What Instagram Is Really Doing To The Food Industry

Free marketing is great, but how many people are forgetting to actually taste the food?

Search for "#rainbowfood" on Instagram, and you'll discover more than 30,000 posts showing off not only the now-ubiquitous rainbow bagel, rainbow grilled cheese and rainbow sushi, but less-common colorful alternatives: pizza, coffee, waffles, pasta—and even rainbow burgers. A search for "#foodporn" turns up nearly a billion hits. Though the viral food trend itself isn't new, the implications it has on businesses may only recently be starting to show.

Businesses in the food industry have begun to cater their food to the Instagram masses, creating beautiful sensations that draw likes, followers and, most importantly, customers. For most businesses, the attention is great for sales. But for others, it can cause chaos and frustration.

For Scot Rossillo and his Brooklyn shop, The Bagel Store—home to the infamous rainbow bagel—the viral craze caused the store to get so busy that he had to close the doors for 10 days. "I had to clean up my facility, reorganize it, restructure it. I wasn't happy with how I had to perform," he tells Eater.

Restaurants are now even designing their spaces with Instagram in mind and want to provide perfect natural lighting and a luminous backdrop ideal for photos.

But when people start caring more about what their food looks like versus what it tastes like, at what point does Instagram become too much of a distraction?

"Even just a few years ago, when someone said they were a 'foodie,' it actually meant that you were a person that was passionate about food, the kind of person who would go explore new food. It didn't have to be the hip place or the coolest place, but [you were] going to the nooks and crannies and finding those spots that have truly quality dishes. Now, 'foodie' just means you Yelp a lot, or you food-blog," says Ken Lo, co-owner of Ice & Vice, a Lower East Side ice cream shop famed for its delicious and highly Instagrammable Konery cones topped with out-of-the-ordinary flavors like Movie Night, a buttered popcorn-flavored ice cream with toasted raisins and chocolate chips.

Like many other businesses, Ice & Vice uses Instagram to its advantage: Its creations topped with torched marshmallows and even whole doughnuts rack up thousands of likes and tens of thousands of followers. For Lo and many other small business owners, Instagram is critical for exposure and attracting customers into their shops located farther away from foot traffic, due to crippling rents that are continually rising in prime New York City real estate.

"If it wasn't for Instagram, we probably wouldn't be open. This is the best way to advertise in the food industry. We haven't spent one penny on marketing and advertising," Troy Neal, co-owner of The Doughnut Project in New York's West Village, says. The Everything Doughnut, made with a cream cheese glaze, roasted poppy seeds, sesame seeds, pepitas, garlic and sea salt went viral almost overnight.

Despite many businesses' reliance on Instagram for free marketing, the platform's emphasis on what food looks like rather than how it tastes can lead to disappointment and frustration for many of those same owners.

"Customers would come to our shop, show us their phones and say, 'This is what we want—we don't care what it tastes like; we just want what's in this picture,'" Lo says.

In some isolated cases, Instagrammers who came in just for the picture would throw the ice cream away after taking only a few licks. "They put their business ahead of their passion for food," Lo says.

Many business owners like Neal and Lo also worry that customers might question their integrity after seeing so many viral pictures of their food. Leslie Polizzotto, the other co-owner of The Doughnut Project, fears people will begin to think that influencers were paid to come in and take pictures, though that is far from the truth. Though the shop never pays Instagrammers for posts, Polizzotto says they come anyway—and sometimes more than once.

For Polizzotto and many others, no flavor is ever created solely because it would make for a good visual on Instagram. The unspoken rule is the food has to be delicious first, and then beautiful. That's the only way people will keep coming back after the first picture is taken.

"Our last [ice cream] flavor was colorless, and people complained that the colors were dull," Lo says. "And we knew. But it tasted delicious."

So how can people 'gram responsibly? Here's one suggestion: "Actually describe what you're eating and the flavors you're tasting in your captions," Lo says. Though clever captions often draw more attention, describing the product lets customers know what they should expect to taste, not just see.

Go ahead and 'gram it up, but don't forget to enjoy it, too.