PR Machine: Give Instagram a Shot

Diners are happy to shoot your food just because they can

Talk about a perfect storm: the smartphone’s ability to take quality photos and the public’s expanding appetite for sharing their lives plate by plate.

In this brave new world of “see what I just ate,” engaging in online photo sharing is part and parcel of a restaurant’s public relations package. It’s time to say hello to Instagram—the primary web tool for talking about food. If you’re not convinced this app has legs to stand on, the numbers speak for themselves.

At press time, Instagram showed 3.2 million photos tagged “pizza,” 39.3 million tagged “food,” and 9.2 million tagged “chocolate.” You don’t want to be the only dope on the block not taking advantage of such a resource.

Moving beyond its iPhone-only roots, Instagram has expanded to the equally popular Android platform after being acquired by Facebook for $1 billion last year. And its seamless integration with location-based social network Foursquare poses it to become uber-popular and uber-local, thus likely to gain more ground with the dining public.

The question now for restaurateurs is “How do I create a smart Instagram strategy?”

Owner Felipe Donnelly took the direct approach at Comodo, a Latin-American restaurant that launched in New York’s SoHo neighborhood last year. Adding the tag #comodomenu to the restaurant’s menu, Comodo’s waitstaff encouraged diners to take photos and use the tag for viewing or posting. Today, Instagram hosts more than 700 #comodomenu photos.

Austin-based chain Mama Fu’s Asian House takes a slightly different tack. The company regularly streams photos of food, guests, staff and whimsical details from the restaurant. They engage with fellow Instagrammers, seeking and following users as they do on Twitter.

Still, running a successful Instagram program requires more than posting a few nice shots. Take a few tips from social-media evangelists Rachel Kay, president of RKPR in San Diego, and Matt Hendrick, of Copilot Labs, a San Francisco-area start up that provides business insight and competitive restaurant rankings. 

If no one takes photos, can we just create fake accounts and manufacture our own buzz?

No. No. No. And no. Open one account in your restaurant’s name. Take pictures that showcase your food, restaurant, staff and customers, and be upfront about it. Social media users are skilled at sniffing out fakes. Pick a couple of relevant hash tags and “own” them. Be active, engaging and follow popular users with similar interests.

Isn’t this just another way we’re vulnerable to bad photos or cheap shots, like a photo of a microwaved chicken pot pie tagged with my restaurant name?

The conversations are happening whether you join in or not. You have a chance to participate and engage with your regulars and potential customers. Get to know your followers beyond the world of food and even reward interesting photos. Consider hosting a weekly contest based around your food and a designated Instagram filter. Check out for contest help.

We already have a Facebook page and use Twitter, OpenTable and Foursquare. Isn’t that enough?

Integration is key for a complete social marketing strategy. For example, you could post your favorite Instagram follower shot of your food on your Facebook page. Users who find your Instagram account can effortlessly move to your Foursquare page via a small tab on your profile. And from there, Foursquare links to OpenTable. With a few taps, a consumer can transition from a view of your grilled scallops on Instagram to a confirmed reservation on OpenTable.

Jonathan Sidener, short-time chef, longtime journalist, writes about food and technology as a freelancer in Drexel Hill, Pa.