By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – To go inside the kitchen of a talented, classically trained pastry chef, not long ago you would have needed an inside connection. Now, to bake with Zoë François, all you need is a phone and an Instagram account.

“I was posting pictures and people were reacting and no one was making the recipes,” said François. “So I started making Instagram videos.

RELATED: Top 7 Minnesota Baking And Recipe Influencers

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, baking has never been hotter. In one month in 2020, yeast sales were up 647%. Flour was as coveted as toilet paper. And where the flour mills rise along the Mississippi river, the Minnesota superstars of online recipes are seeing their fortunes rise.

“You could feel the uptick pretty quickly,” said Brenda Score, founder of A Farm Girl’s Dabbles. She’s spent more than a decade food blogging and recipe developing from her Elk River kitchen.

“I was working for an architectural firm and they were laying people off,” and Score decided to take stock and figure out what she really wanted to do with her life. “11 years ago food blogging was pretty unusual, there weren’t a lot of big ones.”

RECIPE: A Farm Girl’s Dabbles’ Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

Score grew up on a South Dakota farm, and she figured she’d write about things she dabbled in. “It just took off. I kept hearing through all of it – we find you very authentic, we can relate to you,” she explained.

Despite being a restaurant pastry chef, François also didn’t intend on achieving fame online. “No, no no no, this was not the plan,” she laughed.

Like Score, it wasn’t an overnight success. She’s spent 15 years writing about bread baking in her best-selling series Bread In 5. But when COVID-19 hit and people started looking for inspiration, she was also looking for a connection outside of the walls of her Minneapolis home. “I did an Instagram live and people were baking with me in real time. By the time I finished that, people were posting pictures of what I was baking. It’s incredible,” she said.

For both women, and many “influencers,” this work is an all-encompassing full-time job. “If you can figure out how to do this well, if you can find an audience, there’s tons of money to be made by this,” said Maggie LaMaack, director of influencers and brand partnerships for Twin Cities marketing firm, Fast Horse.

While influencer marketing has been growing for years, LaMaack said quarantines and work from home have led to an explosion in their value. “You now have your phone sitting next to you all day long. if you need a five minute break you can start scrolling through Instagram, start scrolling through TikTok,” said LaMaack.

The Zoe Bakes Instagram account had 200,000 followers before COVID. Now it has 300,000. COVID “changed everything. One, people needed/wanted the social interaction. And two, people had time,” said François. During COVID, she finalized a deal for her own national TV show, produced by Andrew Zimmern’s Intuitive Content production company, and now airing on Magnolia +, the streaming network from Chip & Joanna Gaines.

“This really intense time in our history has produced something that’s quite lovely,” she said, referring to the connection people are having with their families and their focus on exploring time together in the kitchen.

RECIPE: Zoe Bakes Ultimate Carrot Cake with Candied Carrot Peels

Score said she saw far more interaction with her recipes: more clicks, more comments, more tags in people’s posts. “It’s comfort food, it’s joy, it’s positive. People don’t want to live fearfully, they want to have some positivity,” she said.

“I’m the neighbor next door, making cookies,” said Score.

LaMaack said that companies are interested in connecting with and hiring the “neighbor next door” to help promote their products. “I think it just feels a little more attainable,” she said, “I think influencers and content creators have been a real big part of allowing people to pick up a new hobby.”

The biggest Minnesota baking and recipe site is Pinch of Yum. Founded in St. Paul led by former school teacher Lindsay Ostrom, on Instagram and Facebook the site has more than 1.4 million followers Second is Fit Foodie Finds. Lee Funke has more than three-quarters of a million followers. Brenda Score is third with 400,000 on our count of Minnesota Baking influencers, Zoe Bakes is fourth with nearly 300,000.

Do these bakers feel famous? “To my daughters’ friends I am, if that counts,” laughed Score.

Both are baking more with their kids. And hoping we’ve all realized that the quality time we spend together in the kitchen, sticks around far after the last cookie bar is gone.

“It brings me so much joy, it feeds my soul,” said François.

Jason DeRusha