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The Money Shot

Instagram has spawned stunt food and bad customer behavior—but also bigger business for restaurant owners.

SLIDESHOW

The cruffin at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse 

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Soulva's frozen yogurt cups 

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Liholiho Yacht Club's Baked Hawaii 

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The dessert looks like a beehive. Its conical swirl of torched vanilla chiffon hides a knob of caramelized pineapple ice cream, the curlicues of coconut-caramel sauce that radiate from its center beckoning all to behold the beauty of the Baked Hawaii, Liholiho Yacht Club’s spin on baked Alaska. On a recent visit to the four-month-old Tenderloin restaurant I was too full for dessert, but I almost ordered it anyway—not to eat, but to Instagram.

Just as it has for fashion and advertising, the photo-driven platform is becoming a powerful tool for both the restaurant industry and the people who follow it obsessively. Long before I saw the Baked Hawaii on Liholiho’s menu, I’d seen it on numerous Instagram feeds—and, like a collector of rare stamps or butterflies, I wanted to capture it for myself.

Until fairly recently, diners were forced to rely on a food critic’s observational powers, studying reviews to get a sense of a restaurant before they visited. Then came smartphones and Yelp, which offered copious—if often poorly lit—photos of a restaurant’s food and interior. But, as any food stylist can attest, we eat with our eyes. So it’s no wonder that plenty of restaurants are exploiting Instagram’s ability to push delicious-looking foods to thousands of people at a time.

“It’s kind of the social media equivalent of watching food come out of the kitchen and be delivered to another table,” says Megan Flamer, a social media marketing strategist who is helping Melissa Perello’s new restaurant, Octavia, create its digital footprint. She advocates posting pictures at just the right time—when people are making decisions about dinner, say—to bring customers in the door.

Her advice has become prescribed wisdom in these parts—most chefs and restaurateurs to whom I spoke were familiar with the power of a well-timed Instagram dispatch. “I can look at my nightly sales and tell if we’re doing a good job at social media,” says Erin Archuleta, who co-owns Ichi Sushi and manages its social media accounts along with her staff. “People literally tell you, ‘I saw that picture of the fish collar you posted and came in.’”

But, unsurprisingly, the platform’s potential can lead to bad behavior on both sides of the transaction. In their ongoing pursuit of customer eyeballs, restaurants big and small resort to dumb stunts—like Burger King’s bacon sundae or the namesake creation of Los Angeles’s Ramen Burger: a beef patty sandwiched between pucks of deep-fried noodles. Meanwhile, chefs tell tales of guests standing on a chair and whipping out a selfie stick in the middle of service to get the perfect shot. And restaurants without the budget or the know-how to take advantage of social media are left in the dark—sometimes literally, as evidenced by the shadowy, indeterminate photos of their dishes.

But setting aside the gimmickry, the dubious customer antics, and the specter of a dining public unable to enjoy a meal without first capturing it for posterity, Instagram is a boon for restaurants. “Instagram has the potential to make a very, very positive impact,” says Souvla owner Charles Bililies, who attributes much of the early success of his Hayes Valley Greek sandwich shop to the platform. “It doesn’t have power in the sense that it can make or break your restaurant—it really only has the power for good.”

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse is a case in point. At 7 a.m. on the rainy morning that it debuted in late November, a line of customers was already forming at its door. The tiny Tenderloin bakery had accrued a following during its previous incarnation as a wholesale business, but co-owner Aron Tzimas, who designed the bakery and runs its social media, attributes its opening-day line—and the lines nearly every morning since—to its Instagram feed.

“The hype was built on Instagram from the beginning,” Tzimas says. “We’d been steadily doing it for six months before we opened, if not longer.” The bakeshop’s feed is stocked with glamour shots of the cruffin, the croissant-muffin hybrid that has become its blockbuster success, as well as now-iconic design elements like the pink neon “I Got Baked in San Francisco” sign that dominates one wall. Each post gets hundreds, sometimes thousands, of likes.

 

There would be no cruffin without the cronut, the first truly Instagram-driven viral food craze, which launched a thousand knockoffs after exploding across social media in 2013. The hours-long wait for the croissant-doughnut hybrid made it a status icon, while photos of the lines trailing from Manhattan’s Dominique Ansel Bakery inspired plenty of restaurateurs to capitalize on the cronut’s popularity with their own creations.

Viral foods have existed as long as humans have traded—pepper was once so rare that it was used as currency, and chocolate caused a sensation throughout Europe when Cortés brought it back from the Americas in the 16th century. But the stunt-food craze that followed the cronut was driven by novelty, not flavor. Crowds clamored for its myriad oddities for no reason other than that they were popular.

But let he who has never done anything simply in order to Instagram it cast the first unlike. Instagramming isn’t bragging exactly, though it’s a close cousin. It’s more about winning approval by showing your followers that you’re the type who gets the most out of life.

“We’re hardwired to be social creatures. Part of that is that we want to be part of the group and have status in that group,” says B.J. Fogg, who directs the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and has studied how networks like Facebook are used for persuasion. “I think that’s what’s driving some of Instagram when people post really cool meals—by posting them, they feel like they’re gaining admiration or somehow gaining status.”

Instagram's real power for a business, even a mega-popular place like Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, doesn’t actually lie in its feed—the platform offers no easy way to share photos, so each picture’s exposure is often limited to the followers who see it. Instead, Instagram’s power lies in community.

Each time a customer posts a photo of a dish or design element, he is doing the restaurant’s marketing for it. Some local Instagrammers have many thousands of followers, nearing or exceeding the reach of traditional media (a fact that isn’t lost on the clothing and lifestyle brands that sponsor popular Instagrammers).

In response, restaurateurs are beginning to factor Instagrammability into their dining room’s design. Because low wattage can make the most elegantly plated dish look like dog food on Instagram, lighting has become more critical. When designing his Mission restaurant, Lazy Bear chef-owner David Barzelay predicted that his guests would photograph some, if not all, of the 12-plus courses included in his $110 prix fixe menu. So he made sure to install plenty of lighting above his communal tables—but nothing too warm, which might give the food a yellow pallor. “I would think,” he says, “that every aspiring fine- dining restaurant would be doing that in their design.” Souvla owner Bililies is still searching for the sweet spot between photogenic lighting and atmosphere: Though his dining room is flooded with perfect natural light during the day, it’s too dark for food photos at night. He’s working on adding more fixtures.

There is, I readily admit, something disturbing in the idea that chefs are making allowances for people who let their plates of beautiful food grow cold while they attempt to photograph them. It is, frankly, annoying to dine with such people. That said, even I am not immune to the anxiety that comes with searching the messy, imperfect present for that one sublime moment to capture.

But providing a real experience, not a technologically mediated one, is still the primary goal of most restaurants. Neither Barzelay nor Bililies designed his restaurant for Instagramming; the phenomenon was just one factor they considered. And other restaurants are simply not interested in installing photography-conducive lighting—at Lolinda, an Argentinean steak house in the Mission, for example, the dark, sexy atmosphere matters. “The lighting and overall mood of the space is something that has been a brand pillar for Lolinda since the beginning,” says executive chef–partner Alejandro Morgan. “It is not something we are willing to compromise for the sake of social media.”

That decision won’t put Lolinda out of business, nor will Instagram ruin an entire generation of diners—as long as we agree to monitor that part of our personality that wants to order a $10 dessert just to take its picture. On my way out of Liholiho that night, I considered snapping my feet next to the floor tiles that spell out “aloha.” I wish I had: If I’d tagged it #alohafloorselfie, my ballet flats would have joined the Converses, the peep-toe heels, and the French bulldog that were previously immortalized in that very spot—a community patchwork connected by hashtags and Hawaiian food.

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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