Whether your restaurant is a casual diner that serves a solid Reuben or a fine dining institution with sushi that is out of this world, you should be taking advantage of the free advertising opportunities that happen every time a customer with a social media account walks through the door. “Word of mouth is much more important marketing these days than anything else because word of mouth has a much broader reach than it ever has in the past,” said food photographer Andrew Scrivani. He would know—his Instagram has over 50,000 followers. “If I’m actively engaging user-generated content and creating a community around the marketing of my restaurant, I can’t imagine a better way to get free advertising.” A few quick tricks aren’t going to make people want to take photos of your food, but a bit of forethought will enable you to transform your restaurant into an Instagram destination and support your restaurant marketing efforts.
Make your restaurant the main character of your story
Trends can help to inform your restaurant design, but they can’t help you communicate what makes your establishment special. To do that, you have to think about your restaurant in the same way that a fiction writer brings their main character to life: by developing its backstory. Where is it from? What are its values? Who does it admire? All of that will help you pin down its style and presentation so you can nail your Instagram marketing strategy. “You have to determine what the personality is, and from there, you build out everything, including how you plate that food to be photographed,” said Scrivani. “It’s a tall order, but if you really want to make a difference, you want to be able to tell the stories.”
As a part-owner of the circus-themed nightclub, House of Yes, Justin Ahiyon knows how influential character building can be in the hospitality world. So, when he and his cousin, Ilan Telmont, attached a falafel shop to the club, they knew it would have to stand on its own. “No matter how much you promote, if it doesn’t catch fire, if the buzz doesn’t catch, it doesn’t really matter,” said Ahiyon. Decorated with girlish handwriting, thrifted treasures, and as many colors as the costumed partygoers that stopped in for a bite before a long night of dancing, Queen of Falafel existed as something of a little sister to House of Yes—the club even used the dining area as a backstage for its performers.
It was much beloved by the neighborhood, so Ahiyon and Telmont jumped at the opportunity to turn the grab-and-go spot into a full-service bar and restaurant when a corner unit nearby became available. Queen of Falafel evolved into Queen, an elegant and romantic Mediterranean café where customers can eat a three-course meal without emptying their pockets or leaving uncomfortably stuffed. All the values and character of the original shop are still there—she just grew up.
Orient your dining room around the camera
If you want photography to be a big part of your business plan, the best thing you can do is design your restaurant for the camera. Those who are at the beginning of their business journey are perfectly positioned to do so. “You’re effectively building your marketing budget into your build-out where you’re saying, I know that I can get a whole lot of free photography if I build this in a way that makes it applicable for people to come in and shoot my food,” said Scrivani.
Good lighting is essential to good photography, so thinking through the fixtures, bulbs, candles, and windows is a good place to start. Without knowing it, Ahiyon and Telmont followed many of the rules of light design. Most importantly, they incorporated a variety of light sources to distinguish the different areas of the restaurant. While the bar is lit by opulent Moroccan lanterns that emit a soft, golden hue, the tables are surrounded by a mismatched set of torches that shine the light upwards in order to diffuse it and prevent an unflattering, downcast glow. A strip light above the main passageway supplements the other light sources and hits the tables at an angle, which prevents glare. In the evening, they dim the lights way down, put out a bunch of candles, and turn on the storefront lanterns to give passersby a sense of what they can expect when they enter. “The exterior lights flicker like flames and create a warm, inviting, ‘by-the-fireplace’ feel,” said Ahiyon.
That instinctual sense for design echoes throughout the restaurant. For example, Ahiyon thought they were going to spend thousands replacing the old tile work that had worn down to the concrete underneath. Instead, Ilan spray-painted Moroccan-style stencils on the concrete to create a dynamic mosaic pattern. “I heard a great architect say that he lets the material inform the design rather than letting the design inform the material,” said Ahiyon. “I really like that because, without thinking about it, that’s kind of what we do.”
Design a tablescape that embodies your restaurant’s character
Every surface is a potential backdrop for your customers, so the countertops and dinnerware will have a significant impact on the pictures. “The standbys for food photographers are a piece of light wood, a piece of dark wood, a piece of white marble, a piece of gray marble, and a piece of black marble,” says Scrivani. “If you use the traditional five surfaces that most food photographers use in your restaurant and scatter them around, then every time people come, they’re getting a different surface under their food.”
Restaurants that offer both bar- and table-side service can use different countertops to denote a separation in the experience (the bar in Queen is covered in white, hexagonal tiles with black grout, and the dining tables are made of dark wood). If your restaurant is already up and running, you can either give scuffed-up tables a fresh coat of paint or use funky tablecloths to give the shots some character.
Every element of a table setting is an accessory that helps to set the mood and improve your food presentation. “The more care you put into all the things that are not food, the more it shows in the photographs,” says Scrivani. How those accessories interact with the rest of your restaurant’s outfit—whether they coordinate with the general color and design scheme or they create contrast—is yet another character-building tool at your disposal.
Ahiyon plates all of his dishes on an eclectic collection of antique dinnerware, which ensures that the narrative of the restaurant comes through even when customers eating outside on the street-side patio. “The eclectic mix of things is an intentional choice influencing all of that photography, and it just gives you a different sense,” said Scrivani. “You go in there, and immediately, you're in a different frame of mind because everything on the table is a conversation piece.” The aqua-tinted candle votives and bottles of water echo the punchy blue exterior and brighten up the neutral countertops. Sometimes, the team places a single rose on the table to create some contrast.
A variety of textures and materials translates really well to the eye and provides opportunities for alternative perspectives, but you still want to make sure you are creating a cohesive vision. Think carefully about how the marble table, the wooden serving board, the striped linen napkin, and the flatbread bedecked with colorful vegetables will interact with one another. You are the art director of every shoot that happens at Sunday brunch; plan accordingly.
Consider color, structure, and dimension when plating your dishes
Of course, the most important aspect of designing your restaurant for the camera is plating in a way that will look attractive from the diner’s perspective. If your menu is due for an update, consider the colors and shapes the ingredients create when brought together into a dish rather than just the flavors they create when paired. Can you add some colorful veggies to a noodle dish? Perhaps pair your steak with a bright arugula salad instead of potatoes.
Even if you don’t have time for a total menu overhaul, tiny tweaks can make a big difference. Whenever Andrew is preparing food for a shoot, he asks himself, “How can I garnish this food in a way that’s going to give it a little extra life?” Often, it’s something as simple as drizzling coconut cream over a curry or dusting a fried egg with some bright red paprika. “For the focal point to have something to hang onto, there needs to be contrast,” he explains.
Despite his laid-back attitude, Ahiyon says that he and Telmont are “deadly serious” about how the food looks when his team serves it to the diners. For each recipe, they do a round of tastings, then they adjust the recipe for the second tasting where they concentrate on plating. Because a lot of their business shifted to takeout after the pandemic hit, they do a whole separate round of plating so that guests eating at home will still get to indulge in the eye candy. And the job doesn’t stop there—Ahiyon carefully supervises the dishes as they come out to ensure consistency. “If you really want your vision expressed, you have to always, always be on it,” he said.
Scrivani often uses chopsticks or tweezers to garnish a dish in order to evenly distribute color. But you don’t have to be quite that precious about plating to make your food look good, and you probably don’t want to be if you run a casual establishment. Adding a bit of structure to the plate can make a huge difference. Instead of scattering your fries all over the place, try stuffing them into a paper cone and allowing them to cascade out onto the plate. Swirl noodles in the center of a large dish, and layer salad high to create a bountiful appearance.
If you’re new to plating, start small with drinks and desserts. Try cutting your limes differently, tucking a few sprigs of thyme into the side of a glass, sweeping a cherry sauce around your famous pie, or dusting your vanilla bean ice cream with a touch of cinnamon. When you start to see guests pointing their phones at the plate, you’ll know that you’ve hit the mark.
Motivate guests to share their photos online
It’s important that your guests are aware of your restaurant social media so that they know to tag you in all the photos they take at your restaurant. Make sure you add prominent links to your accounts on your restaurant website and consider mentioning them on a chalkboard in the restaurant or on the menus. Regramming their photos on your accounts is a great way to not only take advantage of all of that free photography but also to incentivize engagement from future guests. “You’ve got to remember the psychology around Instagram,” said Scrivani. “If the recognition that people crave comes from a place that they already admire, that carries a lot of weight.”
If photography isn't your specialty, consider hiring a professional. “You don’t want to do the taxes for your restaurant, so you hire an accountant,” said Scrivani. “If you’re designing your business around the collection of free content, then invest in that because it’s something that will always pay dividends.” Consulting with a food stylist or photographer on the design elements of your restaurant is no different—you are simply asking an expert to do what they do best.