Heston Blumenthal is famously exacting about the dining experience. He tries to create “sensory memories”, controlling not only the way his dishes look and taste, but what his diners are listening to while they eat. His The Sound of the Sea, a signature dish at The Fat Duck, came with an iPod Nano playing, well, the sound of the sea. But there was a problem: he was struggling to control the temperature of the food when it actually entered the mouths of those diners, not through any fault of the kitchen, but because people were too busy taking pictures for Instagram.
Blumenthal is one of many chefs who have a love-hate relationship with the social media giant, feeding off its undeniable marketing power but frustrated at its grasp over his customers. He hasn’t gone as far as telling people to stop, but says he’s considered it.
The Rouxs went one step further in 2017, outright banning people from taking pictures of their meals at the Waterside Inn in Berkshire. “A picture on a phone cannot possibly capture the flavours,” lamented the late, great Michel.
But not even Michel Roux could hold back the Instagram tide and it’s now incredibly rare to find a chef without an active account, while many restaurants and chains have dedicated social media teams and food photographers. This was a lifeline during lockdown, allowing restaurants to stay in touch with customers and helping to drive the exponential rise of finish-at-home meal kits.
The biggest threat to this status quo is a proposal by the UK government to ban the marketing of highly calorific food, something which – in the highly unlikely scenario it actually comes to fruition – could spell the end of a thousand melting chocolate spheres.
I spoke to more than a dozen top chefs from across London to get a handle on how they use social media and whether they could survive without it.
“Instagram was something that restaurants and bars resisted at the beginning, but in recent years it’s become a mainstay,” says Iain Smith, head chef at No. Fifty Cheyne. “It has become our ‘shop-window’ – we have an in-house photographer who works her photographic magic on our dishes and drinks.”
Most people I spoke to said Instagram forces the industry to raise its game: “There is no hiding on social media!” says Homeslice founder Mark Wogan. “If a customer is unhappy they’ll post about it, so it pushes people to be better.”
Emilia Lommano, group social media manager of Zuma, ROKA & Oblix restaurants agrees: “Instagram makes everyone from the marketing team to the chefs to the server very aware of how what we’re creating is presented to the world.
“I see social media, particularly Instagram, as a loyalty scheme. You are building an organic audience of people who want to see what you’re doing and what you have to offer… You have to give people what they want in order to continue to grow.”
For most restaurants and bars, Instagram provides a direct line to customers that was previously locked behind advertising or PR. It’s allowed them to create self-reliant media strategies, which most agree are far more effective than attempting to entice and please mercurial restaurant critics. (to illustrate this point, a chef once told me that in the days before social media, he’d spend £20,000 on a refurb in the hopes it would qualify his restaurant for a review in a big newspaper, and there was no guarantee that review would be remotely positive).
“Instagram plays a vital role in the marketing of all our venues,” says Ryan Bishti, founder of Cream Group and the soon-to-open The Windmill Soho, “Whether that’s announcing a new location, promoting a specific night, pushing a new menu, or even recruiting for positions within the company. Previously we would have had to employ marketing managers for every venue and brand. Now we can operate with a smaller, more centralised team, and account managers who work remotely across multiple venues.”
This is all well and good – but what exactly makes a solid social media strategy? For Will Bowlby, founder of Kricket, it boils down to three core principles: “Consistency in posting, good imagery and telling a story.”
Kudu Collective founder Amy Corbin agrees: “We aim to post five times a week with stories to keep our customers engaged and to update them on any news we have; new dishes, new opening hours, upcoming sites, seasonal cocktails… We have been known to go up to over 1,000 followers in a day when celebrities have visited one of our sites.”
For Bishti it’s all about “that ‘wow’ moment” – the perfect Instagram shot , whether that be a melting chocolate sphere or a fruit platter bellowing with dry ice… you’ll see everyone getting their phone out to capture it.’
This search for the ephemeral viral hit is a recurring theme. “I would be lying if I said I’m not pushing the chefs to come up with a couple of dishes ‘for the gram’”, says Top Cuvee co-founder Brodie Meah. “We have had a few ‘viral’ hits that have really driven sales so we’re always looking for something funny to do on instagram. But we let it come organically, we don’t really ‘work’ on it per se.”
While I expected chefs to echo the frustrations of Blumenthal and Roux, most of them, especially the younger generation, are so steeped in Instagram culture that it’s simply part and parcel of running a restaurant. The biggest gripe was the sense of expectation that Instagram posts can set.
“Some customers will start showing you pictures of what they would like, rather than reading the menu,” says Tibor Balint, general manager at Isabel Mayfair. “Seasonality can upset customers if the dish they travelled miles for is not available anymore. If we post a picture of a dish on social, after a few weeks it might have to change or be taken off altogether if the produce is not available or has a short season.”
Bowlby has had similar experiences with diners having made their food choices before arriving at the restaurant. “Unfortunately people seem to know what they’re going to eat before they arrive, which restricts the element of surprise you want from a meal. It can also provide people with misconceptions.”
Tim Vasilakis, founder of Greek street food brand The Athenian, says he has had people “come and order dishes straight off our Instagram posts. They walk in with their phones, point to the screen and say ‘I want that’!”
Virtually everyone I spoke to admitted to being affected by negative comments more than they should be but said the positive ones outweigh them (Trip Advisor was a bigger bug bear). And Most also accepted ‘influencers’ as part of the package when using Instagram to promote a business.
Nicolas Budzynski, global operations director for LPM Restaurant & Bar did recall one negative encounter, however. “Once a paying influencer arrived late and did not want to return the table as per the agreed policy. She threatened to make a post that would ‘ruin’ our reputation. She did post, and even filmed the situation with the manager, who was actually trying to help. However, I believe this looked worse on her than anything else – were in the middle of the pandemic and restaurants were suffering from reduced capacity… but she did not care.”
When asked what they would change about social media, most chefs replied with some version of Meah’s wish to occasionally “turn it off for a bit”. Perhaps the wisest answer, however, was from Balint: “I’m not against social media but I do think we should put the phone away a bit more and live in the moment. The most elegant thing to do is, not to have one’s phone on the table during dinner. By all means take a picture, but then put it away so you can focus on your dining partners.”
I think that’s a sentiment we can all get behind.