While diners have always first eaten with their eyes, the popularity of social media has made flawless food presentation the expectation for the restaurant dining experience. Food photos dominate Instagram, and Facebook groups like L.A. Foodie boast thousands of members who share photos of dishes.
The pressure to be photo-ready has led many restaurateurs to rethink menu items and decor to better serve the guests coming through the door.
“We realized how big an influence Instagram has–it really changed the game,” says Alice Zhao, operating partner of Toastea tea house and cafe in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of power in Instagram, a lot of reach.”
Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for diners to photograph their food before eating, but now, it’s rare to go out without seeing someone snap a photo. According to a study by consumer intelligence firm Maru/Matchbox, 69 percent of millennials take a photo or video of their food before eating. The Instagram phenomenon has changed the both food presentation and restaurant design.
“We’ve understood the visual appeal of our ice cream, and that our dessert experience through our restaurant design needs to support that,” says Jed Cartojano, marketing director of multi-location California ice cream shop Afters Ice Cream that, since opening in 2014, has amassed an Instagram following of more than 284,000. “We want everyone to have a photo opportunity, not necessarily just to share on Instagram, but to share throughout social networks or just with friends.”
Cartojano explains that Instagram is an essential way to target millennials and that Afters’ colorful ice cream and milky buns, pastry buns used to sandwich scoops of ice cream, are a perfect fit for social media.
“[A good Instagram photo is] something interesting that people have never seen before or something common that’s represented in a way that never has been done before,” Cartojano says. “And bright colors.”
Proven concepts in Instagram-friendly restaurants include white walls, bricks, marble countertops, neon signs and soft lighting. Some dining destinations also create designated Instagram walls complete with hashtags and brand logos.
Some restaurants may create dishes with photography in mind.
Zhao explains that colorful food with layers of color and ingredients do well on Instagram, as color denotes freshness and gives the appearance of healthiness. Toastea created specific menu items, like the Link Latte originally made for the comic-centric E3 Expo in 2017, to make them more photogenic, she says. “At the base of it, it’s a matcha latte, but we really repurposed it for Instagram,” Zhao explains.
Changes include creating a green tea layer and a milk layer rather than serving the drink pre-mixed. The drink also features colorful sprinkles and a yellow whipped topping, which resembles the namesake Legends of Zelda video game character’s hair. Zhao explains that the basic recipe remains the same, but the percentage of matcha in the drink was adjusted to make the layered drink taste as good as it looks.
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Other highly-photographed restaurants, however, claim that Instagram has little influence on their menu planning.
“Instagram does not directly have an influence on our food or menu design. However, conversely, it just so happens that our pizza and other menu items look pretty fantastic and delicious when photographed, so that’s a plus,” says Price Latimer, co-owner of L.A.-based Pizzanista.
While many restaurants benefit from the added exposure on social media, the reliance of visual presentation can also have its drawbacks. Even though Toastea created the Link Latte to be more photogenic, the team didn’t sacrifice reputation, Zhao says.
“Something that’s bad about Instagram is when restaurants make something only for visual appeal and not for taste,” Zhao says. “It shouldn’t be a competition between food’s look and quality.”
When restaurants focus on photo-friendly food rather than flavor, customers lose out in the long run.
“One can usually gauge whether or not the food is thoughtfully prepared with quality ingredients, or if the restaurant is placing more importance on gimmicks and presentation than quality,” Latimer says. “The food being photographed must actually taste good in person! You can’t fake that.”
Restaurateurs agree that Instagram can be a low-cost marketing tool that helps build brand awareness. Some even invite foodie influencers for meals, and others hire professional photographers and marketing teams to curate their social media presence.
Despite the plethora of unappetizing food photos online, restaurateurs are reluctant to discourage customers from snapping pics. Occasionally, staff will direct customers towards the restaurant’s most Instagrammable spots, but, as a whole, owners and managers seem to follow the mentality that “any press is good press” and are more concerned with negative reviews than ugly photos.
“We haven’t had anything other than positive that has come through social media,” Cartojano says. “As a business, it’s a great platform to communicate your happenings and products.”