A trip to Cuba gave Jessie Barker and Madelyn Markoe, owners of Cuban-themed sandwich joint Media Noche, insight into how they wanted to design their restaurant. They had chronicled the trip via Instagram and sought to give their guests a similar feeling of traveling through the country. “To turn that journey into our restaurant,” Barker says, “we needed an ‘Instagrammable’ space.”
Two years later, guests often visit the San Francisco establishment with tripods and professional cameras in hand, Markoe says, ready to capture everything from its queso and black bean empanadas to its pink-and-green floor tiles. “Instagram influencers (credible or popular Instagram users) come in for photoshoots, which attracts millions of guests,” Barker says, calling Instagram “a great place for us to express our vision.”
Here’s what Barker, Markoe and other restaurateurs recommend when it comes to making eateries more social media-friendly.
1. Build a cohesive identity
“Authenticity is important,” says Ravi DeRossi, owner of Hawaiian-inspired tiki bar Mother of Pearl. “Express yourself as an artist through your food, design and space.” Take Mother of Pearl's notorious Shark Eye cocktail: a bourbon-based concoction poured into a shark's-head-shaped glass that's filled with ice and topped with extra “blood”—aka bitters and sugar. This drink is the New York City bar's most photographed menu item.
Developing a restaurant’s aesthetic and individual brand will help fuel its Instagram presence, says Rene Montelongo, brand manager at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, an eight-unit chain specializing in croissant-muffin hybrids, better known as cruffins. Montelongo refers to chasing the consumer buzz as “fool's gold,” noting that “the things that will last are the aspects that set you apart as a brand.” At Mr. Holmes, that uniqueness is established through its cruffin flavors, which include Apple Tamarind Jelly and Blackberry Port Jam. Adding extra social media bait, its Golden Gate location sports a glowing sign that reads “I got baked in San Francisco.”
2. Go big or go home
Whether through the layout, decor or menu items themselves, modeling a restaurant to be Instagrammable doesn’t come cheap. Still, it’s a risk worth investing in, says Ryan McIlwraith, executive chef at Bellota, a wood-fired, Spanish-themed establishment in San Francisco. “Spending a few extra dollars for how your food and restaurant look will pay off in the future,” he says. Bellota features an open kitchen, complete with a wall of hanging jamon iberico (cured ham) and custom lamps that illuminate the 25-seat bar, allowing guests to control the lighting for their perfect photo, McIlwraith says.
At Media Noche, Barker, Markoe and even the flamingo mural on its outside wall embrace the high-risk, high-reward attitude. Though the operators were worried the mural would pigeonhole the joint as a feminine space, Barker says, they were thankfully wrong. (Men now make up majority of their visitors.) “Don’t be afraid to go big, whether for color or patterns,“ Barker says. “People are attracted to different; be as bold as you can go.”
Dirty Bones, a four-unit, American-themed cocktail bar in London, has taken social media readiness a step further by investing in Instagram kits for its customers. Upon arrival, guests are given a portable LED light, a multidevice charger, a clip-on wide-angle lens, a tripod and a selfie stick, all to help them take the ideal Instagram shot. “If you’re making sure every guest has the best possible experience in your restaurant, it’s only natural that they’ll want to share that experience with their friends and family,” says Cokey Sulkin, founder and director of operations at Dirty Bones.
3. Don't be afraid to brag
Illustrating everything that’s great about Dirty Bones has been the bar’s core strategy for building its Instagram engagement and following, Sulkin says. “Communicating [about] the food, the drinks, the people, the design, the nostalgia and the music—that seems to be what works best for us,” he says. “We also draw a lot of inspiration from the artistic boroughs of New York, which play a massive role in Dirty Bones’ original conception and development.”
Playing up its influences, the chain’s newest location in London’s Soho district presents the layout of a Brooklyn loft-style apartment and features art and music inspiration from Bushwick and Williamsburg, Sulkin told Hospitality & Catering News. The interior layout showcases floor-to-ceiling bookcases and neon signs with the sayings, “Keep it Real” and “It Was All a Dream”—the latter a quote from the late Brooklyn-based hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G.
4. Listen and evolve
Instagram and social media will be part of the business as long as they remain aspects of today’s culture, Montelongo says, underscoring the pressure on operators to enhance their online presence. “[Our social media profiles] are the digital representations of ourselves,” he says. “Creating that photo-worthy aesthetic is a way for customers to incorporate what they like about your business into themselves.”
However, there's more than just publicity to be gained. Instagram has become a great platform to gauge guests’ reactions to new additions and developments, Sulkin says. “At Dirty Bones, everything from the initial design of a new restaurant to the development of new menu items is considered with those Instagram-friendly visuals in mind.”