If you know which sandal best represents which Bay Area city, where exactly to find eats from the Almaden hills to Berryessa or if a girl is from Evergreen or Saratoga based solely on her lashes, you might be a San José Foo.
Now a local sensation, San José Foos started like a slow burn at the tail end of 2019, in the halcyon days before the onset of COVID.
By March of 2020, when everyone was forced inside by the shelter-in-place order, San José Foos went up like a spark in a fireworks factory.
Over the next two years, the little account grew grew quickly in popularity as it dropped money in San José neighborhoods for struggling Foos to find, shouted out local businesses and covered the protests after the murder of George Floyd.
But while posts addressing the harsh realities of COVID living and police brutality raised grew the account’s visibility, it cultivated its now generous following mostly through memes and humorous observations about San José living.
At times sharp, sarcastic and a bit despairing, San José Foos acknowledges and satirizes the dystopian edge that bit into the Bay Area as 2020 settled in and outstayed its welcome.
Earlier this month, the popular local Instagram feed was thrust into the international limelight after it posted a video on Oct. 6 of a bikini-clad Pink Poodle dancer exiting a San Jose Fire Department truck. The caption: “Only in San Jose do you see a stripper come out of a firetruck.”
The post went viral and drew media coverage from London tabloids, the New York Post and the Los Angeles Times. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo commented publicly, promising “If the investigation concludes that this video is as bad as it looks, then heads must roll. We cannot have a life-critical emergency rescue apparatus relegated to a frat party bus, nor tolerate any conduct that so demeans the heroic work of the rest of our SJFD team.”
Jorge Anthony Gomez, who operates the feed, is perplexed at the mayor’s “pretty extreme” reaction to what he calls “a stupid little video.”
“He’s said a lot less about much worse things,” Gomez says. The photographer was “just a guy” who happened to record the incident and sent it to Foos. “He was confused as well” by all the attention the clip received.
As the shelter-in-place order was lifted, the account continued posting memes and nostalgic photos of old San José, but doubled its efforts in championing local businesses. As people returned outside, long-suffering mom-and-pop shops did Instagram takeovers of the account, promoting their wares and eats through reels that made mouths water and sent people to new diners and donut shops in droves.
But as the account grew in popularity commenters began to wonder out loud and even demand to know, who was behind the account? Where had they come from? What was their motive in all of this?
The account wasn’t selling merch or raising funds for future ventures. Instead, the rarely-seen-or-heard owner was openly assisting the crowdfunding efforts of a local man who went viral after the converted box truck he called home caught fire and he drove it through San José streets for hours until it safely burnt itself out. San José Foos shared GoFundMes and assisted with toy drives, canned food and clothing drives. They spotlighted local masked superheroes helping the homeless and boosted rallies and marches against hate in the wake of racist attacks on Asian citizens.
Who was doing all this? And why?
It all started with a meme.
Jorge Anthony Gomez was sitting at his work desk in December 2019 when an idea for a meme about San José hit him. Puzzled that there were no meme pages about a city so close to the home of social media itself, Gomez decided to quickly create one and San José Foos was born.
“I literally opened up Instagram and then just created it. The first thing I typed in [was], ‘San José Foos,’ and I was like, ‘oh, it’s available. Alright, I guess I’ll just go with that,’” he says.
Gomez posted that first meme, about what your sandals say about where you live in the Bay Area, and three hours later it found its way back to him.
A friend sent it after finding it circulating on Facebook. The meme had gone viral on the platform despite only being posted on Instagram. Gomez hadn’t even known that it had taken off.
This, he recognized, was an opportunity to create some of the biggest inside jokes in the history of inside jokes: an entire community, a city of nearly one million people, engaging in humor about shared culture and experiences.
“The community here really has a want for local jokes that only people locally would get,” Gomez says.
As stand-up comedians will tell anyone, local jokes get local work.
He continued posting memes and nostalgic looks back at different eras in San José that only San José natives could understand and appreciate. The page took off like an East Side girl’s false lashes in a high and sudden wind.
Thousands shared memes about San José being the birthplace of Chuck E. Cheese and Eggo waffles.
The San José Foos instagram account steadily grew a cult following, proliferating memes, reels and other viral content across all social media platforms. In August of 2022, San José Foos hit 100,000 followers. The account’s total engagements on social media number were in the millions.
Though the page specializes in content only locals will truly appreciate, Gomez only moved to San José five years ago, after relocating permanently from Los Angeles.
The graphic designer, event promoter, clothing designer, artist, photographer and musician came north when a friend offered short-term, non-creative trade work.
“I’d come out here, make a little money and I just started falling in love with the city,” Gomez said. “I really liked the weather. I liked the atmosphere.”
Though he immediately enjoyed the feel of the city, he says it “took me a minute to get into the community. It felt kind of hard to find at first.”
San José’s massive population, the 10th largest in the country, is spread over nearly 182 square miles and a couple dozen distinct neighborhoods. One of the country’s most desired places to live and one of its most cost-prohibitive, San José is used to being paradoxical. In a city of nearly a million people, it’s a place where it can be hard to engage with community, or to find fellowship as a newcomer.
It can be especially difficult to foster togetherness, as Gomez dreamed of, during a global pandemic. However, he was determined to bring his newly adopted home city together in lean and frightening times.
Despite its sprawl and impressive population size, Gomez says he feels everyone in San José is connected.
“Everyone knows each other; it just feels like a giant sitcom,” he says.
More than an enormous game of six-degrees-of-separation from their nearest high school or phở joint, San José is joined by a common consciousness. Whether it’s memories of the orchards that once spiraled outwards towards either side of the valley, or knowledge of the newest boba experience that must be tasted to be believed, the constantly revolving city still retains the same gravity.
“Everyone is friendly with each other for the most part, and it just feels like one big family. I think that’s the best thing,” Gomez says.
Gomez leaned into that family energy when he began supporting strapped local businesses staring down the barrel of bankruptcy and closure.
Shuttered during the shelter-in-place order, eateries countrywide suffered. With rents in San José higher than E-40 in a hot air balloon on 4/20, many local bakeries, bars and birria spots were unsure they would make it through the pandemic.
To help, Gomez began allowing takeovers of his now extremely popular Instagram account. He drove audience engagement by pitting small local shops against one another in a friendly sports-bracket-style competition for things like best phở, best donuts or best Korean cuisine.
In particular, San José Foos highlighted local businesses that have changed the community by serving up unique menu items, like Cafe Nirvana Soul in downtown, Tacos los molcajetes de Quintana on the east side, Pink Elephant Bakery on King Road and Santouka Ramen in Mitsuwa Market on Saratoga.
Ray Hernandez, manager of the 13th Street location of Mariscos Costa Alegre, says he noticed that the customer base changed after their San José Foos takeover.
After managing the restaurant for two years, Hernandez saw that new customers were coming in and specifically trying items that were showcased in Instagram reels, including their famous molcajetes.
“Usually our regular customers are 90% Spanish-speaking,” Hernandez says. “Now, we’re having a broader reach. They see the posts and ask for that item and in general it sells more.”
Hernandez says that Gomez’s love for San José is evident in the way he interacts with local businesses, partially by encouraging people to try foods they’ve never had before across town and across cultures.
Hernandez has now seen customers come in who live further away in San José, while regulars usually come on foot. He’s seen new customers try foods that are not part of their cultural cuisine, and that they might never have tried before.
“You can see that he does love this place,” Hernandez says of Gomez. “He’s a unique person, I think he does want the best for the community.”
Juan Carlos Soto has owned and operated Zeledon’s Bakery on Wheels for 27 years. When Jorge Gomez reached out to him several times and asked if he could come to a particular location, at first he was hesitant.
For Soto, business relies on taking the mobile bakery—which serves traditional Mexican pastries and sweet breads—where he knows there will be a crowd. Gomez was asking him to come somewhere else, without asking to buy the stock himself.
Soto was worried about losing money, and didn’t quite understand what Gomez was up to.
“He just kept hitting us up,” Soto says. “He was like ‘What do I gotta do for you guys to show up on my page?’”
Soto took a leap of faith and showed up at their intersection meeting place. He found Gomez standing there, alone. Soto started mentally counting the money he would lose that day. Ten minutes later, as Gomez went live on Instagram, a line began to form around the block.
“We sold out in two hours what we would normally sell in six,” Soto says.
Prior to Gomez’s social media stunt, Zeledon’s Bakery on Wheels had 800 Instagram followers. In the two days following their appearance on SanJoseFoos, their follower count jumped to 5,000.
Their count now stands at over 18,000.
“That’s a very powerful page right there,” Soto says. “He really did help us a lot.”
Soto says that his business is now “maxed out.” They had to hire more help, and if they were to truly keep up with demand, they would have to double their bakery space. They’ve since been featured on the Today Show, Telemundo, and NBC Bay Area. People have now told Soto they have come across the country to visit his bakery and taste his conchas and pan dulces.
“They come from all over like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco,” he says.
When asked why he supposes Gomez has done this, not just for Zeledon’s but for dozens of businesses, he sees a simple answer. “He has a really good heart.” He stresses that Gomez never asked for a cut of the quickly multiplying profits, he was just happy to assist.
“He’s not after the money, he’s just trying to help out people so they can do better in life,” Soto says.
Gomez says his grandfather came to live in Southern California from Mexico to achieve his dreams, which, in the grand scheme of things, were modest.
“He wanted to be a mechanic. He just wanted to work on cars. And that’s what he did. He ended up meeting my grandma, they were both runaways,” Gomez says.
His grandfather attended night school to become a mechanic. He mastered the trade, and even appeared on the cover of Lowrider magazine with his prized 1934 Chevy.
Because of his grandfather and because he himself has been able to enter his dream career, Gomez says his vision with San José Foos is just to help people pursue their own dreams.
“That’s how my grandpa came to this country. He left Mexico, came here and just pursued his dream,” Gomez says. “Everything I do, I do hope that it positively affects them in their lives. And it gives them that push to keep doing what they’re doing and pursue their dreams.”
Though he says he sometimes sees a “scarcity mindset” in San José, he feels there is abundance in the community. Abundance not only of wealth, but of good will and optimism.
“There’s an abundance of everything for everyone to go around, whether that’s wealth, followers or whatever,” Gomez says. “And there’s definitely an abundance of positivity that just is untapped.”
Since Gomez stepped in and increased their business, Soto and the folks at Zeledon’s have been able to pay it forward. They’ve multiplied Gomez’s good will and capitalized on their growing success by offering a helping hand to other even smaller businesses.
“We were able to help out some people, really small businesses. We tell them ‘they [San José Foos] helped us out, we’re gonna help you out too.’ ”
Sitting on a well-worn couch in their workspace at Local Color, Gomez’s business partner Anthony Mastrocola continues scratching the ears of his Shiba Inu while explaining their joint venture, Goodcult.
“Oh no, it’s a real cult,” Mastrocola says.
He explains that most cults begin as something that offers people positive and beneficial things, things people are missing, things they need: community, family, belonging, resources, even validation.
“Goodcult just offers all of those positive things without the exploitation, and murder,” Mastrocola says. “It’s a good cult.”
Though Gomez succeeded tremendously in bringing people together online through San José Foos, he and Mastrocola plan to bring people together in real space more often. Unlike San José Foos, Goodcult is more geared towards event promotion and for-profit merchandise sales.
Though not their first foray into bringing people together, their The Night Before Halloween party promised to be their biggest yet. The duo rented out Blanco Urban venue, stacked all three floors with food, bars and two different DJ setups and dance floors. They themed each floor after a classic horror film, and packed their all-female DJ lineup with veterans of the Bay Area DJ scene as well as relative newcomers.
Originally from Vancouver, Canada, DJ Lola K moved to LA less than a year ago. She started DJing in 2018 as an experiment at a DJ school. They wanted to see if they could take someone who had never toyed with a mixer and turn them into a DJ in 30 days.
“So I was their guinea pig. And after that experience, I just, I loved it so much. I stuck with it. And here I am now,” Lola K says.
Though her family is musical, and she had played instruments like bass guitar, drums and piano before, none of them stuck, not like DJing did.
Lola K opened the party for Goodcult as attendees filtered in and were greeted with candy, Kool-Aid and pamphlets eerily reminiscent of something the People’s Temple would have handed out, reading “Welcome to your new life.” Posted signs invited: “Join Us.”
With an effigy of horror empress Carrie staring out over the crowd, DJ Lola K spun hyphy Bay Area classics and top 40, the first of the all-woman lineup.
She says the party is the biggest event she’s ever played, and a chance to be part of female and Asian representation for the next generation of DJs.
“It’s not just males who can DJ, and female DJs are not just a pretty face on a stage,” Lola K says. “It’s totally empowering. And I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I love DJing…there are young girls, and you see them coming up to the DJ booth and just, you know, lighting up.”
DJ Umami has been dropping beats for years. She’s played arenas, spun for Dua Lipa and opened for Questlove. The Night Before Halloween party isn’t the biggest venue she’s played, but for the San José native, it is a special event.
She first connected with Gomez and Mastrocola for their “I Love You So Much” party in 2021. She says she has absolute trust in Gomez as a promoter. Despite his youth (he is just 23) and his being a transplant to the Bay Area, Gomez has built relationships that last.
The DJ says she’s excited to come back to her home city and play the hyphy standards of her youth, and feels secure in signing up to spin at a Gomez/Mastrocola production.
“I feel safe and taken care of and all the equipment and everything is just on point. You know, he has a whole promotional team, video, photographers, all of that,” Umami says. “I’m just so impressed.”
Umami echoed that as an Asian-American woman she feels it’s important to represent her gender and heritage in an industry that can lack diversity.
“I think walking into my gigs can often feel like it’s a boys club,” Umami says.
At the Goodcult show, she’s excited to be with fellow women DJs, who she says humble her.
As the party gets going, she sees the community Gomez is intentionally fostering by representing local businesses, up-and-coming talent and diverse artists.
“I hope that we continue to grow and build on that…what Jorge is doing, I think this is extremely important for the community.” she says. “And I’m really thankful to be part of this.”