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From Humble Beginnings to Wealth: Keith Lee’s Journey from MMA Fighting to Elevating Small Restaurants and Amassing Wealth on TikTok

Chattanooga-based Cocoa Asante, an artisan chocolate company, was already building a steady online presence but when TikTok influencer Keith Lee posted a positive review of the business on his account, its demand skyrocketed. 

Photo via Instagram @keith_lee125

“It’s continued to blow my mind,” Cocoa Asante founder Alicia Livingston told CNN. “The power of one man’s social media platform and how he uses it to promote small businesses like mine who have great products and customer service but we lack the funds for marketing.” 

Within hours, the company reported that they’d sold out their inventory. During an interview with CNN they revealed that orders were taking five to six weeks to fulfill and the greatest success — within six days of Lee’s video airing — Cocoa Asante had generated almost as much revenue as they had in the past year.  

Livingston’s company is not alone. Lee has been visiting and reviewing small eateries —from bakeries, restaurants, and food trucks — nationwide on his TikTok account since 2021. Known as “The Keith Lee Effect,” business owners have reaped the benefits of Lee’s positive reviews of their food. With more than 15 million followers and close to 700 million likes on his videos, Lee is consistently proving that his decision to promote small businesses for free is a labor of love. 

Who Is Keith Lee? 

Lee is a former professional mixed martial arts fighter with Bellator. As a featherweight, he won eight out of 13 fights he participated in between 2018 and 2021. In 2020, he began gaining followers on TikTok while recording his wife’s food cravings as they expected their first child, Karter. He’d post lifestyle and cooking videos, often of him eating in his daughter’s Paw Patrol chair.

In 2021, Las Vegas-based Aroma Latin American Cocina emailed Lee requesting he review the restaurant. Lee obliged and the rest was history. The video garnered 20 million views and thousands of comments. Soon after, a Las Vegas pizzeria requested the same and the video gained 35 million views. Since then, Lee has extended the content on his account to include down-to-earth, humorous reviews of local eateries throughout the United States. And, his reviews aren’t always positive. When on restaurant a food tour in Atlanta he critiqued restaurants for poor– or nonexistent–customer service. His reviews sparked a debate about Black customers deserving top-end customer service, even from Black-owned establishments.

Then when the tour hit the Bay Area of California, he cut the tour short noting how he would not advise people to travel to the crime-ridden city as he found people there were just trying to “survive” and probably could not handle an influx of people.

Lee’s delivery online has led to collaborations with YouTube star Jimmy “Mr. Beast” Donaldson, Kevin Hart, as well as partnerships with brands such as Hyundai, Chipotle, and Pepsi. And while his social media following continues to climb, his net worth does as well.

Lee’s net worth is variously estimated across the internet at between $1.5 million and $5 million. Yet this wealth was not amassed from income generated from his restaurant review tours. Those are still free promotions for small businesses. Instead, his income is derived from branding deals. As a result of Lee’s work, he has been listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Food and Drink section. With his wife, Ronni, he has won many awards including the Streamy Awards in 2023.  

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