Three young women stand around a white table, where a bombolone, or Italian-style stuffed doughnut, sits on a pink plate. One carries an SLR camera, one holds her iPhone and the other has her fingers pressed into the sugar-coated pastry. As she pokes, a gooey pistachio filling oozes out: the camera clicks, and the iPhone records what is called a stop-motion video.
We are behind the scenes at Lena Lu Bomboloni – an Australian dessert destination that recently opened up shop in Jumeirah. Samah Khan, Sara Chouki and Nabeela Ismail are busy creating content for the brand’s Instagram page.
With generation Z notoriously addicted to their phones, the “Instagrammability” of restaurants and cafes has become increasingly important in a competitive food and beverage market – one that has taken a massive hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Restaurateurs are now heavily relying on enticing marketing techniques to revive their businesses. Recognising a surge in demand for high-quality, captivating imagery, Dubai residents Khan, Chouki and Ismail partnered to create the Threelancers – a business providing food styling, photography, social media and art services to restaurants looking to amp up their Instagram appeal.
“Instagram users want to see what the food at a restaurant looks like, so the food imagery on a restaurant's account plays a big factor in deciding if they go there or not,” says Ismail. “As humans we are naturally drawn to aesthetically pleasing imagery.”
But ordinary images of meals are not going to sway digital-savvy foodies, who have become accustomed to highly-stylised photos that are every bit as picturesque as they are mouth-watering.
Arabian-Mediterranean restaurant Lou’Loua by Nadia opened in June last year, and every dish on its Instagram page is an aesthetic masterpiece. Even something as basic as grilled corn on the cob is captured artistically, mid-cutting, with a slice of lime on the side and a glorious, ombre, strawberry mocktail completing the frame. But what really makes for exquisite social media photography are the desserts, such as the restaurant’s cakesickles – colourful ice cream bars topped with sprinkles, fruits and other deliciousness.
“Being aesthetically appealing for Instagram has made it easy to share our craft with our audience,” says founder, Nadia Bousbia. “The Instagrammability of our food enables us to showcase its finesse. One of our other best-selling dishes, Nadia’s Rose Crepe, has been made tastefully to perfection and presented beautifully. It is eye-catching and unique; we present it as a rose, a rare gem in the culinary world.”
This emphasis on Instagrammable eateries is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to the Middle East. Research the tourist attractions of any major city in the world, and lists of the most “Instagrammable” restaurants turn up on Google. According to financial resource marketplace Fundera, 69 per cent of millennial diners take a photo of their food before eating it, and 30 per cent actively avoid restaurants with a weak Instagram presence.
The Threelancers, who spend hours setting up, styling and photographing the dishes for their clients, have amassed a portfolio of clients in the UAE and beyond. They have worked with Brunch & Cake Dubai, and Abu Dhabi’s Ten 11 cafe, and earlier this year, were flown out to Riyadh for a two-day shoot for a new client. Chouki says the services they provide have become invaluable and highly sought after.
“Depending on how it is photographed, food photography can definitely make food look a lot more appealing, and therefore more expensive, however, we never want to use our food photography or social media management to deceive customers – we are all about being real, transparent and authentic. So if we are not feeling the food, we are not photographing the food,” she says.
There is an art to making a trio of macarons look delectable, and to making an iced coffee look ravishingly refreshing – and Ismail points out that making food look appetising and photo-worthy is not always a piece of cake. “When the food is not visually exciting it can be tough to style it in a way that makes it appealing, but it’s a challenge we embrace,” she says. “In these cases, adding embellishments, the right props, composition, and lighting all play an integral role in bringing the food ‘to life’.”
Edibles are not the only focus when it comes to aesthetics. “To strike a chord with an audience is a challenge, hence conceptual branding and design is the most important form of communication in establishing the personality of the restaurant,” says Khan.
Recognising that millennials seek Instagrammability beyond just food, Gaurav Sajnani, chief executive of newly-opened Dubai Pan-Asian restaurant Mmmbox, made sure his delivery packaging was photographable, opting for white containers with sorbet pops of colour. “Take-out loses the benefit of good plating and becomes less Insta-worthy,” he says. “We don’t want our food to be super aesthetic and the packaging to be something bland; we want to bring beautiful and colourful dining experiences at home too, and packaging was a good way to do that.”
Many restaurants and cafes seek custom artwork to give their brand a personalised touch, and the Threelancers provide this service too. Ismail's watercolour illustrations grace some of the menus and takeaway coffee cups of Tania's Teahouse in Dubai – which was recently named one of the top Instagrammable cafes in the world, by travel recommendation website Big 7 Travel. Tourists also post selfies in front of its pink door.
These little details that make up a distinct ambiance also provide ways for visitors to emotionally connect with a restaurant, says Khan. That is why Maiz Tacos, a Mexican street food concept that launched in 2017 as a food truck, and recently opened shop in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, infused its interiors with minimalist decor and kitschy touches – such as cacti in painted planters, and bottles of hot sauce – that would speak to its millennial visitors.
“Instagram has been a very important factor for us to create awareness and build a community," says co-founder Luma Makhlouf. “When we designed the restaurant in JLT we wanted to make it very Instagrammable, with signature design elements crucial to the Maiz Tacos brand, such as quirky art, coral colours and neon lights.”
Sometimes interiors are in fact the greater focal point than the actual food. Earlier this year, boutique cafe Forever Rose opened its doors in Abu Dhabi’s Galleria Mall. Though scrumptious treats such as saffron milk cake and rose and lavender lemonade are on offer, it is the interiors that pull customers into this cafe. The walls and furniture are lined with black and white drawings, appearing like a 2D picture book, and each table setting has a signature Forever Rose – a luxury flower encapsulated in a glass cylinder.
While many of the UAE’s food concepts have developed business strategies based around Instagram appeal, for others, social media is a secondary thought rather than a primary focus.
Project Chaiwala, which also began as a pop-up before setting up in Alserkal Avenue, is known for its live entertainment; the “chai walas”, or tea makers, mix the brews in large pots and pour it into cups while chanting, “chai, chai, chai!”. Naturally, visitors take out their phones and record the spectacle for social media. “It’s not so much for ‘Instagrammability', as it is to depict the chaiwala experience,” says co-founder Ahmed Kazim.
The entrepreneur points out that Instagram has affected how we share our lives with one another – and that food and drink naturally fall into this. “Social media has evolved over time to what has now become a platform for sharing your day to day life, particularly with Instagram, and food and drinks,” he says. “It’s about discovering, exploring and sharing your findings with people who share your common interests.”
One thing is clear: whether it’s a simple cup of karak chai or elaborately-concocted gourmet meal, if it isn’t a pretty sight, it isn’t going up on the ‘gram' – and for a restaurant in today’s digitally-driven climate, that is a missed opportunity indeed.