Popular downtown Provo restaurant Station 22 is always lively but cozy on a Friday night. Hipster paintings line the walls, and the lighting is dimmed. A woman and a man sit down at a table; a waiter quickly brings them mason jars full of water.
Station 22’s top selling item is the chicken and waffles meal. A juicy piece of fried chicken and a small strip of candied bacon top a gourmet waffle on a metal dish. A smaller silver dish with syrup sits next to the entree.
Patrons everywhere take their phones out to photograph their trendy, beautifully plated meals. This habit of photographing food is becoming more essential to the way people view and consume food, and everyone in the food industry is becoming aware of that.
A social media generation
Collin Payne, a BYU Ph.D. and professor of New Mexico State University and co-director of its behavior lab, said it’s hard for this “selfie generation” to imagine a life without social media. Millennials grew up with the Internet as a go-to, so now taking a picture and posting it to Instagram is second nature.
Nurse Elizabeth Baessler said she always keeps her smart phone with her whenever she goes to a restaurant. “I feel incomplete without it,” she said. “It is a way for me to invite others into my world. It’s just fun.”
The “eat and tweet” culture is in full force. Restaurants are pushing for people to create and use hashtags with their social media posts of dishes to direct traffic to the restaurants. Patrons appear to be responding as food photos become trendy. More than 81 million posts are currently tagged #foodporn on Instagram.
A 2012 Natural Products Insider article reported that Twitter and Facebook are the main ways 50 percent of consumers discover and learn about food. This article said that while enjoying meals and drinks at home, “nearly one-third of Americans use social networking sites; among millennials (18 to 32 years), the figure jumps to 47 percent.”
It’s not just any pictures of food that achieve success. It’s the one’s that get the most “likes”: the ones usually classified as #foodporn.
This could also change the way professional photographers manage and facilitate publicity. Cornell University psychology graduate Kelsey Mollura said, “It’s word of mouth times 1000 because it’s ‘word of eyes.’ Food porn is probably what’s allowing so many rustic, trendy and hipster places to pop up because they need people on media platforms to seek them out.”
Food porn nation
Payne called food porn an “unrealistic media depiction (visual, auditory) of hedonic food.” Constantly looking at images of food makes people want to eat, even if they are not hungry.
“It targets reward centers in the brain. People are hard-wired to desire food — anything that draws attention to its hedonic qualities is sure to grab attention,” Payne said. He said this is because people “associate all sorts of activities, occasions and ‘things’ with food because of the stimulation.”
Food porn not only stimulates the brain, it also sells. People are far more likely to click on a recipe with a beautiful picture than on one with an unappealing picture. Cookbooks are slowly going out of style because anyone can surf Pinterest and click on the picture of the food they envision.
A 2012 study found that people “eat with (their) eyes first.” The way food looks can alter one’s perception of taste and smell. So photographers will go to great lengths to make food look as appealing as possible, whether the food is real or not.
The people behind food photoshoots intend to make the food look as real as possible, but it’s all about transforming the food into #foodporn.
While restaurant marketing teams may have to shuffle out more money for better pictures, they may find that it’s worth it. Salt Lake-based food photographer Kelsi Greeff said that “the food industry has benefited a lot from food photography. People will come to restaurants based on how a picture of food looks. Someone could take an average hamburger and make it different and beautiful for one picture, and people will think that that’s what all their hamburgers look like.”
Restaurants impacted everywhere
Restaurants are diving into the trend by using food photography and social media to market their products to their customers.
Chili’s is currently focusing attention on social media advertising — so much that it’s changing the presentation of food to prepare more beautiful dishes for social media.
A 2015 Associated Press report published by the New York Daily News said Chili’s spent $750,000 on making its corporate Instagram account photos more appealing. The money was spent on a special egg wash that makes the hamburger buns stand out. “It just makes (the bun) look great. It glistens, it shines,” said Wyman Roberts, CEO of Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s, in the report.
The negatives of food porn
Some researchers say food porn actually decreases one’s enjoyment of food. Paige Fumo Fox said in an article for Community Health Magazine that a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology had 232 people rate photos of foods. “Half the group viewed salty foods, such as french fries and chips, and the other half viewed sweet foods,” Fox said.
They all then ate salty peanuts. The people who had just viewed the pictures of the salty food enjoyed the peanuts less. They felt they had satisfied their salty craving just from viewing the pictures. They had satisfied their craving not with the tongue, but with the eyes.
Some also say that social media being too incorporated into the food world is negatively impacting the restaurant experience.
Former Johnny Rockets manager Angela Ngyuen called social media a double-edged sword. “People can say awesome things to bring business in or they can esteem themselves to be amateur food critics and totally bash all the hard work you and your coworkers do,” she said.
“I’ve had moments where people are too busy taking selfies to give me their order, which is super annoying because you only have that small window of time to take their order and get back to helping everyone else,” she said. “Luckily, servers are crafty people so we have adjusted to it, but it’d be nice if people were more mindful.”
Johnny Rockets waitress Julianne Carew also thinks social media distracts from the dining experience because it takes patrons’ attention from each other and brings it to their phones. “In general they are bragging about who they are with or where they are instead of actually enjoying the experience,” Carew said.
But it isn’t just waiters and waitresses that social media impacts. Because of the food porn boom, customers are more susceptible to failed expectations. According to Payne, “customers are more dissatisfied than ever.”
Social media and chefs
While some chefs believe social media is decreasing the authenticity of the dining experience, some are turning to Instagram to get creative inspiration for plating. Cooking is coming full circle, and is now a sensory experience of sight as well as taste.
Over the last few years, chefs have focused on trends such as sauce smears, dots, asymmetrical plating and presentation. Instagram accelerates these trends forward.
Chef’s are also turning to Instagram and Twitter for exposure and self-branding. Chef Jamie Oliver has 3.3 million followers of his Instagram account, where he posts stunning food photos and their recipes. Chefs treat food more like art now, and plating has become a way to express oneself.
Greeff said food photography produces more chefs. “A lot of food photographers are going to culinary arts school to help with their food photography skills,” she said. Culinary school can teach food photographers more about food presentation.
Chefs are also learning that bad presentation can affect the way people taste the food.
Bad food photography on social media can actually hurt a chef’s reputation — the taste of the food completely disregarded. In November of 2014, Martha Stewart tweeted a photo of soup and received backlash for its less-than-appealing appearance from followers and bloggers, according to a New York Times article.
When it comes to social media, people want to be be amazed and dazzled by aesthetics. Now chefs have two audiences to please, the consumer and the world.
The future of food porn
Users can now stay ahead of all the trends. Digital media platforms connect consumers and professionals globally. Ad agencies are striving to fit in with the Instagram look to effectively reach millennials. Wendy’s now has a specific Instagram photographer to give the food and marketing a new look.
Food photography isn’t going away any time soon. Greeff said that “food photography is on the beginning of its whole journey. People can define themselves by food. The reason it will keep expanding is because it is getting more specific, and more and more people are posting.”
New, more specific jobs geared toward social media are being created because of how prevalent social media is in society. As Instagram and Twitter gain in popularity, the “eating with (the) eyes” trend will only escalate. But it could come at a cost.
Restaurant critic Pete Wells said in an NY Times article that “a side effect of the digital age in food photography, camera cuisine is any dish that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one.” Our eyes are now driving the food industry, rather than our tastebuds, and as social media continues to grow and progress, this #foodporn revolution will only increase.