Instagram is everywhere when it comes to restaurants, from trendy indies to established chains. So why is it so popular? How is its power being leveraged? And what are the potential drawbacks?
No dish reaches the candy pink menu at EL&N cafe without having its photo taken first.
The chain’s head of food Daniel Booth will “play around with dishes during the development process, taking photos to see how they look through a lens before finalising them,” says head of marketing Sahar Mahdavian.
The result is immaculate. Sambazon acai smoothie bowls and edible flowers perch pristinely on ancient grain granola, more modern art than breakfast. The café interiors are equally pleasing to the eye, all floor-to-ceiling flower walls, Japanese blossom trees, kitsch quotes in neon lights and more lovehearts than the Swizzels factory.
All of it unashamedly for the ‘Gram. “When it comes to the design process Instagram is at the forefront,” says Mahdavian. “At pretty much every corner, there is a spot where you can sit and get the perfect picture.”
The strategy appears to work. Since it opened its first branch on Park Lane in 2017 tens of thousands have waited patiently for a shot inside the EL&N’s decadent interiors, sitting astride a carousel horse or nibbling on a pink croissant.
So coveted is the EL&N Insta-shot that there have been long queues out the door and even advice online about off-peak photo opportunities. The result is five Instagrammable branches in less than three years, the most recent opening in Knightsbridge in March 2019. It’s testament to the power of the social media platform, almost a decade after it first launched.
There are 1 billion+ monthly active users worldwide on Instagram.
Food always has been one of Instagram’s most keenly photographed subjects, with 373m active #food posts at the time of writing. It has singlehandedly launched food trends, from rainbow bagels to freakshakes to avocado roses and turned the dinner selfie into a national preoccupation. For the restaurant industry that has had major repercussions.
At the boutique end, as with Elan, the quest to be Instagrammable can be all-consuming. “Instagram dictates the build, the interior, the presentation of food and drink,” says Loui Blake, founder of plant-based restaurant Erpingham House. “We ensure that areas of the restaurant are Instagrammable, that presentation, plating and even cutlery is pristine.”
The aim is to “make the experience Instagrammable from the moment you walk in, all the way to the way the food arrives,” says Georgie Woollams, founder of Katch International, of her work in high-end restaurants across Europe and the Middle East.
“We’ve even worked with one restaurant where its toilet has been cited as the most Instagrammable bathroom in the UK.
“Back in the day we weren’t thinking about what signage would prompt people to take a picture, or how to make bathrooms look pretty enough. That hadn’t even come into the equation, but now social media leads the way when it comes to getting your message out as a venue.”
As a result “nobody really puts out ugly food anymore,” she adds. From clouds of liquid nitrogen hovering above experiential cocktails to elaborate desserts, dishes are “dressed in a stunning way” so that “people see the photo and think ’I must go there, I must try and it and sample this iconic food.’”
The platform is the most frequently visited social media site for Gen Z, its largest user base. 65% of this age group say they visit the platform daily, ahead of YouTube (62%) and Snapchat (51%), according to Business Insider.
So concerned was one Dubai restaurant with securing the perfect shot that it even introduced Instagram kits for its diners last year, handing out portable LED lights, a clip-on wide angle lens and a tripod for overhead table shots.
It might sound extreme but “Instagram is the new restaurant menu,” says Tom Harvey, co-founder of YesMore, a drinks and restaurant marketing agency. “It’s a shop window and a visual representation of both the food and the wider restaurant experience that a potential or existing visitor is going to get.
“It happens even once they’re sat in your restaurant trying to decide what to eat. The customers of 2020 will sit with the menu in one hand and their Instagram feed in the other.”
Food remains one of the most widely shared subjects on the platform, with 373 million active posts using #food and 33 million using #restaurant.
Even sat in chain restaurant Carluccio’s, one of the agency’s clients, and “a brand you might not typically associate with a predominantly young skewing platform such as Instagram, I’ve sat in the restaurant observing customer behaviour and people of all ages and demographics are doing it.”
As a result more and more national restaurant operators are sitting up and taking note. “We’re at the stage where the big restaurant chains are taking inspiration from the successes of the independents and beginning to follow suit,” adds Harvey.
Chains undoubtedly contend with restrictions on how far they can take things, of course. Interiors need to be consistent in design across tens or hundreds of sites for one, making the creation of cute photo spots significantly more time and resource intensive.
Menu items meanwhile rely less on the artistic eye of one passionate chef and more on their ability to pass through layers upon layers of testing to ensure they can be replicated at scale and at cost in every branch around the country.
“In addition, audiences value innovation over reinvention and will come with preconceptions of an already well known chain - it’s a harder battle to change people’s minds once they’ve already put you in a particular box,” says Harvey.
“Imagine if a TGI Fridays, for example, suddenly revamped to be more like an Ivy Cafe. We as consumers would have a very hard time getting on board with such a change.”
In 2018 curry was named as the most Instagrammed food in the UK. In a surprise triumph over avocado on toast, snaps of biryani and korma appeared more than half a million times (551k) on British feeds, ahead of avocado (271k), fish & chips (63k) and Yorkshire puddings (51k), according to tourist group Stay in Cornwall.
But these logistical challenges don’t mean chains are ignoring the influence of Instagram. Far from it. They’re simply a little more creative in their approach.
For instance, Zizzi hit the headlines last year when it hired an Instagrammer-in-Residence. Food photographer James Thompson was tasked with taking Insta-worthy shots across the chain’s 160 restaurants of diners, dishes and staff to share via an online photography portfolio on its Instagram feed.
The campaign was reportedly inspired by the viral ‘Humans of New York’ channel and responded to a desire from diners ‘to not only enjoy the food they’re eating but to also understand where that food has come from and the personalities behind the people who cook it,’ according to head of marketing Rachel Hendry.
In 2019 meanwhile a picture of an egg became the most-liked Instagram post of all time. Posted by @world_record_egg the image surpassed Kylie Jenner with 52 million likes.
Meanwhile, when Wagamama opened new sites in the UK last year it used the platform as an interactive and highly visual supplement to its traditional menu.
“We know that people now prefer and often expect visual aids to help make decisions,” says digital marketing manager at the chain Aisling Lithgow. “So, along with featuring some of our classics on the placemats, we created @wagamama_menu, an Instagram feed with images of every dish. We included the link to that feed on placemats and encouraged guests to explore the menu this way.”
At Itsu, the platform “is our main channel of communication outside our shops and grocery packaging,” says head of marketing Maria Dogin. “We use Instagram as a channel to test, listen and learn” and “continuously improve, innovate and personalise our offering and communication. For example this month, we have asked what our next flavour of seaweed thins should be. The answers have been really insightful and helped us understand what consumers are looking for us to do next.”
69% of millennials say that they have taken a snap of their food before eating and posted it to the platform, according to global insights firm Maru / Matchbox.
Taco Bell has long taken a similar approach to innovation with development chefs keeping close tabs on its most Instagrammed menu items to see what resonates. Top of the list is reportedly its brightly-coloured Frozen Freezes and this influence extends to marketing too.
In 2017, when it launched its Naked Chicken Chalupa it held a series of launch parties where influential Instagrammers came along to take shots of the new product and share online, supported by a roomful of props and flattering lights.
The restaurant’s own feed reflects the same attention to Instagrammable detail too. With 1.3m followers on its global account and 30k on its UK one, it uses a colourful mix of split grids (where each post makes up one part of a larger image) showcasing menu items, branded graphic art and quirky lifestyle shots.
On average 18-35 year olds spend five days a year browsing food images on Instagram, and 30% say they would avoid a restaurant if their Instagram presence was weak, according to ASF Commercial.
It’s smart to prioritise both user-generated content, i.e. the shots taken by others in your restaurant, and your own presence in this way, advises Harvey. “Social is an incredibly powerful and authentic tool for connecting with audiences on a human level, and as such it is a fantastic marketing channel.”
That means experimenting with what works and what doesn’t on the platform. At Carluccio’s, for example, tightly cropped shots “close to the action perform better than top down birds eye view shots,” says Harvey. “We know, too, that dishes with big chunky ingredients perform best.”
At Wagamama Lithgow says “the most successful posts are when the food looks real and true to the restaurant experience. If the dish is too polished or the image is too high res, the food just isn’t salivating.
“Food interaction is another big theme that runs through our most successful content,” she adds. “Whether it be lifting noodles, dipping gyoza into sauce or breaking a jammy egg on a donburi, food in motion is a winner.”
According to Yaya Connections, 65% of social media conversations revolve around where to eat out.
Beyond imagery, anything that provokes feedback performs well for Itsu, says Dogin. “The most engaging post this year was the one that referenced a customer gripe about our spork not working well with soup. We addressed this internally and redesigned the spork, then shared with our Instagram community. It received over 100 comments.”
There are places established brands perhaps shouldn’t venture with their content, suggests Erpingham House’s Blake. During the recent viral Dolly Parton challenge, where users posted four photographs, each suited to LinkedIn, Facebook, Tinder and Instagram, “our Tinder picture was one of our smoothie bowls with a banana sticking out of it and cream all over it. That went viral on social media but I don’t think a chain would be able to get that signed off,” he laughs.
Even if it could though, should it? Is there any place that restaurants shouldn’t go in the pursuit of Instagrammability?
Well, just as the trend began at high end independents, so too has the backlash against it. Last month Heston Blumenthal sparked debate when he grumbled at diners taking shots of dishes in his Michelin-starred restaurants, a trend so insidious ‘our sight has become almost the more important sense rather than smell or taste,’ according to the chef.
He’s not alone in his resentment. A number of top restaurants have already placed an outright ban on photography, while some are asking designers to dream up spaces that encourage diners to put their phones away rather than pose for another selfie.
The design team responsible for creating the interiors of Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsey, which opened in London’s Mayfair last June, said they ‘deliberately went dark’ to prevent diners from sharing images on Instagram, with ‘anti-Instagram interiors’ predicted to be one of the top restaurant trends of 2020, according to global forecaster J Walter Thompson.
Instead of embracing ‘monotonously predictable’ interiors, restaurants will favour ‘shadowy atmospheres’ intended to photograph poorly, its analysts predict.
Launched in 2017 EL&N café has five London branches and 387k followers on Instagram. KFC – the UK’s biggest branded restaurant by revenue – has 52.7k.
With one billion users and counting though, it’s unlikely the trend is about to disappear off the agenda of operators that rely on a more mass market appeal.
“It’s a visual stimulus that when done well, is universally engaging and likeable,” says Lithgow. “Even if you’re not a foodie, a saucy katsu curry or steaming bowl of ramen is an easy like. A food brand not being on Instagram is a missed opportunity.”
Harvey agrees, but also adds a word of warning. “The Instagram generation has a ‘bucket list’ mentality. Once they’ve been, eaten the food and posted the photo they don’t need to go back.
“Venues can use social platforms to build loyalty as well as getting people through the door in the first place, but mostly, loyalty comes from familiarity, consistency and reliable service. Being Instagrammable will only get the customer in the door once, maybe twice. It’s up to the rest of the experience to get them coming back.”
Instagram: Looking Good Enough To Eat
No dish reaches the candy pink menu at EL&N cafe without first having its photo taken. The London chain’s head of food Daniel Booth will “play around and experiment with dishes during the development process and takes photos before he finalises them, just to see how they look through a lens,” says head of marketing Sahar Mahdavian. The result is immaculate. Sambazon acai smoothie bowls and edible flowers perch pristinely on ancient grain granola, more modern art than breakfast.