Put Your Food In the Limelight

There are dozens of aspects to opening a restaurant, from finding a great location to perfecting the menu to hiring and training staff. If that weren’t enough to keep managers and owners busy, there’s the small matter of actually attracting business after the restaurant opens. Over the last decade or so, as mobile technology has drastically changed the way we communicate, social media has become a dominant and influential force in our culture, revolutionizing the way restaurants market themselves to potential diners.

These days, visual marketing on sites and apps like Facebook and Instagram, which rely on images more than text-heavy Twitter, is a necessity for successful foodservice operations hoping to stand out in a competitive industry. We reached out to Joanie Simon, a food photographer and stylist based out of Phoenix, to talk about why food photography should be one of your restaurant’s main ingredients and not just a garnish.

Putting Your Best Photo Forward

Joanie has worked as a full-time food photographer for about a year and a half, but her food blogging experience goes back to 2008. In addition to working with local restaurants and international brands like Tyson Foods and Le Creuset, she develops new recipes, makes appearances on TV shows and at events, and maintains a YouTube channel. Needless to say, she knows a few things about why it’s so important to invest time, effort, and even money into food photography for your website and social media accounts.

A photo posted by Joanie Simon (@joanie.simon) on

“Food is such a visual medium,” Joanie points out. “Certainly anybody creating food today wants to drive in new customers or have people buy whatever their product is, and the best way to do that through this omnipresent world of social media is through great images.”

Unless customers are physically at your location, they won’t be drawn in by the smell of a grilling burger or the sound of forks happily clinking against a plate. Even when our other senses are at play, we want to eat food that, more than almost anything else, looks appealing.

Of all the popular social media sites frequented today, Joanie thinks Instagram is uniquely suited to showing off food. “Instagram is a really great platform specifically for restaurants and for food brands because it is such a visual medium.” Some food Instagrammers have gotten so good at it, they’re called ‘influencers’ and have their meals comped by restaurants hungry for the publicity.

A photo posted by Joanie Simon (@joanie.simon) on

If customers are sharing, tweeting, and ‘gramming the meals they enjoy at your restaurant, why put in the work to create your own content?

“If you’re just reposting customer content, [the way it looks] may or may not even be appetizing.”

A pop-up event hosted by Birds Eye in 2014 illustrates this point. Called The Picture House, the temporary restaurant let customers pay with an appropriately hashtagged Instagram post. Although it was a novel and popular concept, the event suffered from poor lighting that didn’t flatter what otherwise might have been appealing food.

“Even if you are happening, every so often, to get some appetizing-looking images, there is something to being able to tell the overall story of your restaurant,” Joanie says. “Anyone who’s going to have an effective Instagram platform, you need to have a cohesive look to your page. The really effective folks on Instagram, you’ll notice, it’s a very cohesive message throughout all those images.”

Instagram-focused restaurants can amass tens of thousands of followers, hundreds of likes on every post, and shoutouts on websites like Vogue, Food Network, and TIME.

“Now, to be competitive, in order for your content to compete, you have to have quality images that are properly composed, well-lit, and properly balanced in terms of color so that people stop and take notice. And not just general stock photography, but photography that tells a story,” Joanie tells us.

A photo posted by Joanie Simon (@joanie.simon) on

In a society increasingly concerned about authenticity, stock photography probably won’t be enough for consumers. They either won’t believe the story you’re trying to tell, or they’ll feel betrayed when the food you serve doesn’t look like what you advertised. The latter issue is reminiscent of food marketing photography, where what’s advertised can be so overproduced that the product actually given to the customer doesn’t live up to expectations.

“Ultimately, photography is an artistic medium, so whether you’re a food brand or a restaurant, to be able to tell your story through images is a really powerful way to influence consumers.” Food photography allows your restaurant to connect with returning and potential customers, but it’s also an extension of your branding, which establishes your restaurant’s identity and helps it stand out in a competitive market. By posting appealing pictures of food that have been thoughtfully planned, you can engage with customers and make an impression – one they’ll remember the next time they’re deciding where to eat.

Joanie summarized it like this: “Having good images is great, but having bad images is the worst. People don’t really notice the images when they’re good sometimes, when it’s a cohesive part of the larger message. But when they’re bad, it really stands out.”

You can see more of Joanie Simon’s work by viewing her photography portfolio, visiting her Facebook and Instagram pages, or subscribing to her YouTube channel.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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