Love it or loathe it, the craze of taking photos of food and sharing them on social media isn't going away any time soon. At Hotelympia, a panel of industry experts discussed how it can be a benefit to business. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
The concept of social media is so ubiquitous these days that it would take the most determined of luddites to maintain indifference to its potential. Not only has it transformed the way people interact with each other, its impact on the way that businesses can communicate with their audience is bordering on immeasurable. For a start, it's now a two-way street.
Knowing the needs and desires of your customers is the first step on the road to meeting them and there is a plethora of platforms available to help you do that, with Twitter and Facebook perhaps the most well-known.
As appetite for social media continues to swell, both from a user and business perspective, new habits have formed. Customers today are as likely to share a photo of their
experience of a business as they are a point of view. One subject that makes up a vast proportion of these photos is food and it has not been without its controversy.
Their primary argument was that the pictures take away the element of surprise for future guests - though their follow-up that the images are often poor representations of their food was perhaps more convincing - an issue that led Scottish chef Mark Greenaway to offer classes on how to get the best food shots with a smartphone.
There's a good chance those French chefs have missed the point, and it's one that Karen Fewell, director of social media and marketing at Digital Blonde, sought to investigate when she gathered a panel of industry experts at this year's Hotelympia to discuss what #foodporn is doing for the hospitality industry and how operators can best use social media to their advantage.
Chef-restaurateur Tom Aikens has been using social media for about five years, amassing 45,000 followers on Twitter alone. In his view, the risk of getting it wrong is far outweighed by the lost opportunities of not trying.
"Any young chef that doesn't have their own Instagram, Facebook or Twitter account, seems to be at the back of the class and last in the line. That is a real phenomenon," he says. "An interesting way I use Twitter is to stream other people's feeds, particularly food bloggers and critics, and pinpoint when they're in my restaurant.
"When they say they're there, upload a picture and tag my name in it, I get a notification. I then hand that to my restaurant manager who identifies them and makes sure they have a lovely meal."
Duck & Waffle's executive chef Dan Doherty is also a fan of the information that keeping abreast of social media channels can provide.
"My head chef Tom [Cenci] and I do it; it is purely out of curiosity. With Twitter, you're always listening into someone's conversations. People will often complain to their companion about an issue with the food but when the waiter asks how everything is, they'll say that it's fine. People now tweet these discussions and you can find out for yourself."
Doherty is quick to emphasise that food is particularly subjective and that disliking something doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong. "But if the dislike reoccurs four or five times, then you need to look at it, admit they're right and make an adjustment. It's a good tool to use if you use it in the right way," he says.
There is some debate around who in a business should be driving its social media channels. In Fewell's opinion, the chefs are the stars and her reasons make sense:
"They're close to operations, passionate about the food and that's where the real stories are happening," she says.
With that in mind, she asks Claire Wilson, digital marketing manager at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, whether it is right for the marketing team to run social media accounts. The first to admit some bias in this area, Wilson is adamant that marketing plays a crucial part.
"It's very important that someone from a marketing environment creates a strategy and builds the objective of the Twitter account," she says. "But it makes sense for someone like Raymond [Blanc] or our executive chef Gary [Jones] to be the front man doing the food shots.
"We try to run our Twitter account more from an engagement point of view and offer a day in the life at Le Manoir. We like to take you on a journey and embrace everyone that follows us. We show them the bread that we're making for the day and the new dish that Gary might be working on with Raymond. Marketing needs to be the driving force but there also needs to be somebody else doing the running for you."
With so many photo opportunities available from behind the scenes of a hospitality business, how do you know what will capture your audience's imagination and
ignite that all-important viral sharing that everyone is aiming for?
Fewell pulled up some of the most shared Facebook photos by the three operators on the panel (see above) and it was clear that while their subject matters were different - a Tom Aikens dish tagged #thelastdaytoday posted on the eve of his Chelsea restaurant's closure ahead of relocation; a spectacular sunrise as seen from Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower in the City of London; and aspirational wedding shots at Le Manoir aimed at inspiring this year's brides - they shared a common theme.
Ed Butcher, head of online at Square Meal, explains: "We see a lot of food shots shared on our site, mainly by bloggers it has to be said, and it is always about sharing the experience."
According to Fewell, it was the sense of occasion the images evoked that inspired their followers to click Share, but it's not all about great photography.
A lot of it comes down to captioning. "I take pictures of my food all the time, as we come up with new dishes or move into new seasons, but I think it depends on the hashtag that I put," says Aikens.
"It's always very interesting in terms of the name that you give the actual dish or how you tag it. It affects the tweets and the retweets that you then get on it."
Wilson agrees and emphasises that it is just as important to know your audience and tailor your images accordingly. She says: "The wedding photography that
we posted was purely aimed at brides, through January, February and March to capture the spring market. Our photography promotes our business, which is what our followers and our community want to see."
Karen Fewell heads up Digital Blonde, a digital consultancy specialising in hospitality, foodservice and food. Her company advises businesses on digital marketing, social media and social business strategy, and Fewell is a regular speaker and columnist on food and digital. She is currently working on her first book, #FoodPorn, due to be published later this year. Fewell would like to thank Sysomos for its help in accessing the Twitter data.
Ed Butcher director of online, Square Meal
Dan Doherty executive chef, Duck & Waffle
Claire Wilson digital marketing manager, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Tom Aikens chef restaurateur, Tom's Kitchen
Jonathan Doughty managing director, Coverpoint Food
Karen Fewell panel chairman
The Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in New York teamed up with technology giant IBM to develop a system that could change the way chefs create new dishes. The result: the cognitive cooking van.
Described by an IBM researcher as "machines and humans working together", cognitive cooking uses a complex analytics system that takes its cue from the vast collected knowledge of chemistry, food culture and taste preferences to help chefs break new ground.
But how does it really work? The system was put to the test this spring when IBM and ICE served up samples of computer-generated dishes from a specially outfitted food truck at the South By Southwest festival in Texas.
Hungry festivalgoers were able to use Twitter to vote for which type of dish they'd like to see on the truck's menu each day.
In the truck's mobile kitchen, ICE chefs and IBM researchers took the top-trending suggestion and, using the power of cognitive cooking, turned it into a never-before-tasted recipe.
Dishes included: Vietnamese apple kebab; Caribbean snapper fish and chips; Austrian chocolate burrito; Belgian bacon pudding; and Indonesian chilli con carne.
Most likely to post a picture of the foodâ¦ â¦as soon as the food arrives (46%)
â¦once I have left the table (35%)
â¦some time while I am at the table (19%)
Source: research by web psychologist Natalie Nahai and Karen Fewell
SHOULD OPERATORS BAN PEOPLE FROM TAKING PICTURES OF FOOD?
Claire Wilson It depends very much on the kind of dining room environment that you have. Le Manoir is very fine dining and to have a guest who takes photographs for the
duration of their dining experience can cause tension. We tell our guests that they can take as many pictures as they want but ask that they avoid flash photography. We're OK with it at the minute, but if it gets too much we'll revisit the subject.
Tom Aikens There's a time and a place for table photography. Food is a memory for everyone at a special occasion; we always want to cherish a special food moment. Taking a picture is the simplest way to do that. The downside of food photography in restaurants from a chef's point of view is that we spend hours, minutes, days, creating that beautiful dish that they're taking the picture of and then it looks like a crock of shit.
In a restaurant in the evening when there's a pendant light above you and you're using a flash, you can't make anything look beautiful. Even George Clooney would look pretty terrible.
Jonathan Doughty Like many things, it's down to personal choice. As a restaurateur, depending on the market I was serving, I would probably be less tolerant of it. I was in a restaurant when a customer asked for the light to be turned up so they could take a photograph. I personally think it's like dress codes. The restaurant should decide whether or not the guests should be able to take photographs because if it's that special an experience, they can still ask to have a photograph taken of the event - not necessarily of the food.
Dan Doherty I don't think it should be banned, but when a customer spends 10 minutes taking pictures of food and then sends it back because it's cold, it is pretty annoying. I'm not going to lie.
Ed Butcher I think weshould only ban pictures of half eaten burgers.
FACTS & FIGURES
Source for stats: Mars Foodservice Social Chef survey Mars Foodservice has launched two #SocialChef workshops that will provide an introduction to social media and how it can be used to drive business. The one-day events will demonstrate how to take the best food photographs and deal with challenging social media situations.
The workshops came about following results from a recent survey, conducted by social media expert Digital Blonde on behalf of Mars Foodservice and the Craft Guild of Chefs, that found that while many chefs (92.5%) are social media savvy, 65.5% would value additional training.
To register your interest, email your details to: firstname.lastname@example.org