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Nice Viral Restaurant Hit, Now Where’s the Money?

Does your restaurant get enough online attention?
Does your restaurant get enough online attention?

“People eat with their eyes before they eat with their tongue” goes the adage. This sentence used to refer to the fact that the visual stimulus of appetite was bigger than what the stomach actually wanted.

But in the age of social media, this translates into visual-focused dishes and decor: delicacies such as the Rainbow bagel and the (now) stalwart Cronut and places such as Elan Café in London, with its pastel-themed flower-decked walls and Cha Cha Matcha in New York with its pink-and-green “Instagram wall” are a great way for users to capture heaps of likes.

Content abounds on the “anatomy” of a viral restaurant, which, per a report on Fundera, now comprises unique dishes alongside “decorative floor tiles,” “pretty plates,” and “an exterior feature wall,” and marketing agencies now actively specialize in creating marketing campaigns hellbent on strong visuals for the optimal Instagram presence.

Is that really helpful for food businesses though? The short answer is a yes, but…

“All marketing campaigns should include specific Instagram programs which is ideally a combination of your brand point of view and appropriate, brand­-aligned collaborations with the influencer community,” says Jennifer Baum of the marketing agency Bullfrog+Baum, adding that image and design are an integral part of any brand. “The most successful food businesses have a distinct point of view. One very important way this point of view is communicated is through design language, which contributes to the establishment of your image,” she continues.

Elements to take into consideration include the website, the Instagram and Facebook pages, the menu design, to-go cups and bags, and packaging. “These are all non-verbal communication methods which play a vital role in putting out to the world who you are and what you stand for,” she continues.

While some brands focus on Instagram as their primary marketing source, which is most successful when you create a very visual viewpoint to convey your story, others create aspects of their menu or product line specifically to be “instagrammable” enough to attract attention. For example, Christina Tobia, associate director of Digital Marketing at Union Square Hospitality Group, cites items of the group’s restaurant that became Instagram hits: the crullers at Daily Provisions (shown here, in this birthday post, and this @eatingnyc post), and the Squash Blossom Pizza at Martina (shown here and in this Munchies post.)

“All of our chefs make beautiful food and we love seeing guest photos on Instagram,” she tells Skift Table. “While we can’t speak for the chefs, our marketing team does consider that guests will share food and drink experiences on social media.”

However, if a new business were to explore visual-marketing options, they would find themselves with a general lack of hard-and-fast rules when it comes to investment and return on investment. Nick DeNitto, creative director of Manufactur, a Durham and Los Angeles-based agency, who did the visual branding for Instagram darlings such as Cha Cha Matcha, HealthAde Kombucha and Loco Coco, claims it’s impossible to give definite rules in that realm. “I mean, your marketing budget should be 15% or 20% of sales or something, right?” he tells Skift Table. “While I’d love to say ‘spend half of that on design! Go crazy!’ it really just depends on the business and the demands your brand makes on design decisions.”

“I’ve seen brands succeed with more of a DIY vibe, and they spend more sweat than money making things look good and hopefully ‘sharable.’” As a designer, though, he has solid tips when it comes to aesthetic. “Street art is super popular in Los Angeles, so graffiti, drippy paint, and custom neon seems to really speak to people,” DeNitto says. “Beachy, tropical themes are also popular with the kids these days. Luxury and leisure are what people like to Instagram by and large, so if you’re nailing either of those themes, you’re in the right place. It’s escapism, right?”

As for the low-watt exposed bulbs, which seemed to dominate the restaurant decor of the early 2010s, he assures Skift Table that they still exist. “Haha, they’re still around as L.A. and other cities ‘discover’ their histories,” says DeNitto. “We have some clients in L.A. and Detroit that were born fifty years too late.”

Even measuring the direct impact of social media presence on a business remains an inexact science. “While there are social analytics that show level of engagement, direct impact on the business has yet to be 100% proven,” Baum says. “Your Instagram presence should be consistent and clearly show your point of view, branding, and be designed to attract your target market.”

A way to assess success of marketing tactics, though, is by running promotions and contests. “You can also take note of increased consumer attention if and when a noted influencer posts about your restaurant,” Baum says. “We’ve heard stories about reservations soaring after a certain celebrity chef visited and posted about a local restaurant as well as increased visits when known food or beverage influencers post.”

Yet, with the lack of clear metrics, agencies acknowledge that ROI is ultimately twofold: qualitative and quantitative. A business should look up their location to see what people are posting. “If it’s some part of your interior or your food and drinks, then pat yourself on the back!” says DeNitto. “Definitely comment, like, and generally nurture that sort of engagement, because it’s generally more authentic than paid advertising.”

The quantitative part is more straightforward: are followers growing, how often are people posting about a specific restaurant, are people coming because of Instagram? “I can certainly speak to Los Angeles and even Durham, NC,” DeNitto says. “People are looking at Instagram when they’re looking for places to eat and drink.”

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Skift Table is the largest business intelligence, media, and marketing platform for restaurant industry professionals globally. With Skift Table you'll get a realistic look at the modern restaurant industry and the people who are moving it forward.

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