How Instagram is Changing the Face of Foodservice

In a world where social media posts routinely go viral, many companies are finding it more effective to advertise online than in magazines or with television ads. For restaurants, Instagram may be the best tool available for getting food in front of potential customers’ eyes, with food photography being one of the most popular categories on the site. While many Instagrammers treat it as a hobby, some have turned their food photography into careers, cultivating thousands of followers and gaining well-known sponsors. This has created an influential social media community full of people who love food, a gold mine for restaurant operators who want to attract new customers.

The Rise of Influencers

To understand the phenomenon, we must first take a step back to look at its predecessor: food blogging. A little more than a decade ago, people began creating websites about cooking, dieting, and eating out, and food blogging was born. It was a natural step from the traditionally lucrative publishing of books on those topics. Food blogs were incredibly popular for a while, replacing recipe books for many people and garnering more readers than some large magazine publications. However, the food blog market became oversaturated, and most bloggers found it difficult to make a living on sponsorships and advertising while there was so much competition. While some food blogs still find success today, social media offered an easier way for people to share cooking tips and restaurant recommendations.

When Instagram came onto the scene, it didn’t take long for a community of food-lovers to form on the app. With a platform based around visual appeal, Instagram seemed made for food from the start; in fact, the fourth and fifth posts made to the app were both images of the founders’ evening meals. The app became a popular platform for food photography, and food Instagram owners with thousands of followers became known as influencers, considered by many to be valuable resources when it comes to marketing.

Life of an Influencer

Whether you call them “influencers” or “foodstagrammers,” there is a growing number of people who make a living on Instagram. We spoke with some successful food-focused Instagrammers to learn more about their work and how restaurants can partner with them for mutual success. Christine Yi of CY Eats got her start on Instagram in 2012.

“I was sitting at the bar at Tamarind, an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, sharing my life changes with a friend while taking pictures of a scallop appetizer that the bartender had recommended,” says Yi. “My friend suggested I start using Instagram, claiming that ‘people were making it into their careers.’ If you can believe it, I had absolutely no idea what Instagram was at the time. My friend downloaded the Instagram app onto my phone right then and there, and I posted my first photo of those scallops on Instagram. I had no idea what I was doing; it was just about my love for food.” She hit 10,000 followers by September 2015 and is now a full-time Instagrammer with more than 146,000 followers.

“I actually worked in food TV for five or six years,” says Jeremy Jacobowitz, an Instagrammer from New York who runs Brunch Boys on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and its own website. “Three years ago, I started Brunch Boys. I just sort of started it because I had time between gigs, so I thought I’d make some brunch videos and do food travel stuff in New York City on my own.”

Taking it easy, one drink tonight From @fishbowlnyc #Brunchboys

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Jacobowitz’ Instagram quickly took off, making it difficult for him to keep up with restaurant offers while he continued working as a television producer.

“As [I was] on the road, all these opportunities came up, restaurants and events, and I just couldn’t do any of them; I wasn’t even in New York,” says Jacobowitz. “I got home at the end of September about a year and a half ago, and I [decided] I needed a little break from TV. I stopped working on TV at that point, but the idea wasn’t to quit and have Brunch Boys be my career; I just needed a break. The longer I did [Brunch Boys], the more opportunities came in, the more money came in, and every month it got better and better. Eventually I made the decision, in April of last year, to not worry about going back to TV for a while and just do Brunch Boys, so that’s when it became official.”

Once an Instagrammer achieves a certain number of followers – online estimates range from 1,000 to 100,000, depending on the area of the country – sponsored posts can provide income. When an account is focused on food, the owner will also start receiving invites to restaurants, offering food in exchange for the publicity an Instagram post can offer. With influencer posts generating the potential for millions of impressions on social media, a free meal is a small price to pay for that much brand exposure.

“It’s either a restaurant or someone who works there, a social person, manager, or owner,” says Jacobowitz of the invitations he receives. “They’ll just be like, ‘Hey, come in whenever you want,’ and it goes on a list that I keep just because I have to keep track of it. Right now, it’s like 207 restaurants that I haven’t been to yet.”

These Fried Chicken and Waffles are hiding a secret…They are actually all Vegan! Shhhh! From @modernlovebrooklyn #Brunchboys

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He occasionally requests to come to a new restaurant or to photograph an exciting new menu item, but the requests he receives far outnumber the times he reaches out.

“I’ll get maybe a dozen emails a day about an event or invite, and I’ll maybe ask to come in once a month,” he says.

But, as Yi explains, not all invitations are equally appetizing.

“Restaurants’ PR agencies often organize meals with a group of ‘digital influencers’ in attendance. Generally, these are my least favorite visits as they are usually quite chaotic; dishes get sent out very quickly or all at once and people jump on the food just to get content photos,” says Yi. “I prefer to visit restaurants on my own or with one or two others. The majority of the meals that I eat are meals where I coordinate with the restaurants in advance.”

The work doesn’t end with the meal. After the photos are taken, they have to be cropped and edited. The influencer also has to research hashtags, compose captions, process invoices, cultivate contacts, respond to emails, and do much more.

“People don’t realize it really is a whole business. I still look at it as producing. I was a producer before, I’m a producer now, I’m just producing content for my own channel,” says Jacobowitz. “People think I eat professionally, but by far more time is spent in front of a computer than at a restaurant. I don’t run a food Instagram account, I run what I consider a media company, just the outlet is Brunch Boys. To me, it’s my company, and hopefully it lives beyond Instagram. I can’t just rely on one social platform being here forever, looking at the history of things.”

Restaurant Response

While some restaurants have resisted the food photography craze and other companies have gone so far as to make fun of the trend, most have moved right past accommodating and into embracing.

“I haven’t really had any negative experiences from restaurants, since most of my meals are coordinate

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.