Do Restaurants Love Instagram? It's Complicated

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Illustrated by Vero Romero.

On an early Sunday morning last September, I was on my phone trying to navigate my way to a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. I wandered, lost, past industrial warehouses and faded walls where strips of peeled-off graffiti paint lay curled on the pavement. I was in search of 222 Bogart Street, but Google Maps and my real life street view seemed to be at an impasse.

At last, I ventured down a driveway with stacks of wooden crates piled at the back. As I rounded the corner, I knew that I had finally arrived at my destination: The brick and concrete building might have looked like any other empty warehouse in the area, save for the air vents, pipe, and door, which were all painted millennial pink. I had arrived at Carthage Must Be Destroyed, a restaurant with a quirky Virgilian name, and an even quirkier set of rules for its diners.
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Everything about Carthage Must Be Destroyed screamed “photograph me for Instagram!” The aesthetic was irresistibly cute, colorful, and decadent. Inside the giant space, piles of millennial pink plates were stacked around the large open kitchen that jutted out into the middle of the room. Long, communal wooden tables were covered with all manner of odd, but adorable trinkets. Then there was the food itself: Glasses of “pimms-without-the-pimms” that came piled high with an abundance of strawberries and cucumbers, plates of bright, exotic fruit mixed with maple caramelized pecans, and scrambled eggs flecked with fresh chilli and herbs. In short, Carthage Must Not Be Named checked all the boxes for winning likes.

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Illustrated by Vero Romero.

But here’s the great irony of it all: Carthage Must Be Destroyed wasn’t photo friendly — at least, not at the time of my first visit. Before walking through the perfect-for-Instagram door, I was met with a white sign showing a camera with a line through it and, as if it weren’t clear enough, the words “Photography Restricted.” Below was a second sign, this one listing the restaurant’s photo policies. It read like a TSA sign: “We allow a few personal photos at your table of friends, family & food; No cameras allowed — only phones; No photos of the restaurant; No photo shoots & no filming.” Each menu was accompanied with another set of the policies as reinforcement.

In one respect, it seemed almost cruel to restrict photos at a restaurant that is clearly a product of the Instagram era. The pink, the perfectly plated food, and the tiny trinkets all looked as if they were designed for a clientele that comes for their photos with a side of eggs, or vice versa. At the same time, it’s an example of the ways that restaurants today are reckoning with the challenges that have resulted from Instagram, which can be a must-have source of free PR, but, for some, a distraction from enjoying the food and communal dining experience.

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Hannah Collins, a boutique restaurant designer, is aware of this frustration. Collins works primarily with first time restaurateurs who are just starting to create brands and grappling with the competitive industry. How a restaurant looks has always been a part of the game, but working with the next-wave of restaurateurs means that aesthetic matters just as much to a restaurant’s success as the food itself. Although Collins doesn’t design for Instagram, she’s particularly savvy at creating aesthetic elements that end up there: She’s the woman behind the popular mosaic tiles at San Francisco-based Mexican restaurant Flores, the popped
outside the city’s Riddler champagne bar, and the
at Italian restaurant Barzotto.

“If you can create something that people can snap really beautiful photos of that attract and are emotionally irresistible, then you have created a hook,” Collins told Refinery29. “That is really part of the journey of creating an instagrammable restaurant.”

The power of Instagram, of course, is that it allows diners to visually share their experience in a way that is much more tangible than word of mouth. At the same time, posting a shot of yourself at the hottest restaurant in town conveys status. And for most restaurants, this form of marketing can pay for itself: Build something extremely Instagrammable, and you can bet it’ll end up there. Plus, restaurants have measurable metrics of their social reach on Instagram in a way they never had previously.

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There’s one problem with this formula though. As more and more restaurants join the Instagram game, it’s becoming increasingly hard to stand out. Despite the abundance of free social marketing, the National Restaurant Association cited a challenging business environment as one of five key trends shaping the restaurant industry in 2017. There’s just a lot of the same, and they’re crowding each other out. Restaurants with famous chefs sell themselves, but for the those trying to make their way through the crowded 'gram, it’s more challenging than it looks.

Restaurants with famous chefs sell themselves, but for the those trying to make their way through the crowded 'gram, it’s more challenging than it looks.

“We’re so inundated with visual content all the time with Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest that I think people are tending to copy other people more,” Collins says. “Oh, I saw a neon sign so I’m going to put a neon sign in my restaurant, or I saw mosaic tiles so I’m going to put in mosaic tiles. Coming up with more creative ways to integrate those things is the challenge for people and it’s not so obvious.”

Some restaurants have taken approaches that reach beyond the design, even going so far as to incorporate Instagram husbands as part of their service. Gone are the days when your grumpy waiter cuts two heads off in a group photo: UK restaurant Zizzi hired an influencer to train its staff to teach diners how to capture the perfect photo; Dirty Bones passes out Instagram kits with tripods and wide angle camera lenses.

“I’ve seen servers, chefs and hosts all go out of their way to accommodate our appetite for Instagramming what we eat, from helping create Boomerangs at service, to seating avid 'grammers at well-lit tables,” Caroline Potter, OpenTable’s Chief Dining Officer, told Refinery29 over email. “Word-of-mouth remains one of the most powerful ways to discover restaurants and Instagram has shortened the distance in a digital way.”

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But Zizzi and Dirty Bones are extreme examples. On the other end of the spectrum, Collins says some clients have asked her if there’s a way to design their space that suggests people should put their phone away. She’s considered installing charging stations, where diners put their phone in a box that hides it from view and benefit from not using it, since, she explains plainly, “Without an incentive, people won’t do it.”

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Illustrated by Vero Romero.

Damien Del Rio, the co-owner of Loosie’s Kitchen, a restaurant in Brooklyn with a greenery covered bathtub out front and bright mosaic-tiled walls inside, says he has heard a similarly frustrated sentiment from many restaurateurs. While he will never give out selfie sticks or photo kits (“it’s kind of nuts”), he doesn’t foresee setting restrictions about who can take photos in front of the bathtub:

“As a restaurateur, you’re designing a restaurant experience. Somebody could have a drink at home, but they decide to come to your place — they’re coming for a certain experience, whatever that is. It’s a new generation and I don’t want to restrict however they decide to consume the experience.”

Jeanette Dalrot, the creative director at conceptual design studio ByBlack, seconds this ethos, adding that most of her clientele these days are “up to speed” on the importance Instagram plays and appreciate that diners are willing to offer free PR. Still, when asked what kinds of Instagram moments her boutique restaurant clients request, Dalrot is hesitant: “It’s still this thing you don’t really want to admit.”

By the time I returned to Carthage Must Be Destroyed this winter, it appeared the restaurant had eased up on its earlier policies: The “Photography Restricted” signs were no longer at the front door, though the menus still include wording banning photo shoots. (The restaurant declined to comment on its photo policy for this article.)

Even Carthage, it seems, can’t resist the appeal of Instagram. The restaurant’s own account is full of millennial pink posts, many of which are reposts of the photos taken — and posted — by its diners. After all, if the restaurant isn’t on Instagram, does it even exist?
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Illustrated by Vero Romero.

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