About 30 million Americans classify themselves as “digital food enthusiasts,” or those who use social channels to connect to food, and believe dining and tech go together like salt and pepper.
That’s according to a white paper by consumer intelligence firm Maru/Matchbox, and it’s one way of explaining why so many diners—particularly millennials and Gen Z—are as invested in the likes on the creative photo they just Instagrammed as much as the food itself.
Many restaurant owners and operators are eating up the social attention; some are even creating Instagram-targeted menu items. Food snaps are a big piece of the puzzle, but atmospheric shots are “definitely catching up,” says Anne Haerle of Southern California-based Synergy Restaurant Consultants.
Haerle, whose graphic design and branding background informs her expertise in restaurant concept development and culinary consulting, takes clients on discovery tours to show how decor, marketing, and service style complement dining concepts. If a client isn’t already thinking about social engagement, “we always recommend they do,” she says
Joseph Szala, principal of Atlanta-based Vigor Branding, which has worked with more than 200 restaurant brands, estimates that “Instagram-worthiness is about a 25%-of-the-time conversation.” That should be higher, he adds. “Restaurants should be focused on creating memorable experiences and not cutting things out of the same cloth.”
In other words, there’s no rulebook for social media-friendly restaurants. Experts agree, however, that certain elements do help. And while design choices made after finding a space for a restaurant ultimately drive success, strategically encouraging social engagement involves envisioning the right spot from the outset.
Offering an interior or exterior “selfie wall” is the most obvious click factor. “It’s an opportunity to market yourself in a really thoughtful way that lets the person taking the picture create the moment they want to create,” says Haerle.
Selfie subjects like immersing themselves in the space, so restaurants will often have a painting or graphic with which diners can interact. Such walls may be in the dining room, but generally aren’t around a cluster of tables; diners need not feel click-and-run pressure.
Also important: “That it’s well lit,” advises Haerle. “If [a space] looks dark or uninviting, people aren’t going to want to go over there.”
Kevin Clay, owner of Richmond, Virginia-based Big Spoon Co., a PR and marketing agency for food and beverage brands, sees lighting as the top priority for reaching social media aspirations. “Pulling out an entire lighting kit to get a good photo should not be necessary,” he says.
Exterior selfie walls may compete with unrelated sights and sounds but can be highly effective. “Not only does this encourage foot traffic and catch drivers passing by, it also provides great opportunities for building a relationship with your local creative community,” says Clay, who often collaborates with branding and design firms to bring projects to life. Several of his clients have worked with local artists to create both interior and exterior murals.
Media Noche , a Cuba-Miami themed restaurant in San Francisco, originally commissioned a flamingos painting outside, which became a famed selfie spot. Its current mural features a botanical illustration of bougainvillea vines, which can be found in both Cuba and California, says co-founder and managing partner Madelyn Markoe. The artist has existing work in the neighborhood and a respected reputation with other local artists.
“Selfie walls must be authentic,” advises Haerle. “You don’t want it to look like a billboard, or be too staged. The authenticity will be appealing to folks. Go for a handmade approach, not a big sticker on the wall.”
She points to Honey & Butter in Irvine, California, which specializes in decorative macarons, and features a hanging swing and greenery in one selfie spot.
“They created this charming little space and it fit the whimsical attitude of their brand,” says Haerle. The business partners with Japanese anime and comic book companies in designing both the cookies and decor.
Creating a unique overall atmosphere also encourages Instagramming while dining.
“Our most Instagrammed feature is the [floor] tiles, which we had custom made after coming across the beautiful design on one of our trips to Cuba,” says Markoe. “We designed the place to reflect the bright, breezy atmosphere of Cuba and Miami, and wanted to utilize finishes and materials with varying textures that naturally patinate over time for a casual, beachy feel.” Instagrammers also gravitate toward the bananas decorating Media Noche’s restroom.
An orange couch with wooden screen wall (installed to hide the bathroom doors) has become a popular selfie spot at Hello, Sailor , a casual restaurant located on Lake Norman in North Carolina.
Textured fabrics, tile and wooden elements create photo-worthy dining at Perch , a Big Spoon Co. client located in Richmond. The atmosphere, created by Helen Reed Design, “took advantage of natural light to reflect the menu’s Filipino and island influence,” Clay says.
Instagram pics tagging Banditos Bar + Kitchen in Baltimore, a Vigor Branding client serving items inspired by Mexican street food flavors, often portray the “rebellious fun” atmosphere aim. Sidewalk diners will pose atop the railing with the painted brick facade in the background.
Szala advises restaurateurs avoid trying to emulate what they’ve already seen or experienced.
“It’s a natural inclination because it feels comfortable,” he says. “Being truly Instagram-worthy is about being unique in a way that aligns with a deeper story and driver for the brand. When this is identified, designing remarkable, extraordinary experiences becomes easier and more comfortable.”
During a property search, finding exposed brick or subway tile in a space may lead to visions of social media success. But, as Szala points out, “these things have been done over and over again.”
Surely a stunning view equals an Instagram win? Not necessarily.
“You want customers to be taking a picture in some kind of background reflective of your brand as opposed to a view out the window,” says Haerle. He also points out that window-front posing puts diners in shadows.
“No one will post an image of themselves if they look bad,” Szala says. He suggests finding or creating a space while paying close attention to how lighting positively or negatively affects photos.
Clay favors venues with large windows and plenty of natural light, as it helps restaurants avoid fluorescent and bright LED lighting and keeps food looking delicious in shots.
Just remember, Haerle says: Diners are “featuring themselves first and then your product.”
Whatever venue you ultimately choose, the biggest share of the Instagram success plate ultimately lies in your vision and what you do to the space to cook it up.