The INSIDER Summary:
- For the past few years, food trends have become more and more focused on what’s Instagrammable.
- Chefs, social media influencers, and marketing managers believe that for better or worse, Instagram has influenced how we eat.
- Viral foods are focused more on looks than taste, but many of these fads won’t last.
From rainbow unicorn Frappuccinos to impossibly tall burgers dripping in cheese, trendy foods aimed at 20-somethings are now almost entirely focused on aesthetic and rarity.
Thanks to Instagram influencers and a host of foodie bloggers, food has become a clickable #StatusSymbol, and it’s completely changing the way we eat. These days, many choose to wait in line for hours just to try the latest rainbow cookie dough burger (which doesn’t actually exist yet, but just give it time), and post about it on social media. Whether it’s actually tasty seems secondary.
Even if it doesn’t taste particularly good, at least your friends will be jealous.
“Food is a monster of an opportunity trend,” Alexa Tonner, co-founder of Collectively, a social media influencer marketing agency said. “The idea of ‘more, huge, crazy,’ is almost necessary now: everything in excess. What will amaze people and get them to stop and engage? People want to get their followers excited, and what’s more exciting than something that’s so visual?”
Even if you haven’t stood in line for a cronut, you may have found yourself searching for the perfect lighting and hashtags to post about your boozy brunch. It’s a culture that’s pretty hard to escape.
According to Zagat, 75% of users say that they have picked a restaurant based on social media photos alone, and 60% say that they browse “food porn” regularly on social media.
But is it edible?
We may love scrolling through photos of messy, colourful food, but will it taste as delicious as it looks? Of course, this is a subjective question. However, many of these crazy foods dominating social media would be nearly impossible to eat properly, like the Burger Cheesebomb at Maxwell’s in London that’s drenched in cheese fondue, or the appropriately-named “Messy Burger” (pictured above), another British creation found in Varsity bar in Plymouth.
Then there are the colourful foods and drinks so saturated with artificial colours and syrupy sweeteners that most discerning palates above the age of seven would have trouble getting any pleasure out of them, like the infamous sweet and sour Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino (INSIDER could only stomach a few sips of this concoction during our taste test). Since then, there have been multiple iterations of unicorn foods, each one sweeter and more ridiculous than the last.
“If I think it’s just pure gimmick, I won’t try it,” Jeremy Jacobowitz, aka “Brunch Boys,” a brunch-focused Instagram account with 416,000 followers told INSIDER. “I’ve never actually eaten a rainbow bagel, and I don’t understand unicorn pizza at all. People ask me,’ what’s trendy?’ and I’m like ‘good food!'”
How much is Instagram actually impacting the way we eat?
There’s no question that social media has a major effect on how the modern restaurant industry operates. Dirty Bones in London actually offers a free “foodie Instagram pack” that comes with a camera light, wide lens, phone charger, and a tripod selfie stick so that diners can more easily snap social media-worthy photos of their food.
On the other end of the spectrum is the posh Vespertine in Los Angeles, which banned smart phones at the table to prevent diners from focusing on photos rather than enjoying the food.
Steve Zagor, Dean of Culinary Business and Industry Studies at the Institute of Culinary Education, said that for students in their restaurant management program, thinking about food aesthetics is a must.
“We are slaves to this form of marketing and it’s not going away soon,” Zagor told INSIDER. “There’s definitely a focus on looks rather than taste, and if you’re lucky, both exist simultaneously.”
He also said that if he doesn’t see anyone taking their phones out at a restaurant to take photos, he considers it a failure to “make a memorable experience.” Even something as simple as lighting can make or break a business. If your restaurant is too dark, no one will want to take and post photos, and then you won’t be able to keep up with the culinary Jonses.
How did we get here?
Two of the biggest Instagram foods that have been the clickable pioneers in this journey of ridiculously over-the-top food porn are the tie-dye rainbow bagels from The Bagel Store in Brooklyn, and the monstrous milkshakes topped with cookies, candy, firecrackers, and more that originated at Black Tap Burgers & Beer in New York.
As we thought, behind every viral food is an award-winning PR and marketing team. Chef Joe Isidori at Black Tap had been making milkshakes since 2015, when one day his wife challenged him to make the craziest shake possible. Of course, photos were taken and a strategy was implemented.
“Our strategy was to pitch traditional media while seeding photos to digital media,” Jennifer Baum, of Bullfrog & Baum, the PR team behind Black Tap. “While we pitched the restaurant, shakes and burgers to the media, Instagram was simultaneously on fire with tons of photos of the different shakes…The lines went around the block and haven’t let up since…Instagram and social media helped to keep the excitement alive.”
When you take away the wacky indulgent toppings, Black Tap’s creations taste, unsurprisingly, like normal milkshakes. We actually thought the burgers were more memorable.
Will rainbow foods ever go away?
Unfortunately, Instagram has become so pervasive in our lives that its influence on food trends likely won’t let up. However, there’s a big difference between a longstanding trend like beautiful food that catches your eye, and a passing fad.
“If your average Instagram food doesn’t actually taste good, people will stop standing in line for it,” Christine Couvelier, professional food trendologist and founder of Culinary Concierge told INSIDER. “For the most part, these things are just a ‘pop’ on the radar screen. Many chefs won’t really care about these fads. Sure, their consumers might think it’s fun to look at rainbow unicorn whatever, but it won’t make its way onto the menu.”
It seems that like most social media posts, viral Instagram foods are rooted more in fantasy — and a pleasing Lisa Frank colour palate — than in reality.
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