Dereck Malone strolled into the Chick-fil-A in Jackson Township while capturing the moment in a video recorded on his cellphone.
The local TikToker praised the cleanliness of the dining room before he politely asked an employee if he had tried the new grilled spicy deluxe chicken sandwich and autumn milkshake.
After sitting down, Malone drew in a long sip of the cinnamon and graham cracker concoction. His eyes grew wide and his mouth was agape before taking a second sip.
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“Oh my God!,” he said. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch in a cup ― this is bad news, guys.”
Malone soon would be broadcasting the clip to 379,000 followers on his SnipingForDom account. The recent post registered more than 6 million views on TikTok, a wildly popular short video hosting service.
Another day, another review, another tasty food or dessert for Malone, a social media influencer who shows up frequently in the local dining and entertainment scene ― at preview nights for new restaurants; as a guest judge at Belden Village Mall’s “Taste for the Space” event this past summer; a grand opening for an area winery; and at a sneak peek last month at the new Zombie Bar Crawl at the Factory of Terror in Canton.
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“I have a passion for fine dining, great drinks,” Malone said, adding that he also wants people to get a good value for their money. “We just need to find places that have great atmosphere, customer service and fun. That’s what makes us happy at the end of the day. At least me.”
People often recognize Malone in public, his blondish-brown mohawk and goatee-style beard are easy to spot. They shake his hand, pose for photos and chat him up, drawn in by the local social media star’s approachable, gregarious nature.
On a recent trip to Tennessee, he was even asked for his autograph a few times during restaurant visits.
“He’s just got that personality that stands out,” said Malone’s father, Bob Malone. “That’s a little different than your normal view.”
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There’s substance, too, according to multiple restauranteurs, who say Malone’s positive takes on their grub have boosted their business, sometimes hugely, and often with a residual effect for weeks and months.
Fizzlestix Kitchen + Bar in Perry Township, known for its creatively-topped fries, burgers and other fare, was flooded with customers following Malone’s rave review earlier this year.
One of his favorite items, the “Tiger Twinkie,” was ordered so often the restaurant used 40 more pounds of jalapeños than in an average week.
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“It closed me down the first weekend because we didn’t have enough food and wasn’t prepared for that,” said Fizzlestix owner Jeff Buynak. “And the second weekend, we had to close a little early. We doubled business in a blink of an eye, and you just don’t that in this business.”
Buynak even named a drink after Malone ― a blueberry, jalapeño and limeade margarita, served in a goblet with dry ice and gummy skulls.
Samantha Kessler, managing partner of Bubba’s 33 in Jackson Township, said the eatery saw a big bounce in business following Malone’s visit.
Customers still ask for the same burger Malone loved, which became a top seller ― an angus beef patty topped with habanero heat sauce, charred jalapeño and onion blend, jalapeño cream cheese, Bubba sauce, lettuce and tomato.
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“We definitely had people coming from Cleveland and further out than normal,” Kessler said.
To thank Malone, and give him an opportunity to review and promote more menu items, Bubba’s 33 hosted a private dinner for the influencer and his family and friends, serving an array of food and desserts over the course of a few hours.
Bob Malone said that’s when he truly realized the impact of his son’s TikTok videos.
“They treated him like royalty because he had done a food review for them,” the father recalled. “And that was just a thank you because I guess it went over really big, and (they had) been packed.”
The younger Malone has been blown away by the reach of some of his reviews, including a couple who flew from Texas to try out Kitchen Social restaurant in Columbus based on his TikTok post.
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“People drive two to three hours away to try restaurants (based on my reviews), which is mind-blowing enough, but when someone flies in to eat at a restaurant that I said was good, it’s crazy,” he said.
“The reason I got into content creation is there’s a world out there that’s bigger than me,” he said. “It’s bigger than my ego, it’s bigger than any of my dreams and aspirations, and that’s helping people get through to the next day, and that honestly is truly my credo.”
Some of his reviews and promotional work have gone so well that Bubba’s 33 and Royal Docks Brewing provided food and beer, respectively, for a backyard party Malone hosted at his Canton home this past summer.
So it all begs the question: Who is Dereck Malone?
What you see is what you get in person. The infectious grin, the high-octane personality, the common man vernacular, the easygoing style. A guy who isn’t overly polished. Sometimes he’ll slip on a sport coat, but most times he’s a T-shirt and jeans guy who is happy to chug a beer at a bar or down a shot at a party.
“He doesn’t know a stranger,” said Malone’s father. “He can go up to anybody anywhere.”
Since childhood, “I’ve always been an entertainer at heart,” Malone said of being so at ease in front of a video camera. “I’d like to think of myself as a modern day Robin Williams, but I’m nowhere near that man’s stature.
“I’ve got struggles in life,” he admitted. “But as soon as I have the ability to perform and smile, that means the world to me.”
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As a professional online video gamer, Malone learned that along with skill, a big dose of personality is also critical to attracting viewers. And he’s clearly getting noticed.
Videos range in viewership: 80,000 for a review of UnHitched Brewing Co. in Louisville; 332,000 for Top of the Viaduct Restaurant in Massillon; 118,000 for Francisco’s Cantina Restaurant in Stark County; and nearly 3 million for the new adult Happy Meal at a local McDonald’s.
While Malone undeniably garners big numbers among Canton area TikTokers, the video platform’s biggest stars have parlayed their online fame into business empires. Ranking at or near the top is teenager Charli D’Amelio, who started with dance videos before amassing 148 million followers, earning $17 million in 2021 from her clothing brand, as well as from a Hulu television show and endorsement deals, according to Forbes.
Celebrity chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay has 34 million followers on TikTok ― a single video featuring play-by-play commentary on a home chef making shepherd’s pie logged 50 million views.
Locally, Stark County TikToker onebigpike, a friend of Malone’s, has 1.7 million followers of his mixed-drink recipes and assorted hijinks, including coffee tasting, hot sauce sampling and weightlifting.
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Kelsey and Ryan Mansingh are known as newbuild newlyweds on TikTok, and boast 1.6 million followers of their do-it-yourself home improvement videos. WKYC Channel 3 reported the couple moved from Florida to Lake Township after losing their jobs at Disney in 2020 and then purchased a fixer-upper.
Malone has a diverse background.
Growing up in Washington Court House in Fayette County, Ohio, he’s a self-taught computer coder and website designer who formerly worked in the corporate world.
“I have a hustler’s mentality,” said Malone, who also has a Snipingfordom Facebook page.
Around 2010, he quit the computer job and established a presence in the online gaming community using the live-streaming platform Twitch, generating income of up to $4,000 per month. Success also followed on the Microsoft-owned gaming platform Mixer.
After the gaming gig ran its course, he fell into bouts of depression. So he tried posting food reviews on YouTube with minimal success before friends urged him to give TikTok a shot.
Early on, the goal was simply to help local restaurants, Malone said, especially during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on his established gaming audience, Malone’s TikTok account reached 80,000 followers in February and has been growing ever since.
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“We might go out and record the videos,” he said of successful TikTokers. “But if we don’t have a strong community (of online followers) behind us, we won’t go anywhere.”
Fans include Megan McAfee of Stark County. She tries to watch all of his reviews; her 8- and 10-year-old sons do, as well.
“His reviews are fun and honest,” McAfee said. “And I think it’s cool he’s a local guy who visits local places that we can all go to.”
Reviewing a new sandwich at Arby’s helped put him on the TikTok map.
“It just went absolutely bonkers,” Malone said of the diablo chicken sandwich video, which quickly drew 100,000 TikTok views before exceeding a million. “I had never seen an algorithm work like that one.”
At the time, Malone reviewed restaurants without compensation.
But as the demand and requests grew, so did his travel and other expenses. So he started charging a fee, pointing out that he’s giving restaurants exposure far beyond traditional advertising. And he also started shopping his services to restaurants without the promise of a positive review.
Canton-area spots get billed a lesser amount, he said. Traveling out of state earns a higher fee starting at $500.
TikTok also pays personalities like Malone because high viewership attracts brands and sponsors. But it’s only a few pennies per thousand views. TikTok followers also can donate money to their favorite content creators.
Malone didn’t reveal what he’s on pace to earn this year from food-related videos, noting he doesn’t track that income source specifically. But it’s enough to make a living when combined with income from the marketing work he does for CounterTen, a California-based company specializing in NFTs. Malone said he’s also involved with Hyperluxe, an online gaming platform.
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But helping restaurants exceeds it all, he said.
“I can’t tell you the amount of tears I’ve seen business owners cry or the hugs that I’ve received when returning back to establishments,” Malone said. “There is no money in this world that could ever give me that type of feeling.”
Malone sometimes fires back online at the occasional critic, including on the Taste of Stark Facebook group, balking at what he perceives as cynicism. Malone said he has also shelled out a lot of his own money for reviews, including hotel, gas and other expenses.
And he responded to those who say his reviews are only positive.
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“There are times that things do suck,” Malone said. “And the food was really terrible, but the customer service was just top-notch. People in the world nowadays are so quick to open their mouth with negativity … and I can’t stand it.”
“My scale (restaurants are rated up to 10) is extremely different,” he explained. “I’m not in the business to shut people down; I’m in the business to help people succeed and know their self-worth … or to get better at things.”
What might look purely fun on camera becomes a grind, taking a toll on the content creator mentally and physically, said Malone, who once trained as a mixed martial arts fighter and is a workout fanatic. A lot goes into the foodie gig, up to 16 hours a day: Soliciting restaurants, responding to inquiries, conducting online research, coordinating visits and eating out, recording and editing videos, travel, interacting with followers.
“It’s a lifestyle,” said Malone, who still does online gaming. “I’m constantly on my phone connecting with people on social media. That’s how you keep it going.”
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Motivational messages are another one of his online trademarks.
“We got one shot at life,” Malone said with his usual pep. “Anything can happen at any given moment and nothing’s promised tomorrow. I don’t want to go to bed feeling negative. I want to spread positive things in the world. Life is not easy for any of us. There’s always ups and downs.”
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and email@example.com
On Twitter @ebalintREP
Dereck Malone strolled into the Chick-fil-A in Jackson Township while capturing the moment in a video recorded on his cellphone.