Walk into the Sugar Factory American Brasserie in the shadow of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and cameras—dozens of them across the dining room and retail space—are capturing photos.
With bold signature items like the King Kong Sundae and smoky, candy-infused cocktails, Sugar Factory is one of America’s most Instagrammed restaurant brands—and that hasn’t happened by accident. From its whimsical food to its vibrant interiors, the 9-year-old, Las Vegas–based concept is consciously aware of social media’s role in driving brand awareness and visits.
“Our brand has ridden the train with social media, which has helped us communicate the Sugar Factory experience with a global audience,” says Sugar Factory founder Charissa Davidovici, who now oversees more than 20 locations.
But the Sugar Factory’s winning formula isn’t just about creating a swoon-worthy setting; it also involves enlisting social media mavens as brand surrogates. Given their legions of followers, so-called influencers are the next generation of celebrity endorsements. An influencer may even carry more weight than a traditional brand spokesperson.
“Instagram is the new word of mouth and the more a guest wants to share their experience, the more new guests will walk through the door,” says Jennifer Ruppert, marketing director at Denver’s ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop.
That reality has compelled many restaurants to weave social media moments into their menu, design, and service so influencers are inspired to document and share.
Light it up
At Boston Chops, owner Chris Coombs worked with a professional photographer and designer as well as local Instagram influencers to create a social media table specifically intended for food shots.
The table features overhead LED lighting as well as two-side lighting fixtures guests can adjust to warmer or cooler tones. The social media table recreates natural light and allows diners to capture more vibrant food images, which is central to boosting social media sharing.
In San Francisco, The Absinthe Group installed custom lamps at the bar of Bellota. The lamps, says The Absinthe Group executive Chef Ryan McIlwraith, can be tilted and turned 180 degrees and the lighting intensity adjusted up or down to create richer photos. Guests can also rest their phones on the lamp’s neck to capture a selfie with ideal lighting.
And in London’s Soho neighborhood, Dirty Bones debuted a “Foodie Instagram Pack” last summer, a complimentary, upon-request photographer’s kit featuring a portable LED camera light, multi-device charger, a clip-on wide-angle camera lens, and a tripod selfie stick for overhead table shots.
Set the mood
More often food and beverage are also being integrated with design elements to spur photographs. The Sugar Factory has no shortage of over-the-top, photogenic menu items: rainbow sliders and mac & cheese pops; Rocky Road fondue and colorful martinis; gourmet ice cream sandwiches, and the Insane Milkshake served in a chocolate-coated mug.
“There’s more mindfulness of how tables, dishes, and the like play into creating worthy shots,” says Erica Diskin, who runs Assembly Design Studio, a Boston-based design firm that helps restaurants with everything from physical design to branding and marketing, with her husband, Michael.
Embrace the experience
Influencers’ online cachet rests not only in curated lists but also in their own personal brands. An environment that invites guests to immerse themselves in the experience can often lead them to document the experience as well.
Barcino in San Francisco features a lounge area surrounded by dozens of plants to create a jungle vibe and interesting photo backdrop. Ditto at The Riddler, a Champagne bar in San Francisco that includes a mural of a corkless, inverted Champagne bottle.
The Diskins have integrated a number of one-of-a-kind features into different Boston-area projects ranging from an airbrushed, oversized sea creature caricature leading guests to the secret lounge at Citrus & Salt to a custom neon sign at Buttermilk & Bourbon’s Voodoo Lounge.
At Ledger Restaurant & Bar, housed in what was one of the nation’s oldest commercial banks, safety deposit boxes act as a divider wall while a repurposed teller window sits at the end of a communal table. A mannequin even wears the original teller’s jacket.
Other restaurants leverage the local landscape to entice photographs. ViewHouse, for instance, has emerged one of Colorado’s most Instagrammed restaurants thanks to accessible views of the Rocky Mountains and Denver’s skyline.
Plant the social seed
In the age of authenticity, few restaurants would have the gall—or shortsightedness—to explicitly ask diners to take photos and share them online. Instead, a soft touch works best.
The red carpet reproduction at many Sugar Factory outlets, for instance, begs for photographs, while servers regularly invite guests to pull out their cameras in advance of pouring one of the chain’s signature smoking goblet cocktails.
Some restaurants are also planting social-sharing seeds by peppering their Instagram handle on menus, chalkboards, or television screens.
“The trick moving forward is to be more heady and thoughtful about how we’re weaving these different elements in because more discerning restaurantgoers could become a little less tolerant of gratuitous Instagram moments,” Michael Diskin says.