The Impact of Social Media on Foodservice

Posting food images on social media has extended the communal aspect of preparing, presenting and eating food beyond the table. For foodservice brands it offers a powerful way to deliver the drool factor right to customer’s phones. Will this powerful trend continue? How can foodservice brands, small and large, take advantage of #foodporn now, and where will instagrammable food go next? Today, we talk with Helen Langford, who has worked with foodservice brands both large and small for many years – she doesn’t like the term “food porn” but she has a lot to say about how brands can elevate their use of Instagram.

Episode Transcript

Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda from Shikatani Lacroix Design, and today we’re talking about the relationship between social media and food.

Posting food images on social media has extended the communal aspect of preparing, presenting, and eating food beyond the table. For foodservice brands, it offers a powerful way to deliver the drool factor right to customers’ phones. Will this powerful trend continue? How can foodservice brands, small and large, take advantage of #foodporn now, and where will Instagramable food go next? Today, I am delighted to be talking to Helen Langford. She’s worked with foodservice brands, both large small, for many years. She doesn’t like the term “food porn,” but she has a lot to say about how brands can elevate their use of Instagram. Helen, thank you so much for joining us. Would you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Helen: Yeah, sure. I would just like to say thank you, first of all, for having me.

Melinda: Absolutely!

Helen: It’s such a great opportunity to be here and such an exciting topic. Yeah, a little bit about me. On the professional side, I’ve spent 15 or so years in the foodservice industry. Both within the QSR space with Yum! Canada and most recently with Boston Pizza in the casual dining and sports bar sector. So it’s such a fabulous industry to be a part of. It’s so dynamic and ever-changing.

I grew up in the product side of things. So innovation, particularly within the foodservice spaces is super important to me. It’s a passion of mine. And then I had the opportunity to be in leadership positions at both companies, so both Yum! Canada and BP, which allowed me to be part of planning and executing, you know, the broad business strategies, obviously, which has a lot to do with the marketing of our products. So, yeah, that’s professionally. And personally, you know, I’m married, two kids who are just about to embark off on the university journey. So just about at the empty nest stage. So that’s also exciting part of the journey for me.

Melinda: And what are some of the major changes in foodservice that you’ve seen throughout your career?

Helen: There’s a couple. I mean, there’s many, but two that I can think of, sort of, off the top of my head that are really, you know, big as far as major trends are concerned. The first is the absolute rapid pace of innovation. Now, it used to be with innovation and food trends, it was like a big wave on the ocean. You could see it coming miles away, right? And when it landed, it was massive, and brands could take advantage of a really big food trend.

Now, it’s sort of more like a really active river or lake. There are still waves, but there’s lots of them. And they come fast, and they dissipate, or they go away really quickly. We used to watch food trends for a year or more before we would really be ready to adopt them in a big sort of corporate multi-unit environment. And now, it’s literally, you have to pick the wave you want to ride and go with it because it’s just so much faster than it used to be. It’s like, literally months instead of years. And I guess the second thing would be the globalization of food, for sure. I mean, it was prevalent 15 years ago because people were traveling, and social media was around. But now, it’s this amazing combination of a global trend or a global product, whatever cuisine, with a twist.

It’s like people are taking stuff and making it their own, which has created this whole new amazing avenue for innovation. And you see it every time you pick up your phone, right?

Melinda: Right.

Helen: It’s right there in your social media feed.

Melinda: Well, speaking of social media, in what ways has social media and, in particular, Instagram, of course, changed the foodservice industry?

Helen: There’s a few things. I mean, the Millennials have really owned this sort of social media platform and taken it. Food is so emotional and social at the same time. So it’s normal, I think, that people will be posting pictures of their food constantly. That’s the first thing, is that they’re driving the bus on this. This is not corporately driven. People are going out, and they’re experiencing great food. They’re sharing it with their followers.

And then you have the Instagram influencers. The influencers now rising up, and that’s who people are following. That’s where they’re finding the next latest and greatest stuff, food trends. So for sure, that platform has changed and influenced what we’re eating in a really fundamental way, whether it’s in a restaurant or even in our own homes and our kitchens. So that’s been fabulous because it’s just exploded this thing that we do every single day, multiple times a day into something that’s really cool and interesting.

Melinda: And do you think that foodservice brands are generally putting enough focus on Instagram? Not enough? Is it dependent on the type of brand that we’re talking about?

Helen: For sure. It depends on the type of brand, but it’s really multifaceted. I mean, your marketing program is never going to be solely dependent on Instagram. But does Instagram need to be a part of it? Absolutely. Foodservice brands, still the number one thing is to make sure that your service and experience in the restaurant is the best it can be. Because no matter what you put on Instagram, if the person arrives at your restaurant, and it doesn’t live up to that expectation, you’re not necessarily going to get a second chance because there’s so many other options out there.

So for foodservice brands, still, the experience in the restaurant is the number one thing. And whatever you post on Instagram, make sure it’s authentic. Make sure that people are going to experience that when they arrive at your establishment.

Melinda: And how can brands leverage social media within the physical environment? Are they matching up imagery or are there other ways that you’re seeing brands use social media in an innovative way inside their actual physical restaurants?

Helen: Yeah, I think the biggest surprise to me is that people haven’t recognized that there’s going to be pictures taken of the food at the table all the time. So treat the table like it’s a photoshoot. Whatever backdrop or interesting thing you can have to make that food pop and really look good on people’s, Instagram feeds, not the curated images, I think that that’s a trend that’s going to go away. I think people are craving this authenticity.

They want to see people in your restaurant sharing food that they can relate to, so anything you can do within the restaurant space to facilitate that would be amazing. I mean, maybe it’s somebody taking the picture for you. Maybe it’s a wall that you can post…you know, I’ve worked with brands that literally their social media feed is curated by a particular wall in the city, holding their food product in front of it. Why can’t you do that with your restaurant and the tabletop or a space within the restaurant, a wall if it works for you, something like that? I think there hasn’t been enough of that in restaurants.

Melinda: In the physical space.

Helen: In the physical space.

Melinda: Yeah, that’s an… I didn’t even think of that. But the tabletop.

Helen: The tabletop.

Melinda: That’s an excellent point. So is this a trend? Is this sharing pictures of our food, is it a trend? Do you think it’s here to stay?

Helen: It’s absolutely here to stay. No question about it. I mean, like I mentioned before, it’s so emotional. What you’re eating is so emotional, and you do it multiple times a day, and everybody’s doing it. So, of course, you want to share that, why wouldn’t you? I think it’ll go a little bit away from just pure sterile pictures of food, maybe to something that’s a little bit more social. At least that’s what I would like to see. Food is social and still…you know, yesterday, just with this coming up, I took a scroll through my Instagram, which is full of food images, right? That is my passion, and it’s still, to me, looks a little sterile, like, food is social. I think we’re going to evolve to see people sharing food. At least that’s my prediction or what I would like to see, people sharing of food in a real environment.

Melinda: So you mean, like, people in their homes or with their friends?

Helen: Yeah. Absolutely. And maybe that will come a little bit more with the Instagram stories, and videos, and sharing of that as opposed to just static sterile food images.

Melinda: Right. So for pre-existing foodservice brands, how can they use social media in ways that will seem authentic? So, obviously, we’re talking about the bigger brands here.

Helen: Yeah, first of all, you have to have something that’s Instagram-worthy, right? The table stakes have been raised, you know, a simple basic food product isn’t going to capture anybody’s attention. So it has to be worthy of Instagram. It has to be something that’s going to capture people’s attention. Then, like I mentioned before, it’s about delivering that very same experience in the restaurant. That’s how people are going to determine whether a brand is authentic or not.

And your social media images, if they don’t somehow come close to the picture that people are taking when they’re sitting at the table, that will be a real problem because that also will be seen as inauthentic, and it will work against you. We have this sort of negative marketing almost now. That it’s, you know, you drive people in, but the experience isn’t the same, so it ends up to be something…

Melinda: Yeah. You might see the side-by-side comparison on your social media feed as well.

Helen: Absolutely. It’s so easy to do, right?

Melinda: So what makes you…you mentioned you have to make it Instagramable. What makes a food dish, what makes it worthy of being shared on social media?

Helen: It has to look great. People eat with their eyes. So, for sure, presentation. No matter what it is that you’re serving, it has to look good on the plate, which is pretty basic, but it’s surprising how many foodservice establishments don’t completely understand that. And so that speaks to training, right. Staff in the kitchens need to be trained that this is important, how it looks on the plate is so important.

Melinda: Do you share pictures of your meals on Instagram?

Helen: So, actually, my family shares them more than I do, to be honest. You know, like, we eat at home quite a bit and out as well, so I tend to post things when I’m on vacation, which speaks to that emotion, right? Like I said, it’s a combination of things. And then my family’s posting stuff usually at home when we’re creating something interesting. But, again, that typically happens around family events or special occasions, something that’s connecting us all, right? It’s not just taking a picture of our sandwich running out the door.

Melinda: Yeah. So, in general, how can foodservice brands better utilize social media to promote themselves and connect with customers?

Helen: I really like the brands that connect me to their experience as well as their food. So seeing an interesting design of a restaurant, maybe they’ve got a spectacular view, you know, whether it’s at the top of a tall building, or it’s on a beach somewhere, an amazing diverse menu that you know that they’ve curated and taken care to do. So, again, for me, it’s not just about the food. It is really about the holistic experience. I think that foodservice brands can somehow capture that, and there’s a few of them that are out there. Like if you sort of just Google, just do the random Google search on the top 10 Instagramable restaurants, you will find that it’s a combination of their experience and their environment plus their food that captures people’s attention.

Melinda: Right. So if I am hoping to get my Instagram for my foodservice brand really up there, what can I do to make it better?

Helen: Make it interesting, first of all.

Melinda: And what constitutes interesting?

Helen: Something that’s unique and different. Something that I haven’t seen before. Something that’s colorful, vibrant, well-plated, presented. Show me the view in your restaurant. Show me people having a great time. Show me people that I can relate to. It doesn’t matter, whoever you’re targeting as a brand, whoever your audience is as a brand, show me people that are like me having a great time in your restaurant.

And then there’s also the really retail-driven tactics, right? Give me a good deal, and I’ll probably try out your restaurant. You know what I mean? Like it’s…as basic as that may sound, I know certainly for the Millennial generation, that’s what they’re looking for in a lot of cases. Like, give me a reason to come in. So make sure your food looks great. Show me the experience. Make it look like there’s people like me there, and maybe, if necessary, give me a deal to try you out.

Melinda: And how are smaller brands doing compared to bigger corporations when it comes to social media?

Helen: Yeah, I think they’re eating their lunch, to be honest. I think that this is the rise of the independent operator because it’s…the social media is low cost of entry, right? And anybody with a good camera can take an amazing shot of food. So the fact that they can come up with something…the independent restaurants can innovate in the morning, take a snapshot of it in the afternoon, and it’s up and being served the very next day. I mean, I might be exaggerating slightly, but that pace of innovation and interest, and that’s what’s necessary now. People’s attention span for brands is very short, right? So the pace of innovation for independence is their key advantage because it takes a long time to turn a corporate ship and deliver that kind of meaningful innovation that quickly.

Melinda: Right. Is there any other advice you would give for big brands, small brands, foodservice brands, in general, when it comes to using social media better?

Helen: Yeah. I think big brands, for sure, the pace of innovation has to increase. You have to get something that’s worthy on that Instagram feed for people to keep following you. So think about your innovation processes and how quickly they can come to market for sure to get something meaningful on that Instagram feed. And then the second thing connected, and I’ve mentioned it throughout this is make sure your experience and that food that you’re shooting lives up to people’s expectations. It sounds very basic, but it is absolutely fundamental. You cannot put something on Instagram and not deliver it at the restaurant level. It’s just, like I said, that’s negative marketing.

Melinda: Right. I think that’s a great point for us to close out on. So thanks so much, Helen, for being with us and sharing your insightful thoughts. I like the idea of food posts becoming more contextual because, yeah, by this time, we’ve all probably seen a lot of pretty plates. But what else, what’s new? I also love the idea of designing tables in your environment as if you were creating a photoshoot, and we would love to hear from you. Tell us about how your foodservice brand is using Instagram and whether or not you’ve seen the impact. And what else do you want to know about social media? We’re always interested in your feedback. From me and the rest of the content team at SLD, thanks for joining us.


Helen Langford is a multi-faceted senior foodservice executive, experienced in leading organizations and delivering value added change to meet new consumer/customer demands. Currently Helen is President of HSL Consulting, a firm dedicated to assisting foodservice organizations “connect the dots” to deliver exceptional guest experiences.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email