It was just a double entendre, the man behind the popular food blog “KenEatsGainesville” said.
At worst, Ken Peng said, his message to a Publix deli employee was a joke that went too far.
Many of his thousands of followers disagreed, calling it inappropriate and unnecessarily salacious – and their backlash was so intense that perhaps the most influential food reviewer in Gainesville had to apologize and retreat.
“I wasn’t trying to sexually harass anybody. I wasn’t trying to make anybody uncomfortable,” said Peng, 34, who has kept the blog for seven years. “Obviously, I missed the mark.”
It all started Thursday morning, when Peng placed an online order for a chicken tender sub. In the space for special instructions, he typed, “I yearn for a long & hard 12 inches of sultry poultry bathing in a warm creamy bath of buffalo sauce.” Four innuendo-laden sentences followed.
This wasn’t the first time Peng had written a note into his online order, he said, though they were typically much less likely to be controversial: “Cuban bread if you have it. I love you.”
So he thought nothing of posting a photo of the receipt to his Instagram account. However, private messages quickly flooded his inbox, with some followers saying it made them uncomfortable. He quickly deleted it, but not before someone shared it via the GNV community on Reddit, the online aggregate and forum.
That’s where criticism of the note – one user called it a “horrid attempt at literary soft porn” – turned to contempt for Peng. Anonymous users said he has a history of problematic behavior.
The blogger uses his local celebrity to pressure women to go on dates with him. That’s a lie, Peng said. He pressures restaurants into giving him free food. Another lie, he said.
“All of a sudden, everybody wants to cast me off as some monster,” Peng said. “That’s not me at all.”
At its peak, “KenEatsGainesville” had an online following of around 22,000 people. His reviews have major influence in deciding where people eat, said Freddie Wehbe, 53, a marketing consultant for several local restaurants, including Mi Apá, Gators Dockside and Hurricane BTW.
Wehbe surveys thousands of local residents each year to find out how they choose where to eat. Since 2016, the top answer has been Peng’s blog.
“They go to his page before they go to anything else,” the consultant said. “Even before Google, which is amazing.”
When asked to speak with WUFT News about Peng and his Publix message, the majority of Reddit commenters contacted were quick to offer their opinion but declined to give their name.
Amber Jensen, 36, of Gainesville, who once worked at the downtown bar The Midnight, said what she characterized as his arrogance might have something to do with it.
“He had come in there one time … and was just like, ‘I’m Ken and I’m an important figure in this community,’” Jensen said. “He definitely wanted to give the impression that if we didn’t do what he wanted, he could put out a negative review.”
The accusation that Peng uses his food reviews like currency is among the most common among the Reddit criticisms. He denies it vehemently. Restaurant owners frequently do offer to compensate him for his reviews, but Peng said he consistently turns them down.
“He can’t be bribed,” the marketing consultant said. “I’ll send him a thank you note, you know, throw in a gift card from a restaurant he reviewed. He’ll send it back.”
Thomas Tarrant, 26, owner of the Brother Cookie bakery on Northeast 23rd Avenue, also agreed.
“In fact, when he first came in, I tried to give him cookies on the house,” said Tarrant, who declined to comment on the Peng’s Publix message. “He said no, he was going to pay for them.”
Peng’s influence leaves him open for criticism from some when he posts negative comments about budding restaurants – especially during the pandemic. Indeed, his first review of Brother Cookie, which opened in April, mentioned that the cookie he’d eaten from there was dry.
That blog post drew angry comments from his followers, Peng said, but it led Tarrant to discover that his oven was giving off uneven heat. Peng said he’s loved the cookies ever since.
“All I’ve ever done is put my opinion out there and then try to help these restaurants out,” he said. “I mean, for God’s sakes, I’m in the middle of trying to fundraise for the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank to provide meals to people in need in Gainesville.”
Peng deactivated his public accounts Thursday evening. They aren’t gone for good, just hidden, until Peng decides he wants to start again. He posted an apology on his website, acknowledging that his note was inappropriate and denying the claims made about him.
“I took a joke too far. I apologized for it,” he told WUFT. “But people were using this as a springboard just to spread all these lies. I just need to take a step back.”