Instagram isn’t just a frivolous pastime. It’s a marketing tool. Here’s how savvy chefs are making the new norm work for their kitchens.
By Samantha Lande
Remember the days when you would walk into a restaurant and it would almost be rude to pull out a camera and take photos? You rarely saw diners taking shots and if you did it was likely to take a post-meal group picture, or an action shot of someone blowing out candles. Those pictures generally didn’t involve food, and if they did, they were just to show your best friend how awesome your dessert looked, not to broadcast your evening to thousands of friends and strangers.
Chefs always cared about the presentation of their food but never had to worry about how they compared to other similar restaurants out there. They needed to have standout dishes, sure, but they didn’t have to think about whether those dishes would take on a following of their own.
Restaurants once could take the time to work out kinks without immediate feedback. They could introduce new dishes or service elements and change them relatively under the radar. Mistakes could be made and restaurants could immediately respond to customers who voiced their unhappiness without the rest of the world knowing first.
Those things are of a bygone era. Chefs are entering a modern world where social media can have a huge impact on every aspect of the restaurant from the dishes you design to the way you respond to customer feedback. This can be both beneficial and detrimental in different ways. We spoke to a variety of chefs and restaurant groups about how social media has impacted their business and what they feel is really important at the end of the day.
When Barton G. Weiss opened his first restaurant, Barton G, in Miami in 2002, he was all about the spectacle. He wanted the dining experience to feel like an event — something you would tell your friends about the next day. It wouldn’t be unsurprising to see lobster pop tarts served in a retro toaster or Marie Antoinette’s head with a sky-high mound of cotton candy. He knew that in order for this to work that there had to be integrity behind the food, a reason for people to return for more than just the spectacle.
Little did he know, fast forward a decade, that the spectacle would become much more routine in our dining landscape.
“There used to be a time where it was weird to pull out your camera at dinner, now it’s commonplace,” says Corporate Chef and Culinary Director Jeff O’Neill.
Whether we embrace it or not, food photography is a part of the dining landscape. And even though aesthetics have always mattered in dining —beautifully composed dishes, modernist technique, garnish — it is even more impactful now.
Chef Eden Grinshpan spent a lot of time exploring other restaurants through her blog, Eden Eats, and Cooking Channel shows, so she became pretty proficient in photographing food. She knew that before she opened her fast casual restaurant Dez, she needed to make it a space that lent itself to beautiful food photography.
She knew she wanted white plates to really make dishes like her roasted cardamom beets and harissa and honey roasted carrots pop. The aesthetics of the space were important as well.
“A lot of people have called Dez an oasis in NoLita. It’s airy, bright and lends itself to great food,” she says. (Editor’s note: Dez closed in late June after just over one year of operation.)
“Atmosphere, plating and packaging — the context matters,” says Lucas Stoioff, one of the founders of the Chicago restaurant group DineAmic. All of these things are taken into consideration for their restaurants when planning a menu.
“If these things didn’t always matter, why would we dine out?” he says.
That’s why O’Neill believes that Barton G has stood the test of time. “When people are dining out they are often looking for that social experience.”
Social Media as a Marketing Tool
That social experience is exactly what restaurants have been able to capitalize on that from a marketing perspective. Stoioff refers to it as “amplified word of mouth.” Instead of one person telling a handful of their friends about an experience, they can tell hundreds, sometimes thousands via social media, and for the most part it’s free.
That’s why some spots incorporate social media directly into their meal planning. Take Cookie DŌ confections (often just called DŌ) in New York City. Their edible cookie dough went viral and has a very large social media following. Something like a limited edition dessert can inspire a lot of FOMO in people, so the company has incorporated some of that into their business plan.
“Enjoying dessert happens most of all for occasions — holidays, celebrations, and for no reason at all. Because of this, we take into account the national holidays, food holidays, and reasons to ‘treat yourself’ anytime! We develop our menu to make sure we are hitting all the moments — regardless how big or small,” says owner Kristen Tomlan.
DineAmic group follows a similar plan with some of its more viral menu items like their cake shakes at restaurant Public House and Hotter (and Cooler in the summer) chocolates at Bombobar. They are always adding in limited edition varieties for occasions like St. Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day.
But there should always be some caution in having a viral food item on your menu.
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“A lot of food online that becomes trendy — extreme or crazy gives more of an outrageous experience instead of an enjoyable food experience,” says Grinshpan, who believes strongly that quality control is important above else.
Stoioff agrees. “If it’s not good but it looks really good, we don’t want to serve it. It has to be especially good. Even if it’s amazing, it’ll never live up to the hype that people give it on social media.”
Social Media for Customer Feedback and Acquisition
Another way social media has changed the game is through customer acquisition and feedback. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to post something and have customers (or potential customers) tagging their friends and making plans to go try a dish out.
“Social media is how so many of our customers find out about us. People share their experience and their desserts with their friends and followers, and it’s like a snowball effect,” says Tomlan.
Feedback — both positive and negative — also comes with the territory of having an active social media presence. Grinshpan takes it very seriously. Although she can’t possibly respond to everyone online, she does gather comments to share with her team and they’ll make adjustments as necessary.
Will the bubble burst? Stoioff seems to think so. “Eventually people will be sick of so many people taking cupcake shots, we’ll eventually say this was so 2019,” he laughs.
What won’t change? High quality food. At the end of the day although the lighting, packaging and presentation may change, the reason people choose to go to restaurants will not. They are deciding to eat out because a chef makes incredible food. As trends continue to change, that will win out over everything else in the long run.