When Instagram exploded in popularity, so did posting photos of food.
Restaurants took note of the free marketing possibilities and invented eye-catching concoctions like rainbow bagels and Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino.
But now the Instagram trend has evolved to include more expensive investments — from customized tiles to handmade tables.
"I feel like Instagram is basically the new version of word of mouth," Jen Pelka, the owner of San Francisco champagne bar The Riddler, said in an interview.
On any given night, about half of her customers will post photos of their experience at the champagne bar. She estimates that nearly all of her out-of-town customers heard about The Riddler through Instagram.
The Riddler's champagne bottle mural on its exterior draws bystanders to take photos. But its personalized enamel tables are the photogenic feature that attract customers inside, along with its extensive champagne collection and photo-ready champagne bongs.
Pelka found the tables through Instagram photos of Clown Bar, a bistro in Paris. She ordered her own personalized white versions for The Riddler.
"We definitely know that people like to shoot from overhead and that things photograph really beautifully on white," she said.
The Riddler's tables have the added bonus of carrying both the bar's name and a tagline that also appears on its menu – "Hello, old friend." When customers post their photos to Instagram, their followers will be able to tell where they went for drinks and dinner without checking the location tag.
But Pelka also tries to keep Instagram from taking over The Riddler. As day turns to night, the lights are dimmed rather than staying on at full brightness for optimal photos.
Joseph Szala, a principal at Vigor Branding, said lighting is another area of interest for his clients — even when it comes to women's bathrooms. Restaurants want lighting that sets the mood and results in flattering photos.
Like The Riddler, the most photographed design element at Media Noche, a San Francisco sandwich joint, was originally inspired by another restaurant.
Madelyn Markoe and Jessie Barker, the owners of Media Noche, found inspiration for their eatery's decor during a trip to Cuba. On their return, they worked with Hannah Collins Designs — now known as ROY — to recreate the feeling of being in Havana. The design that they came up with includes banana wallpaper for the bathroom and custom-made tiles based on some that they saw on their trip.
"This was three, three-ish years ago, and even in that time period I think that being Instagrammable — I don't even know if that was a word that people really used," Barker said.
They weren't expecting their restaurant to become an Instagram hotspot.
"We wanted it to be photogenic, but more so we wanted it to match the food that we were presenting and to really transport people in Havana," Markoe said.
But once they opened their doors in 2017, it took on a life of its own, Barker said. Now the two women estimate that roughly half of their customers will post their visit on Instagram, whether it's a photo of their Cuban sandwich or just their shoes on the brightly colored tile.
And an Instagrammable restaurant can mean more than just customers looking for great photos. Media Noche pulls in extra revenue by letting photographers use the restaurant as a backdrop for fashion shoots and advertisements.
Of course, once customers get the photo that they want, the challenge for restaurants is getting them to return. Branding experts stressed the importance of remaining authentic.
"You have to be smart about how you integrate Instagram-worthy elements in your space, but it shouldn't be a ploy," Szala said. "There should be a purpose because people can smell phony pretty well. You're only going to be able to trick them once."
Mike Kelly, co-founder and CEO of State of Mind Partners, said that one way to remain true to the brand is by not paying influencers — Instagram users with thousands or even millions of followers — to come to your restaurant. An authentic social media presence can also help restaurants expand into new markets by introducing the brand to new customers while adding special touches relevant to the community.
"We've found that Instagram has been really helpful for restaurant groups as they move into different territories and regions," Kelly said. "What parts of the brand are portable from an Instagram standpoint that gives you reference points that are true to the brand and are attractive?"
By Chloe, the New York-based vegan fast-casual restaurant chain, has been adding original design touches to each of its locations to entice customers to visit every one – and to keep posting. A neon sign at its London location reads "Guac save the queen," while the sign at its location at the Rockefeller Center in New York City says "Here to rock."
Since the beginning, the chain has intentionally used Instagram to attract diners through its doors. Customers tag the eatery in photos of themselves sitting on its hanging chairs or in front of its bright neon signs.
"We fully thought consciously about it," co-founder Samantha Wasser said.
By Chloe has even played up its appeal for bathroom selfies with fun wallpaper and sayings splashed across its mirrors.
When By Chloe opened its first restaurant, its customers were largely young and female, like Instagram's user base. But as it has expanded, so has its customer base.
"The customer that is posting at higher frequency is more female, but our customer base is actually a lot wider than that," Wasser said.
For now, the trend is largely limited to small restaurants, but some larger chains have followed. Taco Bell, which is owned by Yum Brands, is trying to reach millennials who live in urban areas with its Cantinas, which often feature photogenic wall art.