foodservice industry

Instagram in foodservice: A cross-Canada case study

By Sylvia Tomczak

Social media is a big deal for businesses, and foodservice is no exception.

After RestoBiz recently took a detailed look into the power of social media in the F&B industry, we wanted to find out how operators across the country have been leveraging the power of Instagram to outstanding effect through various techniques.

We sat down with restaurants in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto that are crushing it on social media. Sharing their take on how platforms like Instagram have the ability to affect business, along with their proven strategies to gain traction, these restaurateurs offer unique perspectives that’ll help you think about your foodservice business’s social media habits.

Keep it frequent & on-brand: Gentile Pizza Parlour

Since opening last October, Montreal’s Gentile Pizza Parlour has gained a following of close to 6,000 with active followers commenting on posts and engaging with stories. Almost all of that is from organic growth. Though they have boosted some content through Instagram ads, the greatest exposure has been from working with loyal customers, food influencers, and local food blogs.

It also helps that the page receives shout-outs from their sister company, Café Gentile, which has a following of 12,000. Utilizing other pages that fall under the same branch of companies (or even working with other local businesses) can be a great way for both brands to be seen by new audiences. 

Social Media Strategist Julia Rompré and co-founder of Camarade, the agency hired to manage the Parlour’s Instagram and Facebook, acknowledges it’s often difficult for brands to manage their social media pages, especially when it boils down to having that aesthetic eye for producing attractive content.

While some foodservice businesses manage their own pages, it’s important to note that at times outsourcing the work to an agency can be helpful. These agencies take the guesswork out of how to create aesthetic and digestible content, while keeping a business’s social media account constantly active with new posts and stories.

RELATED: The Instagram Effect: How social media impacts foodservice

While it may be hard for foodservice operators to accept they need help, it’s key to note that most agencies work alongside business owners so they can better grasp the vibe (look, language, feel, etc.) and the goals (increasing follower engagement, building communication with customers, etc.) that the restaurant hopes to achieve.

Along with her team, Rompré is responsible for creating the funky aesthetic behind the Parlour, a feat that she explains relies heavily on inspiration from both Instagram and Pinterest.

That said, it’s important for the brand to be consistent in the visual content they create. The Instagram page should also allow the brand’s personality to accurately shine through — the aesthetics presented online should match what consumers can expect their experience to be in-person. The funky, retro, arcade aesthetic exuding from the Parlour’s Instagram mimics the ultra-vintage vibe presented through the restaurant’s décor, food, and atmosphere.

Managing social media from strategic planning to marketing, Rompré meets with the Parlour once a week to shoot all kinds of content which is then stored and can be published at a later time. Simultaneously, fresh and relevant content is still always being photographed and videoed with the arrival of new dishes or featured weekly pies. Using Slack, Rompré’s team and the restaurant management exchange photos and create content, which averages a minimum of three posts and four stories per week. Of course, having a schedule proves important for creating and maintaining engagement.

“The worst thing on social media is to post five times during one week, then not at all for weeks; posting regularly is important,” explains Rompré. Likewise, the more you post, the more others can engage with content as the more likely it will be to remain on their radar due to algorithms. There is strength in numbers, which is why publishing posts often can help a restaurant stay relevant online.

Whether or not you can hire a third party to manage your foodservice business’ social media or dedicate an entire role to the upkeep and maintenance of daily content creation, the main takeaway is to be active on social media so as to avoid boredom and pique the interest of consumers. “As consumers, we want to see the people behind the brand,” adds Rompré. “We want to see the daily operations. People get bored with static content.”

While followers are important, engagement is what will translate into customers and sales. “Engaging with the community and following and commenting on other businesses’ pages draws people in,” notes Rompré. Once people are engaged and listening, it is easy for them to cross the barrier from a follower who likes and comments to a customer who generates revenue for the restaurant.

Use your audience as a tool: Tacofino

Melanie Trottier, the Social Media Lead at Arcade Studios who executes the social media strategy for Vancouver’s Tacofino with the restaurant’s internal team, emphasizes the importance of community collaboration.

Specializing in strategy, content production, marketing, and digital advertising, Arcade Studios works closely to upkeep engagement on various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, but Instagram remains the largest and most engaged community. Early adopters of Instagram, Tacofino has been online since 2012 which explains the bulk of their slow and steady organic growth. They now have over 42,000 followers.

“Don’t scroll down to the beginning of our Instagram. It’s scary down there,” says Trottier. “It’s been a journey to figure out what works on Instagram and how we can accurately portray and celebrate our restaurants, along with sharing the people who make them great.”

A unique brand, Tacofino strives to create content that isn’t modelled after what everyone else might be doing, but they do find inspiration from accounts like @savio_volpe, @heykokomo, @chipotle, @pizzacomingsoon, @tacobell, and @luckypeach. Using bright and contrasting colours, the brand radiates a cool alternative attitude that often borrows from pop culture. By linking relevant memes to their page, they appeal to a wider audience and key demographics such as Gen Z and Millennials.

Likewise, taking advantage of unique features of Instagram like Highlights and Reels is also a great way to differentiate your page from others. “People treat Instagram as the new website homepage,” Trottier explains. “When someone is looking for an answer to a question, they will check Instagram first before going to your website, so it’s imperative that you have all of the relevant information ready for them.”

This is precisely why Tacofino keeps information accessible in their Highlights: so that customers always have answers to their questions. Likewise, because of this draw towards socials rather than websites or calling the restaurant, a lot of customer service is happening via Instagram DMs. That’s why Trottier stresses the importance of having someone monitor and tend to comments and messages in a timely manner.

Incorporating Reels into their strategy has also been a relatively new but beneficial means of boosting engagement. With some of their Reels reaching over 11,000 views, Trottier explains that video is “a must” to succeed in social media. Unsurprisingly, introducing their own taco-inspired Instagram filter was also a surefire way to win over new followers.

While Tacofino’s main content is planned every two weeks, they add impromptu posts and stories based on what’s happening that day. Much of their content is also dependent on their community. “We love to partner up with local chefs, businesses, and even customers,” says Trottier. “It’s a great way for us to get to know our patrons on a deeper level.”

User-generated content (UGC) has been a big part of Tacofino’s strategy and success on Instagram. “We’re lucky that our community shares Tacofino moments every day,” acknowledges Trottier “Some days, we could get up to 50 Instagram story tags.”

Rewarding those who post about your restaurant is a solid strategy. Customers’ posts are often the most trusted by others since the content is authentic and credible because it’s not sponsored. “Once you get to a point where you are getting a lot of UGC, you can handpick the best-quality content to repost,” concludes Trottier. “This will eventually level up the type of content your customers put out. It’s a win-win. Tag us on Instagram, we’ll likely repost you!’

Maintain integrity: Crosley’s

Opening during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto’s Crosley’s might be a new restaurant, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t already have a strong presence on Instagram, gaining over 5,000 organic followers. Their engagement is rising alongside the follower count and has yet to hit a plateau.

Crosley’s is thriving on being a new foodservice presence in the community and is making efforts to nurture bonds with new customers by using the platform to share important information like hours of operations and reservations details and answering customer questions, while also engaging in posts and stories with their new followers.

RELATED: 11 social media marketing best practices for restaurants

“We opened during the lockdown and while we have a website and a Facebook page, Instagram was a very important tool for us from the very beginning,” says co-founder Myles Harrison. Given that the time spent on social media averages about two hours every day (with most of that on Instagram), managing social media is one of the main ways to be seen. Since Instagram is such a visual platform, new restaurants can thrive online by sharing the ins and outs of daily operations. The content is easier to consume than articles or menus and it lets people immediately know what the restaurant is all about.

“Instagram is for photos,” Harrison underlines. “Put the writing in the caption area.” This push to keep posts visual avoids pages becoming unaesthetic, flooded with content, and shifting further away from user-friendliness and desire to engage.

Where many businesses choose to outsource the content creation for their Instagram, Crosley’s shows that managing your own page is still a feasible venture — restaurateurs can morph into pro-Instagrammers. Whether it’s Harrison or any of the other team members, there is an effortlessly chic sensation that radiates across Crosley’s Instagram page.

“The aesthetic isn’t terribly thought out, it just matches the time and feeling of what we are all going through,” says Harrison. An allegiance to who they are and what they do, Crosley’s page offers a nurtured visual aspect that’s teeming with personality.

While most of the creative genius is concocted by those who also chop and sauté and pour wine, inspiration is also sourced from other local restaurateurs and bloggers with similar artistic styles that harness the power of light to create moody images that entice and excite.

Even without working closely with influencers or using features like IGTV, Reels, or Highlights, there seems to be a candid confidence that exudes from Crosley’s page. They use their online presence to emphasize who they are and set expectations about what they do in a way that isn’t flashy, but instead just honest.

“Social media is a reflection of an identity — a living and breathing thing,” summarizes Harrison. By allowing their Instagram page to be authentic, Crosley’s embodies a sense of integrity that is vital for foodservice pages. Harrison advises that the best thing a business can do is “have fun and don’t take it too seriously; that’s why people like Instagram. It should be honest.”

Be bold

Ultimately, there is no singular formula for restaurateurs to follow when it comes to Instagram and other social media. Different foodservice businesses can utilize different strategies to great effect, and these tips and tricks give some insight into what’s working for these businesses and how others can learn to do the same.

Whether it’s a focus on frequency, building a community, or keeping things candid, any foodservice business has the power to accelerate their profiles within their means. Whether working with agencies or as a do-it-yourselfer, Instagram is a platform that businesses can constantly be learning from and adapting with. Charge your phones, start snapping pictures, and get to brainstorming hashtags: what will be your Instagram secret weapon?

Sylvia Tomczak is a master’s student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences studying food culture, communication, and marketing. With a love of words and all things enogastronomy, she is passionate about learning new things through a foodie-focused lens and sharing them both on paper and online. Find her on Instagram at @honeyandtruffles.