While some restaurants are not allowing customers to take photos of their food to share on sites like Facebook and Twitter, others are embracing it as an advertising opportunity.
You can't visit Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or any other social media outlet without seeing photos of what your friends ate last night, this morning — or often — what they're eating right now.
A backlash began in full force after Instagram posted its heaviest traffic day on Thanksgiving, mostly of pictures of turkeys and finally with a report by The New York Times about chefs and restaurateurs banning cell phone photography from their dining rooms.
But now, as these technology trends go, the backlash to the backlash has begun and the interconnectedness between social media and food may only prove to get stronger and become part of the dining experience because of it.
In fact, some chefs — from a molecular gastronomer in Chicago to a pie maker in Portland, Ore., are not only allowing their customers to take photos and share them — they're encouraging them to do it.
"We encourage people to do all of that," says Homaro Cantu, the chef/owner of Chicago's groundbreaking molecular gastronomy restaurant Moto, home of such high-tech inventions as the edible menu and a polymer box in which fish is cooked at the dining table — as well as the more casual but no less inventive iNG.
"You have to embrace that stuff or you're just going to be left behind," adds the perpetually busy Cantu, who is also the author of “The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook,” the owner of the food technology firm Cantu Designs and the former co-host of “Future Foods” on the Discovery Channel.
An avid Facebook poster, tweeter (@homarocantu), Flickr user, and YouTube videographer – who's currently raising funds on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter for a web series called CookING Under Pressure – Cantu has staff members respond live to guests posting on Facebook or Twitter, giving hints about what's coming out of the kitchen ("Hey, wait till you see this new course coming up the stairs...").
"For single diners it's a ton of fun," Cantu explains. "Gone are the days of staying quiet in your seat."
With the caveat that you have to start with a great product, Cantu sees social media as free marketing and public relations. To encourage diners to spread the word, he runs contests via social media in which they can earn gift certificates, free cocktails, tickets to events, and even a meal cooked in their home by Cantu. "You can't do that with newspapers," he says. The restaurant offers Wi-Fi to make it easier to post while you are eating.
The team behind the pan-Latin restaurant Cómodo, which opened in New York's SoHo neighborhood last summer, has also embraced cell-phone-clutching customers, encouraging them to contribute to a visual menu on Instagram using the hashtag #comodomenu.
"I smile when I see someone take a picture, because it usually means that this person is showing off their meal," says chef-owner Felipe Donnelly. "I am proud to put something out there that people think is photo worthy."
Comodo got its start as a pop-up supper club called Worth Kitchen promoted by a blog and was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, so interacting with customers via social media was a natural fit, but for others in the restaurant business it's been more of an evolution.
Sarah Curtis-Fawley of Pacific Pie Co. in Portland, Ore., says she used to get a bit annoyed by customers photographing her sweet and savory pies and her pastry chefs at work — "or even feel protective." Then she began hearing reports of her pies being pinned on the photo-sharing site Pinterest and was impressed by the gorgeous shots.
"I started thinking, 'this is great,'" she says. "From the beginning, our restaurant has grown through word of mouth, and these days it's all about social media."
Since her change of heart, she's run a contest encouraging people to post their photos and also finds that asking customers about the pictures they're taking and where they plan to post them allows her to engage with her customers in real life.
As for people using flash, standing on chairs to get the perfect shot, or pulling out a tripod, Cantu, Donnelly and Curtis-Fawley say they've never seen such disruptive behavior.
"The only negative impact that taking pictures could have on our restaurant would be the ones that we fabricate," Donnelly reckons. Cantu concurs: "Everybody is addicted to Facebook and Twitter — why not take it to the next level?"