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Is Instagram ruining the restaurant experience?

20 : 07 : 2017 Food : Drinks : Digital
Foodography, a food photography Workshop by Carmel Winery Foodography, a food photography Workshop by Carmel Winery

Restaurateurs should focus on building environments that cater for our emotional experience with food, rather than just desperately trying to get on a social feed.

Daniela Walker, insight editor, The Future Laboratory

I’m tired of restaurants begging me to Instagram them. Over the past few years, we have witnessed the indisputable influence that Instagram has had on restaurant culture. From the food to the decor, everything is being reprogrammed to become more photogenic. The increasingly obvious way in which restaurants are designing for the social media crowd is beginning to take away from why most people dine out in the first place – for the pleasure of sharing a meal with someone.

American comfort food chain Dirty Bones made headlines this month by announcing that its fourth UK branch would offer diners a Foodie Instagram kit. The pack includes a portable charger, clip-on lens, tripod selfie stick and LED light. Explaining the move, founder and director of operations Cokey Sulkin said that the chain’s diners were already avid Instagrammers, so why not help them get the best shot possible? ‘This definitely keeps us on our toes, and ensures that we are constantly striving to create creative cocktails and dishes that are both delicious and visually appealing,’ he said. ‘We’re all about helping people capture that perfect shot.’ Never mind the other diners who want to eat that delicious food without getting poked by their fellow customers’ selfie sticks.

But what they gain in Instagram followers, I fear they lose in integrity.

Across the pond, new restaurants are making their Instagrammability their biggest selling point. Samantha Wasser, co-founder and creative director of By Chloe, a casual vegan fast food chain in New York, caters for the cult of Instagram with her latest restaurant, The Sosta. A fast-casual pasta venture, the space has all the touchpoints of an Instagram restaurant: it has a neon sign and all the branding is in a bespoke shade of Millennial pink. Even the bathrooms were designed for social media. ‘We’ve got mirrors backlit with pink neon, so we’re probably going to get lots of Instagram moments there,’ Wasser told the New York Observer. Other restaurants are branding their food with their logo – such as the Voltaggio Brothers’ Steak House in Maryland, which has the brothers’ names stencilled on their signature cocktail.

Of course, creating food and spaces made for Instagram is a savvy move from a marketing perspective. It’s 21st-century word of mouth, with businesses crowdsourcing their advertising and letting their fans do the work. But what they gain in Instagram followers, I fear they lose in integrity. With every restaurant designing for Instagram, you begin to feel like you are walking into the same eatery over and over again. Just as marketers tried to jump on the authenticity bandwagon a couple of years ago, restaurateurs are now selling us all the same aesthetic without any thought about who they are as a brand.

Argentinian chef Francis Mallman recently told the Evening Standard that people don’t go to restaurants for the food, they go for the people, for the memories. While food should play an important part, it is true that it is the sense of intimacy and sharing that makes a great restaurant experience. Restaurateurs should focus on building environments that cater for our emotional experience with food, rather than just trying to get on a social feed. They must remember that there is a fine line between building brand recognition and ensuring brand loyalty. Instagram followers are fleeting, but your neighbourhood regulars – the ones who are in it for the food, for the ambience and the company – they can last a lifetime.

In 2015, LS:N Global began exploring the conundrum of being an authentic brand in the age of social media in our macrotrend Anti-authenticity Marketing. For more insights on how to be a brand that resonates and attracts loyalty beyond 2020, book tickets to our forthcoming Global Futures Forum.