Instagram has transformed photos as a means of communication, with food ranking high among Instagram’s content leaderboard. Many restaurants have upped their food presentation to make their product more ‘sharable’ on social media, but some places have gone a step further. Popping up more and more are socially-built restaurants—mostly dessert-focused eateries that were literally built for Instagram.
How exactly can a restaurant be built for Instagram? Simple:
1. Create visually stunning food and backdrops that encourage guests to share photos of your food with their friends.
2. Reap the rewards of free marketing when those friends come in through your doors, buy your product, photograph it and share it with their friends.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 as the cycle continues. Your food, while serving as the financial crux of your business, takes a back seat to the social sharing experience.
Thinking about it from a business perspective, the move makes a great degree of sense. Here’s why:
Dessert is a natural haven for photogenic, brightly-colored food
Sprinkles, M&M’s and cotton candy are among the most visually interesting edible items on camera. Preparing a burger with fresh meat, cheese and produce to produce the savory equivalent of such vibrant colors is a complex, costly undertaking by comparison.
Dessert contains numerous color contrasts—chocolate and vanilla, vanilla raspberry, vanilla and caramel, etc.—as well as a multitude of unnaturally-colored products that are accepted by society as being perfectly good things to eat. Try selling a burger with bright green meat and pink buns!
Dessert is low-cost and high-margin
Desserts entail significantly lower ingredient and production costs than most of their savory counterparts, affording them lower price points to appeal to the masses and the target demographics that naturally share their food on social media.
"Making eye-catching dessert is the first step. Just as critical is informing audience members where they can go to get the same experience."
Dessert establishments are prone to higher traffic and turnover in smaller spaces
A dessert-only restaurant will feature far fewer traditional booths and tables, and skew more toward long, narrow countertops and shared tables designed for groups to congregate, eat and leave. Dessert doesn’t take as long as a normal meal [unless you have a serious sweet tooth!], again lowering the barrier to entry by posing a minimal time commitment on top of the lower price.
With higher turnover and lots of to-go business, as well as fewer kitchen and inventory requirements, dessert establishments can afford to be significantly smaller than standard restaurants while still attracting significant traffic. This opens the gates to a larger group of budding restaurateurs that wouldn’t be as prone to investing in a large amount of real estate.
There are many more built-in features that make dessert a natural candidate for socially-built restaurants, but these don’t guarantee success. So, what are successful establishments doing to stand out?
Making big, killer products
Look at any of the socially-built dessert hotspots and you will likely see enormous scoops of ice cream with generously-poured toppings [at least they look generous] and other accouterments sticking out the top and flowing from the sides of the cone, cookies or other vehicle. And yes, it tastes as good as it looks.
Bigger is better for these places. CREAM, short for Cookies Rule Everything Around Me, is a prime example of socially-built massive desserts that appeal to the eye and the palate alike. No expense is spared, because their food costs double as the marketing budget.
Designing a restaurant full of Instagram backgrounds
Making eye-catching dessert is the first step. Just as critical is informing audience members where they can go to get the same experience. The Dolly Llama in Downtown Los Angeles has this practice down pat. Every part of this small restaurant is an Instagram backdrop, complete with bright neon lighting and their hashtag splayed across the wall.
Creating a social atmosphere
Snapping food photos is always a toss-up. Some love to do it, some hate when it’s done, and some love to do it even when around those who hate when it’s done. In any case, successful socially-built establishments will push an energetic atmosphere that drives social interaction and consequent phone use. Music, board and lawn games and other forms of entertainment will push guests to engage in the ‘free’ marketing practices sought by these places.
Food costs increase. Rent increases. Labor increases. It’s safe to assume that, over time, your cost of doing business will inevitably go up. When this happens, you have two choices: increase sales, or cut costs elsewhere to offset the rising area. Neither option will bode well with your customer base, but both fare better than the third choice, which is continue as usual until your operation crashes and burns.
Whichever route you decide to take, however, it is imperative to communicate the change with your loyalists. Being proactive in times of potential customer setbacks will not only save otherwise lost relationships, but also have potential to actually strengthen your bond with your strongest advocates.
Here are some example scenarios where restaurants can stand out during tough times:
Communicating Price Increases
Restaurant X is a well-known sandwich shop that has attracted a cult-like local following for the past three decades. Sadly, their landlord doesn’t share the same sentimental attachment and demands a significant rent increase. Restaurant X does the math and realizes that based on current sales, it can’t afford these new costs. They have to raise sandwich prices by $1 each, roughly a 15% bump.
Restaurant X decides to be up-front with its customers, many of whom have come through its doors for years on end. They post a sign on their menu above the counter that reads something like this:
“You’ve probably noticed that our sandwich prices have gone up. We wish we didn’t have to do this either, but our rent went up, and this is the only way for us to stay in business and continue our dream of serving you every day. Thank you and let us know if we can answer any questions.”
Simple and to the point, without causing any unnecessary drama with the landlord. Will this approach prevent alienation from every customer? Likely not, but it’ll certainly minimize the bleeding. By hearing the news straight from the horse’s mouth, Restaurant X has halted any false accusations from spreading around its price increases.
"Much better to tell your loyalists the story in the way you want it to be told rather than have them make up a defamatory story in their minds."
Alternatively, and to supplement the first approach, if Restaurant X doesn’t want to alert every customer [i.e. first-timers] that they used to have lower prices, then it’s best to reach their loyalists through other channels. Email lists and social media pages are prime for these types of announcements.
Communicating Menu Changes
Personal opinion, but always opt for price increases before cost cutting, barring true inefficiencies or redundancies in your operations. Your brand is built around an enjoyable, reliable product and experience, and detracting from taste, portion size or ambiance are all one-way tickets to destroying your brand. This said, sometimes a menu change is necessary for reasons out of your control.
Restaurant Z sells a very popular almond-crusted salmon. Drought conditions, however, have made almonds a very unpopular ingredient, especially with the owners of Restaurant Z, who are strong environmental advocates. They decide to change the dish to herb-crusted salmon, knowing that this will create some noticeable backlash.
In their daily pre-service staff meeting, the owners discuss the change with managers and servers, and train the servers on an opening dialogue and anticipated FAQ’s that loyalists will likely have regarding the change. The servers are now fully equipped with the ability to be forthcoming about a change in a popular menu item and how it aligns with the environment and what the restaurant stands for in the end.
Just like with the previous example, this approach won’t please everyone, but will surely help your customers get on the same page and empathize with the decision. Much better to tell your loyalists the story in the way you want it to be told rather than have them make up a defamatory story in their minds.
These approaches are largely interchangeable, but fall under the same central themes:
Communicating less-than-ideal matters isn’t the most comfortable thing, but in the same way that the success of a romantic relationship depends on communication, so does that of your business
National Doughnut Day. National Cheeseburger Day. National Tequila Day. National Chocolate-Covered Bacon Day. The list goes on. If you’re in the restaurant business, there’s an overwhelming chance that some of these faux food holidays have made their way onto your plate. Two questions arise: how to leverage these holidays to your advantage, and more importantly, whether the attempt is worth it in the first place.
Do Faux Food Holidays Matter?
The short answer is that faux food holidays can be a fun business booster for both new customers and loyalists, so long as you make a big enough commitment and market your efforts correctly. Easier said than done, which is why if you’re not prepared to sink a lot of time and resources into a faux holiday menu and/or event, chances are that you won’t see the positive ROI you’re looking for.
If you’re thinking about pulling the trigger for a faux food holiday, consider these points:
If you are dedicated to ‘celebrating’ a faux food holiday, target one that at least has broader appeal. A gastropub will have a much better time making the most of National Burger Day than they would National Shrimp n Grits Day. Bars can do a lot more with National Rum Day than National Daiquiri Day.
Second, paint a clear picture of what you want your ‘celebration’ to look like. Here’s some pointers on that end:
From there, getting the word out is imperative, otherwise you’ve gone through all that effort just to have people who would otherwise pay full price stumble through your front door and take advantage of the discount.
"These tactics only work if the holiday and promotion are relevant to your brand"
How to Run Marketing for Faux Food Holidays
Your marketing plan is entirely dependent on the type of promotion you’ve decided to create. In any case, be sure to have that plan set 3–6 months in advance and communicate with all your stakeholders—chefs and front-of-house staff, managers, investors, etc.—to both fill them in on your plans and leverage their own networks for additional reach. From there, consider a few options:
These tactics should provide valuable assistance should you decide to embark on a faux food holiday endeavor. At their core, however, these tactics only work if the holiday and promotion are relevant to your brand and can actually generate value for your business.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.