trader Joe’s. But then it became — I don’t want to say a game, because that’s not the right word — but it was really fun to go pumpkin-hunting for things. And it still is. I have seen, in the last two years, people are willing to go miles to find the pumpkin things that they see out there or see on my page.

It’s a really fun conversation on a product level — “Oh, my god, have you seen this new pumpkin product?” — but from a more nutrition-oriented recipe perspective, when I put pumpkin into something unique, I love it when people say, “Oh, my god, I did not know you could do that!” Or if I say, “It’s good for dogs too!” I just love having those conversations with people sharing what they’ve done with pumpkin, how else they’ve used it, and then me experimenting in my own kitchen as a dietitian so I can say, “Hey, it adds texture, flavor, and nutrition to X, Y, and Z.”

Rachel Sugar

So what should I be doing with pumpkin that I don’t know I should be doing with pumpkin?

Maggie Michalczyk

One thing I’ve been doing a lot lately is a pumpkin green smoothie. For a while, cauliflower was definitely having this moment where people were like, “We need to put frozen cauliflower into smoothies to get ’em really thick!” But I could still taste the cauliflower, and while I like it roasted, maybe I don’t want cauliflower in a smoothie. But pumpkin has a similar effect. It’ll really thicken up your smoothies, and if you mix it with spinach, banana, almond milk, you get that thickness.

I also really like exploring savory dishes with it. I’m actually doing a pumpkin risotto today. I think using it in chili or in a savory pasta is always really good and unexpected.

On the sweet side, I think you can’t go wrong with pumpkin cookies. I just feel like those taste like fall. I think pumpkin bread is quintessential. It just brings up a lot of nostalgia for the season, too. A lot of cozy vibes.

Rachel Sugar

One thing you brought up earlier is this idea that people think of pumpkin as being “basic.” Pumpkin as a category — maybe actual pumpkins, definitely pumpkin spice flavoring — is, in the US, associated with girlish women, usually white ones, who have “unsophisticated” taste. They’re the Ugg boots of seasonal gourds. What’s going on there?

Maggie Michalczyk

I think it was born out of the pumpkin spice latte. Going to Starbucks at any other time is not really associated with being basic, but now you think in the fall, “I’m going to Starbucks to get my latte and maybe I’m wearing yoga pants and Ugg boots.” That idea was a lot more prominent maybe two years ago, but it’s one of those things that sticks. Now every fall, people are like, “it’s basic season again.”

I always try to say, “Hold up. Pumpkin pie spice is not basic. It’s actually a blend of a bunch of different spices that all have good nutritional properties. Look at how complex this is.” Ginger is great for digestion; cinnamon has been studied for lowering blood pressure; nutmeg is a good source of certain vitamins and minerals that are really not easy to come by all the time, so even that little sprinkle that you’re adding helps.

Rachel Sugar

I want to talk about the logistics of pumpkin Instagram for a minute. Are there other pumpkin influencers? I’m not an expert, but from what I can tell, there are a lot of people who have “pumpkin” in their handle, but very few of them are actually posting about pumpkins, as in, the raw material for jack-o’-lanterns.

Maggie Michalczyk

Yeah, I’ve seen that too. If people like my photos and they have pumpkin in their handle, I’ll look because I’m curious, but I’ve only ever seen one other account that had pumpkin things, and it definitely was not showing how to use it in recipes. It was just about products, or it would be sharing memes or basic and pumpkin spice things. It was more like a let’s make fun of it-type thing.

For a good pumpkin Instagram, there’s gotta be that element of — I wanna call it “the pumpkin factor,” or “the pumpkin spice factor.” Let’s use Cheerios as an example. I feel like when people see a pumpkin version of a brand they recognize, they flip out because they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I love Cheerios, I can’t believe they’re making a pumpkin spice flavor. I need to go find these and try these.”

Or maybe it’s a product just coming out, or maybe it’s new for the season. If a lot of people have not seen the pumpkin product, I kind of have an inkling that the photo is going to do really well, and there’s gonna be a lot of conversation around finding it.

And I think the more unique I can be with putting pumpkin into something, the better. For example, I recently did a pumpkin quesadilla and that, I think, was really successful because people were like, “What? Oh my gosh! I would never have thought of that, I can’t even believe you did that.”

It’s also worth mentioning that any new pumpkin or squash stuff Trader Joe’s puts out is very sought after. They recently put out a butternut squash pizza crust and for that, I saw a ton of engagement.

Rachel Sugar

So you’ll post other squash beyond pumpkins?

Maggie Michalczyk

Yeah. As we head into Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and the winter months, I do talk about winter squash. I definitely incorporate recipes for spaghetti squash, acorn squash, butternut, delicata squash, because I’ve sort of found over the years that a lot of people don’t know what to do with them or how to eat them, or if they’re even good. So while pumpkin is my main priority and my focus, I do think it makes a lot of sense to touch on the other squashes throughout the year, especially in the winter months when they’re in season.

Rachel Sugar

Speaking of seasons, it seems like the big obstacle with building a brand on pumpkins is that, you know, they’re seasonal. And maybe part of that is us, and we should just open our minds, but part of that seems like it’s just nature. How do you keep up a pumpkin account in April?

Maggie Michalczyk

That’s a question I get a lot. My following is really receptive to pumpkin stuff year-round because they are thinking about pumpkin year-round. Even in the summertime, people will say, “I’m starting to think about fall and pumpkin.” In July, they’ll say, “I’m so over summer. I just want to bake with pumpkin.”

I’ll talk about other seasonal vegetables, but I do think what keeps me relevant is that I’ll always have an underlying pumpkin tone or make a reference back to pumpkins. I do think people are looking for them more than we think throughout the year, which is crazy.

Rachel Sugar

How much of your income is coming from pumpkin influencing?

Maggie Michalczyk

In addition to Instagram and the blog stuff, I also frequently go on TV here in Chicago for food things, and in some instances, I also partner with brands for that. So I think, looking at the pie chart of things I do, I would probably say that collaboration for recipes and social media exposure would be maybe half to a little more than half of my income.

Rachel Sugar

So that’s Instagram, the blog, and the TV stuff?

Maggie Michalczyk

Correct. And then the rest … a little bit is from private [nutrition] clients, obviously. Some is just from passive income streams on the blog, like affiliate programs. But I would say the bulk is coming from blog partnerships, Instagram partnerships, and TV segment partnerships.

Being a dietitian, I was lucky enough to have experience interacting with different food brands, so I kind of knew what these companies are looking for in terms of partnering with somebody to get their message across. Brands are obviously looking on Instagram, so it’s nice this season to be considered that type of expert. If a company has a pumpkin product that’s coming out, I think they want to work with me because they know my audience is just as excited about that pumpkin product and they know it’s the right people to speak to.

Rachel Sugar

So let’s say a brand approaches you. What are they asking for?

Maggie Michalczyk

A couple of things, the main one being an Instagram feature on my page of their product if it is a new and novelty pumpkin item that’s just come out. Another really popular way that I partner with brands in the fall is for a giveaway — I know that my followers are extremely excited for the chance to win that pumpkin product sent directly to them. So I will do a feature of the product, I’ll talk about it in my Instagram stories, and then perhaps we’ll do a giveaway of it too. And then recipe collaboration is probably the second most popular project.

Rachel Sugar

This is kind of a weird question, but do you feel … influential?

Maggie Michalczyk

Yeah, it is kind of like a weird thought. I didn’t realize how much of an impact this was having I guess, until I would get messages that were like, “I was just in Europe and I had pumpkin soup and I thought of you!” Honestly, that’s the most common comment I get when someone meets me in real life: I was at the store and I saw all this pumpkin stuff and I thought of you. People will message me different pumpkin things they find, share their pumpkin finds with me, tag me. I do see that it is catching on and that [I’ve developed that] sphere of influence.

Rachel Sugar

And who are you influencing?

Maggie Michalczyk

I think it’s people who love fall in general — the scary movies, the pumpkin picking, the leaves, the baking, the cooking, the holidays. I really do think that’s the bread and butter of it. They love that so much, and when they can see a picture of all of my pumpkins, or a picture of all this pumpkin bread baking, then that resonates with them. It creates a connection: “We all love it so much, let’s celebrate it together.” I think it’s people who are interested in food and nutrition, and who love fall.

Author: Rachel Sugar


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