Picture Perfect?

I remember a time, not so long ago, where a successful restaurant won with the right combination of food, price, and customer service. Sitting down at your regular, you knew exactly what you wanted to order. A friendly, smiling face would bring over your favourite dish and you’d tuck in. Waddling up to the register, you pay and step outside to a nice big “see you next time!” If you were a foodie, you’d seek out a place with the latest, freshest, most innovative ingredients regardless of the price. Families on a budget would go after the most cost-effective option, albeit possibly not the tastiest. No matter what, good restaurants offered something for everyone.

Over the past few years, though, there’s been a subtle shift to this time-honoured formula. Instead of happily serving delicious food at good prices, restaurants have evolved into something more. Eateries are now catering to a new clientele representative of a slight change in table etiquette. This has nothing to do with elbows on the table or using the right fork with your fish. This new bit of etiquette is simple: today, phones eat first.

We are seeing the rise of the photogenic restaurant. These have evolved alongside social media, particularly photo-sharing sites like Instagram, Line, and WeChat. To succeed in today’s cutthroat restaurant industry, it’s less about how the food tastes and more about how it looks. That’s why these restaurants cater to self-proclaimed photographers and influencers. The goal of the modern restaurant is not necessarily to please a customer’s palate, but rather stimulate all other senses. Ultimately, they want a gorgeous photo that generates buzz on social media. Anything less is a waste of time.

The drive for virality is manifesting itself in a number of ways. Some restauranteurs are devising Insta-ready foods: the Galaxy Donut; Japanese soufflé pancakes, charcoal ice cream; rainbow bagels. Increasingly, they are also designing their spaces like photography studios. Perfect lighting placement, garish neon signs with double entendre, and even floor tiles are all meant to encourage identically one-of-a-kind pictures. The unfortunate side effects are pretty easy to guess. According to San Francisco food entrepreneur Madelyn Markoe, “…the average guest takes pictures for 10 minutes before ordering, and many bring tripods to better frame their shots.” One pastry chef in Shanghai was furious she had to increase her dry ice budget because customers wanted her creations to have an even smokier effect. While the photos may look good, all of this is a bad look when it comes to customer service, ambience, and operations.

With all the hype around creating the most photogenic restaurant and menu, are retail F&B owners missing some of the foundational elements in a sound business model? You’ve probably wondered the same thing as you’ve had to squeeze into a tiny seat at your favourite café since all the others are taken by self-appointed models getting glamour shots. While they might spend $10 on a coffee today, will they ever come back again? What’s worse: is their behaviour discouraging loyal customers from returning?

I believe there should be a balance between what’s worked in the past and what customers are demanding today. Unfortunately, many restauranteurs have forgotten the need for long-term, sustainable business. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Asian market, where getting the perfect food porn shot is the most important part of eating out. Even though the entire industry seems to have gone pear-shaped, there are still a number of best practice examples for restaurant owners to look to for inspiration.

Find a balance. Most restaurants today focus too much on their social media worthiness, forgetting there are other important factors to a successful business. Instead, look to strike a balance between modern demands and time-honoured basics. Shanghai-based Mellower Coffee offers some of the city’s best brews, but also encourages photos with some of its signature drinks, like the Sweet Little Rain. Fish restaurant Zauo Namba, of Osaka, sits guests inside boats. They are able to pick the freshest ingredients, cooked right at their table. Popular hot pot chain Hai Di Lao will do the delivery, preparation, and clean up for you from the comfort of your home. This adds that critical customer service element missing in many photogenic establishments.

Be the anti-photogenic restaurant. In a world of roses, why not be a sunflower? Anti-photogenic restaurants are also popping up, adding an odd element to the usual dining experience. Whether it’s a prison cell in Shinjuku, Poop Café in Seoul, or dingy cave in Thailand, restauranteurs are trying to find ways to zig while everyone else is zagging.

Use immersion to your advantage. Give the people what they want! Immerse them fully into the experience and you’ll not only find guests off their phones, but tongues wagging for some time to come. One of the world’s top 50 restaurants, Shanghai’s Ultraviolet, takes diners on a 20-course technological and gastronomic journey. At US$800 a head, you’d bet people are paying attention. Singapore’s Sky Dining lifts guests 100 meters above the city, providing unparalleled views (and sweaty palms). How about cutting people off from their phones completely? South Korea’s The Vault is a modern-day dine-in-the-dark experience that heightens all senses except the one more important to diners today.

When U.K.-based Italian restaurant Zizzi approached TSI for their launch in China, we knew social media would play a major role in our strategy. We had to strike the right balance between beautiful food, a photogenic setting, taste, and well-established brand rules. Through a range of focus groups and stimulus testing with consumers, we unpicked the parts of the British proposition that resonated most, and determined how to execute these in a way that was relevant for Shanghai. Beyond providing a safe and hygienic environment, consumers are looking for photographic scenes to be shared on WeChat more than ever. We tested a range of interior designs, furniture, wall art, and photography to learn from consumers the design cues that would appeal most and encourage them to share. And, it seems to be working. Zizzi Shanghai has been packed to the rafters since opening earlier this year.

To learn more about the segments driving the eat-ertainment craze, check out our publication “Enjoying Life.” Get your free copy here.

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