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New York Restaurants Use Instagram to Gain an Edge

By Heidi Patalano | March 6, 2013 6:53am

NEW YORK CITY — SoHo Latin American restaurant Comodo made a splash last year when it put its menu on the popular photo-sharing app Instagram.

Since then, some eateries have banned use of the app to stop diners from whipping out their smartphones as supper is being served. But others have followed Comodo's lead, and worked to incorporate Instagram into their social-media strategy.

“When looking at your restaurant, if a younger consumer doesn’t see a good online presence, they might perceive you to be out of date or out of touch. That may affect their dining choice,” said James Mallios, owner of Mediterranean restaurant Amali on the Upper East Side. “I think a modicum of a social-media presence is necessary to reach consumers when they’re making decisions.”

Felipe Donnelly, Comodo's owner, is considered one of the innovators of the photo-friendly restaurant concept. His Instagram menu had patrons hashtag their meals with #ComodoMenu so that future customers could order food by pointing to tagged photos on the app.

The story was reported the world over and has since spurred dozens of imitators everywhere, from the Four Seasons in Las Vegas to Vapiano in Brisbane, Australia.

“We do have a lot of people that are adding photos to it and are just being participatory in the whole idea behind it,” Donnelly said. “For me, it says that they like the food sufficiently enough that they post it on Facebook and Instagram — it’s a little bit of a pride thing.”

Tacombi, a Mexican restaurant in Nolita, has created its own Instagram account and prints it on the menu. They also post photos of their food, pictures of research trips to Mexico and images of improvements in the restaurant’s décor.

While hesitant to assign a dollar value to Tacombi’s social-media presence, co-owner Dieter Wiechmann said that the eatery’s online interaction with customers was worth the occasional flash of an iPhone at dinner.

“It’s definitely not a direct value in terms of, we post something, we get a customer in the door kind of thing,” Wiechmann said. “We track what people are responding to, whether it’s the food or our travels or something like that … [Instagram] definitely works as a brand interaction point. If people are happy taking photos and sharing them about our place, I can only be proud.”

Ten percent of business at Indian restaurant Moti Mahal Delux on the Upper East Side is due to social media, according to chef and owner Gaurav Anand. Anand has had business cards printed  that urge patrons to write about their experience online.

With sites such as Open Table, Yelp, Facebook and Instagram delivering word-of-mouth recommendations, Gaurav believes that encouraging patrons to interact with his brand online — even if it happens during dinner service — helps to build a client base and improve his operation.

“We always tell people … take a picture and share your experience, whether it is good or bad,” Anand said. “In this business, if you only get roses and you never get stones, it means that something is wrong. You need to get both. When people criticize you, you pull yourself up and see what’s going on.”

Chrissy Astbury of social-media marketing firm BlastMedia estimated that her clients' awareness of Instagram as a marketing tool began only as recently as August 2012. Restaurants in particular stand to benefit, given Instagram's visual nature. Salivating over a gorgeous dish, she said, can translate to money in the bank.

"It’s a little bit harder to track in terms of action and profit," Astbury acknowledged. "But I think in terms of engagement, it could be really useful, which inevitably results in dollars."

Bruno Cilio, owner of Midtown restaurant Pizzarte, hasn’t set up an Instagram account for his business, but searching the hashtag #pizzarte on the app will generate many gorgeous photos of his food anyway. Cilio has since encouraged his customers to share their experiences online.

“It depends on the quality of the picture, because sometimes it can really ruin a dish," Cilio said of his customers’ photos. "But on the other side, I think it gives an immediate sense of what we do.”

Your guide to food Instagrams

DNAinfo.com New York asked social-media experts Chrissy Astbury and Ashley Halberstadt of BlastMedia for a few tips on how to take great food Instagram photos. Here’s what they had to say:

1. What’s on special? What is it about this meal that is Instagram-worthy? Is it the Goliath proportions of the burger, or the masterful intricacy of the futomaki roll? If the food is worthy, then use one of the following tips to garnish it, and leave your Instagram followers salivating. 

2. Plate your food. Just as the chef — whether they’re a Michelin star master or your roommate’s boyfriend — composed the meal on the plate, compose the food in your square Instagram frame. Get super close. Try an overhead shot. Or a side angle. Put the food in your hand.

3. Don’t flash fry. Flash fried food is OK, but over-cooking your photo with your phone’s flash will never result in an appetizing 'gram. If you plan on taking a photo of your dinner, sit as close to a light-source as possible. Just like the meal itself, the more natural the source, the better.

4. Presentation. There’s a lot more to a meal than meets the mouth. There’s the atmosphere of the restaurant, the drink pairing, and the place setting. You’ll likewise need to determine how you want to present your #Instafood. Border or no border? Which filter? Carefully consider these options — and avoid the Kelvin filter like it’s that waxy “cheese product” stuff.

5. Eat. You’ve successfully posted your well-seasoned, Instagrammed meal. Now it’s time to find out if it’s actually any good. Do your taste buds a favor, put down the phone, and feast.