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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 “Insta-worthy” has led many restaurateurs to rethink menu items and decor to better serve the photo-happy 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 benefits of Instagram for restaurants has impacted 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. Since opening in 2014, the shop has amassed more than 324,000 followers on Instagram. “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.”

drink tea barista

Cartojano explains 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 even 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. 

Step up your Instagram game with help from our Instagram Marketing Guide

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. 

Other highly-photographed restaurants, like L.A.-based Pizzanista, claim that Instagram has little influence on their menu planning. “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, a co-owner of the restaurant.

pizza server

While many restaurants benefit from the added exposure on social media, the food must still come first. “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.”

As for photo quality, you can’t control your customers’ posts, but occasionally, staff will direct customers towards the restaurant’s most Instagrammable spots.

“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.”

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10 Proven Instagram Best Practices to Try

Restaurateurs agree that Instagram can be a low-cost marketing tool that helps build brand awareness. Here are some ways to incorporate Instagram for restaurants tactics into your marketing menu:

  • Repost customers and followers.

How much easier can it get than to use someone else’s picture as marketing for your restaurant? Not only does it make the original poster excited that they got noticed by their favorite restaurant, but it shows that you are listening and keeping in touch with your fans. Just be sure to tag and give credit to the original poster.

  • Partner with another business.

Social media is all about expanding your reach and engaging your followers. By working with a partner, you’ll gain exposure to their entire audience and can build communityOne thing you can try is a cross-promotional contest. Make the rules to the contest such that all entrants need to follow both your businesses, so that you both get a benefit from the contest.

  • Find balance.

While you should be sharing photos of your products and your establishment on this visually-focused social network, sharing interesting or fun images like memes or quotes that relate to your brand ideals will keep your stream positive and give followers some shareable content that they’ll enjoy reposting.

  • Use video and stories.

Great photos are the lifeblood of Instagram, but incorporate some video and fun real-time Stories into your feed, too. Short greetings, funny quips or newsworthy content can be shot and shared with Instagram. Show some dish prep or daily specials to customers insight on what happens behind closed doors.  Instagram stories also give you a chance to have a bit more fun and be a bit more casual. You can let your personality shine through, get a little silly, and let your guard down a bit.

  • Use hashtags wisely.

There is such thing as too many hashtags, but you do want to cover your bases so you turn up in searches. Start by coming up with a hashtag that is specific to you and your restaurant and use it on most posts. Then, tag your images with relevant trending hashtags to get them in front of a larger audience. Use one or two in your caption that are the most specific and put a few more in the first comment on the photo.

  • Interact when people share posts from your location or tag you.

It’s a real win when people post about your establishment, so pay attention and thank them for coming into the restaurant. Ask them about their experience, and even recommend a similar dish that you think they might like next time.

  • Take part in an Instagram takeover.

Try connecting with another business or a local influencer, and have that person takes over your restaurant’s Instagram account for a short period of time. It’s a fun way to shake things up and reach a whole new audience as your host posts about their experience with your restaurant.

  • Post things you know your customers love.

Look at your sales data, menu intelligence, and reputation insightsto see what’s moving on the floor—and then move those products to the top of your Instagram page. Guests going crazy for your new loaded tater tot app? Is there lots of buzz about your new brunch menu? Let your followers know what all the talk is about.

  • Make people laugh.

Think of your audience, what they may find funny, and try posting something lighthearted. Try a funny food meme, or a short clip of a staffer clowning around.

  • Ramp up photo quality.

Filters can enhance your images and integrate visual consistency across your profile, but make sure your photos look authentic. Especially when you’re photographing food, the natural colors from the ingredients and dishware should speak for itself.

Once you get comfortable using Instagram, you’ll see that it can be an effective tool for connecting with potential customers and keeping top of mind of past patrons. Every time you pop up on a user’s feed, it can serve as a reminder of how great your food is and how much they want to go back.

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This Instagram Marketing For Your Restaurant eBook includes:

  • The power of Instagram as a restaurant marketing tool
  • Four decor ideas to help boost Instagram engagement
  • Five ways to start using Instagram marketing for your restaurant today
  • How real restaurant owners use Instagram
  • And so much more…
Check out Upserve’s Restaurant Marketing Strategies guide!

Written by   |  
Born and raised in New Jersey, Veronica An is a Southern California transplant with a degree in Narrative Studies from the University of Southern California. She is a photographer and reporter for The Hub. Her work has been exhibited at galleries across Los Angeles and published internationally.
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