For as long as anyone remembers, the dining experience has been inherently a visual affair, so while the advent of Instagram has seen an increase in sightings of people in public places bent in all sorts of angles trying to photograph their meals, their fascination with the presentation food, drinks, and decor is nothing new – just ask Vincent Van Gogh, who, for his still life paintings, could very well be called “the original Instagrammer”.
The ‘foodstagram’ trend isn’t always the most well-received. It’s often denounced as being disrespectful, shallow, and antisocial, resulting in some restaurants – though, thankfully, none in Colombo – even going so far as to ban food photography in their premises. But more and more establishments are beginning to recognise its value, and beginning to see that the the foodstagram trend, at least when utilised properly, could do a lot more than just earn its participants a mention on this Tumblr.
At the time this article is being written, 17, 242, 515 Instagram posts carry the tag “#foodstagram”; 43, 528, 245 posts, “#foodie”; and a staggering 189,271, 021 posts, “#food”.
When it comes to user engagement with brands and businesses, Instagram is the clear frontrunner, with the average Instagram post in the food and beverage industry receiving approximately 34 times more engagement than a Facebook post and 56 times more engagement than a tweet.
The conclusion? There are a lot of pictures of food on Instagram, and, apparently, a lot you can do with them.
The “Instagram Aesthetic”
While Colombo is peppered with places that could be deemed “instagrammable” – Butter Boutique, Black Cat Colombo, and Dottie’s English Tea Room, to name just a few – Café Kumbuk is one that has managed, wholly and ideally, to bring the “Instagram aesthetic” to life.
Nestled in a colonial building and opening out into a spacious verandah, the café is a carefully put together space capable of inspiring even the laziest Instagrammer. The murals on the walls, little odds and ends that crowd the shelves, and dishes that arrive plated to perfection all factor into the café’s charm, resulting in its being one of the most Instagrammed eating establishments in the city.
Shana Dandeniya, the owner of Café Kumbuk, is well aware of this – and as it turns out, the effect is intentional. “Design played a huge part in how our popularity grew,” she says, “because people – nowadays, at least – want to be seen at restaurants and they want to be able to Instagram their food.”
And Instagram their food they do. Café Kumbuk’s eclectic mix of crockery, cutlery, and furniture, as well as the occasional pot plant, all serve as the perfect complements for their carefully presented food and drinks, inspiring its patrons to create content that is shared and reshared over social media.
Yet another Colombo-based establishment reaping the rewards of good design is Aura Café. Installed in a two-storey structure made entirely of shipping containers, the cafe is the first of its kind in the island and makes for a unique dining experience – one that its patrons have documented from day one.
Of everything on the menu at Aura Café, nothing is Instagrammed as often as their trademark Freak Shake, an outrageous, sculptural milkshake that is as much a feast for your eyes as your taste buds. Topped with – among other things – chocolate sauce, marshmallows, strawberries, and wafers, it has inspired dozens of tagged images that portray the beverage in all its eccentric glory.
Malisha Kumaratunge, the owner of Aura Café, was quick to understand the value of the content being created by the cafe’s patrons.
“We’ve found that our customer reposts actually bring in a lot more traction than our own,” she says. “And that may be because followers respond more to what they perceive as a testimonial than an advertisement.”
If the cafe’s popularity is anything to go by, she may just be right.
Quite apart from inspiring others to photograph their establishment and its creations, more and more cafés and restaurants around the island are themselves taking to Instagram.
For Aura Café, the platform was – at the beginning, at least – purely a means of sharing the unique story behind its construction.
“Our posts began from the moment we developed our logo and started building the container offsite,” she says. “Since we were the first container café in Sri Lanka, we thought it would be cool for people to see how everything came together.”
Since then, their Instagram has shifted its focus to documenting the café’s daily operations, posting not only their own photographs, but those taken by some of their customers, and even using the platform to promote their quarterly fashion market, The Closet.
The Café Kumbuk marketing strategy too, from the very get go, focused largely on social media in lieu of more traditional advertising methods. Their Instagram, in particular, is a good example of unorthodox marketing done right. Look it up and you’ll find yourself scrolling through a set of carefully curated photographs that give you a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the café. It tells the story of the café from its inception – when it was little more than an idea inside Shana’s head – and has evolved into what is one of the most popular accounts run by a café or restaurant in Colombo.
Much of their success on social media has to do with Shana’s approach across the various platforms, which – unlike the conventional approach adopted by business profiles on social media – is intimate and more akin to a visual narrative.
“The thing about the Café Kumbuk Instagram is that it’s all about creating content,” she says, “and good content. It tells a story and is, at the same time, really striking, visually.”
It is this combination, of quality images and an interesting backstory, that appeals to the average Instagrammer, and it’s what ensured that Café Kumbuk saw a full house on its very first day.
Whether you love it, hate it, or want to storm out of a restaurant when confronted by it, the foodstagram trend is here to stay, and some of Colombo’s more savvy eating establishments have embraced it, choosing to turn what is traditionally considered a nuisance into an unorthodox method of advertising. So why resist? Next time you’re out for brunch, make like Van Gogh and capture the finer details of your beautifully plated bacon and eggs, or whatever it is the cool kids in Colombo are eating nowadays.