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The serious business of #foodPorn

This story is from The Food Porn Business, an episode of Business Daily presented by Elizabeth Hotson for the BBC World Service. To listen to more episodes, please click here.


The red carpet is out and hundreds of smartphone camera bulbs go off. But the centre of this photographic melee isn’t a famous singer or reality TV personality. It’s a pizza.

Pizza is the most tagged food on Instagram, with around 35 million hashtag mentions. That’s more than Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian combined. And this insatiable appetite for taking pictures of food is influencing the entire restaurant industry. From decor to drinks menus, everything must be Instagram-ready.

Frances Cottrell-Duffield, owner of PR and marketing agency Tonic, designs events to look their best on social media. On a menu launch night for UK-based upscale restaurant chain Polpo, she arrives early to make sure everything is just so.

“We’ve partnered with a gin brand because although Polpo does beautifully-tasting food it doesn’t always photograph well and using pretty cocktails brings a bit of colour to the photos,” says Cottrell-Duffield.

Near the bar, a whole wall of foliage has been erected. This, like everything, is designed with Instagram in mind.

“We know people will hold up their cocktail and take a picture with the foliage in the background and then put it straight on social media,” she adds.

Around half a dozen Instagram “influencers” have been invited to the launch. Among them is Alex Fletcher, a sandwich blogger with 20,000 followers who gets 2,000 likes on his most popular photos. So what’s the money-shot when it comes to bread and fillings?

“Sandwiches that are composed very well,” says Fletcher. “If you have a Japanese katsu sando with lush pickled cabbage, tenderloin and white milky bread, of course that’s going to photograph well.”

Fellow Instagrammer Rebecca Milford, who edits website Bar Chick, says a great snap can directly result in a boost in sales for restaurants.

“I have friends who go on a restaurant’s Instagram account and choose what to eat based on what they see,” she says. “They don’t bother looking at the menu. Photos have to have hashtag food porn appeal and there’s also #cheeseporn, #yolkporn; it’s all about the ooze.”

Natalie Seldon, a food stylist and writer, says the composition of the image is also key.

“The more zoomed in, the better; people love to see big food on screen. And layers are great too, especially with burgers.”

Seldon had planned to take a phone-full of photos but the low lighting at the event made it more challenging.

“Thankfully there are good editing tools. The other trick is to use something like an iPad or another phone as an extra light,” Seldon adds.

To make sure customers take great photos and generate good publicity, Dirty Bones, a five-strong restaurant chain in the UK, even hires out free Instagram photography kits at their Soho branch. The kits contain among other things a mini lighting rig, power source, fish-eye lens and a selfie-stick.

And while the food is the main star, social media endorsement from a human celebrity can be a gamechanger. Georgia Green is a baker and cake decorator who runs Georgia’s Cakes in North London. She had an early commission to make a cake for model Cara Delevingne.

“Cara had about five million followers and at the time I had 100. When she tagged me on Instagram, my following went up to 6,000 in a day,” says Green.

One of her latest designs is typical of the eye-catching requests she gets.

“It’s pink and blue with a Barbie rock star feel… textured buttercream, pink ganache drips, macarons, meringue kisses, white chocolate popcorn, chocolate shards, swirly lollipops and piped buttercream detail, and I’m going to finish it off with some edible glitter.”

She admits she does feel pressure to recreate cake designs that are trending on Instagram that she doesn’t necessarily like the look of.

“There was a trend for sleeping unicorn cakes (a round cake with sleepy eyes and unicorn horn and ears at the top), and I just refused to do it. I thought: ‘That’s not me, it doesn’t reflect me as a person and as a brand’.”

The focus on image may seem superficial but Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, says that presentation really matters.

“The way a food looks and [is] arranged on the plate has a big impact because that sets expectations. Our brain imagines what it’s going to taste like and that anchors the tasting experience,” he says.

Spence conducts both lab-based and practical experiments in Oxbridge colleges.

“We give everyone the same food but for half of the diners, it’s just thrown on the plate. The others get the same elements but arranged artistically to look like one of Kandinsky’s paintings. The ones given the nicer-looking food rate it as tasting better and are willing to pay more for it.”

But although beautiful presentation is important to Amanda Bechara, owner of Brooklyn cafe Carthage Must Be Destroyed, she discourages overt displays of photographic enthusiasm.

“We ask you to just take a few photos from your seat. Some people then go and sit in every seat and take a camera with them. That’s not what we mean. We also ask you not to film because it’s really intense, especially when other people are having a private conversation.”

The irony is that when Bechara describes the interior of Carthage Must be Destroyed, it sounds like one of the most picture-worthy destinations imaginable.

“It’s a sort of modern fairy-tale fantasy in a pink setting with very high ceilings and a lot of pink tiles and plates.”

With an interior that seems to scream “please take photos”, why does she object to this very modern form of appreciation?

“I don’t understand why the only reaction people can have to beauty is to take a photo of it. Just chill out, eat your food, drink your coffee, talk to your friends and have a good time!”

Bechara might keep social media at arm’s length, but a quick look at Instagram suggests she’s in the minority. Which is good news for fame-hungry slices of pizza.

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