SINGAPORE: Where we once relied on friends, family and the occasional taxi driver for recommendations on the next dining destination, Instagram and Facebook are now our trusted food directories.
The cycle starts at the restaurant. A dish makes its way to the table, and instead of tucking in, phones are whipped out and photos are taken. These images are then cropped, filtered and immortalised online, often accompanied by a mini review.
Do eateries, then, feel the pressure to up their Instagram game?
Mr Joey Lim, who co-owns neighbourhood cafe Builders at Sims, told Channel NewsAsia: “(In this business), you have to attract (both) the hipster crowd and the foodie.”
The cafe at Sims Drive opened its doors in April this year. Tucked under a nondescript HDB block, it is a world of difference compared to kitchens Mr Lim has worked in - Tippling Club, Open Door Policy, and most recently, Tiong Bahru Bakery.
The cafe's menu includes sous vide beef cheek and wagyu burgers for under S$20 - but is best-known for its “coffee cone” – coffee poured into a chocolate-coated waffle ice-cream cone.
Its origins are hazy, yet the invention has taken Instagram by storm around the world.
Builders at Sims' "Coffee cone". (Photo: Nisha Karyn)
While Mr Lim takes pride in his French-inspired menu, the graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris said that sometimes, cafes need a core product to get customers through the door. "At the end of the day, we still need to attract the teenagers and hipsters – so we need these little gimmicks to get them to come in first, (before they) try our food."
In the long term though, he admitted that the coffee cone is not a sustainable solution, as it is just a trend.
Trends are all well and good, said food critic KF Seetoh, but they do nothing to help different food establishments differentiate themselves.
"The menus (of these cafes) do not stand out much from each other. Today, it's salted egg yolk something or charcoal something else. Very pretty and Instagrammable, but not memorable," he said.
Curious Palette's salted egg yolk chicken wings. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Perhaps the Instagram generation has created a new dilemma for businesses – dishes have to photograph as well as they taste, and everyone's a food critic in the social space online, so how do you please everyone?
“Generating online word of mouth is almost necessary for food and beverage establishments in today’s digital climate. Many consumers rely on online reviews to decide where to go for food. Having ‘Instagrammable’ dishes or decor may help cafes earn their spot in consumers’ consideration sets,” said Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Assistant Professor Charlene Chen.
But aesthetics and quality are not mutually exclusive, said Mr Ryan Tan, the co-founder of cafe Strangers’ Reunion.
Probably best known for consistent coffees and photogenic dishes, Strangers’ Reunion – and its sister outpost Curious Palette – are both well-documented on social media.
"People always ask: 'Do you intentionally make your place prettier or Instagrammable?' It's sort of like a by-product, to get a pretty space with food. At the end of the day, if it's pretty but it doesn't taste good, even if people post photos, it's going to come with a bad review," said Mr Tan.
In designing Curious Palette, located in an old shophouse along Prinsep Street, Mr Tan said he did not aim to make it marketable - even though it has been touted as a "food Instagrammer's paradise".
"Yes, we designed it to be pretty, but we didn't expect it to be: 'It's pretty so therefore it's Instagrammable and therefore we get all sorts of marketing from this'," Mr Tan said.
Curious Palette has been touted as a "food Instagrammer's paradise". (Photo: Nisha Karyn)
Instead of banking solely on marketing dollars, Patissez Singapore also prefers to let photos do the talking. Its “Freakshakes” – giant milkshakes in jugs slathered with whipped cream and other toppings such as pretzels, cake and ice cream sandwiched in a cookie – first burst onto the scene in 2015 at its original outlet in Canberra, Australia.
Since then, it has expanded beyond Down Under, first to Kuala Lumpur and now to the city-state, with plans to open a third overseas outlet in the region in the next few months.
"That's how it works in this generation. Word of mouth is still powerful, but a picture says a thousand words. So when people see a picture and they share it with their friends ... that is where we get more people coming in," said Mr Teo Seng Loong, the cafe's general manager.
Patissez Singapore's steak with fries. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)
CUSTOMER IS (STILL) KING
While maintaining a good online reputation is important, Asst Prof Chen said the solution to long-term sustainability lies in how a cafe positions itself - and being consistent in meeting a customer's value proposition.
"It could be superior customer service standards, the atmosphere and ambience at the cafe, the philosophy behind the food being served, quality of the food/beverage offerings or experiences provided by the cafe that cannot be found elsewhere," she explained.
French toast with blackberry and raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream at Builders at Sims. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)
Those in the hospitality industry said it is all about creating an experience for the customer from the moment they walk through the doors.
"The beginning of any space has to be about the customer," said Mr Andrew Lek, director of 2 Degrees North Coffee, which runs the cafe Populus.
Mr Lek said the details matter in creating a “complete experience”. Populus’ coffee cups are made by a local ceramic artist, while both lighting and textures of the walls also play a part in making customers feel “at home”.
Good customer service also plays a big part in bringing customers back. While Strangers' Reunion's Ryan Tan takes coffee seriously, he started his cafe with the aim of building relationships.
"I told my staff to create an environment where friends leave feeling closer to each other," said the three-time Singapore national barista champion, referring to the cafe's name.
A NEW CHAPTER FOR SINGAPORE'S DINING SCENE?
While cafes nowadays are dime a dozen, Mr Seetoh said the more pressing issue is the "dearth and death of heritage food eateries" like Nyonya, Eurasian, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Indian and Muslim.
"Not very many still have this soul in their kitchens and fire in the belly to take that food culture into tomorrow by tomorrow's expectations. There is a lack of bravery, pride and bravado in our new restaurateurs or cafe entrepreneurs," said Mr Seetoh.
The food critic thinks restaurateurs should leverage the popularity of amateur foodie photography - and come up with "uniquely Singapore creations".
"Sadly, it is not happening much. I applaud folks like (modern Singaporean or "mod-sin" restaurant) CreatureS that are taking a lead in that direction," he said.
Mr Lek agreed. He believes in offering familiar flavours, repackaged in different forms. For instance, on Populus' menu is a fried chicken and pancake dish, drawing inspiration from Korea for the pancake, and marrying it with chicken that has been marinated with ginger and white wine. It is then given a Western twist, with ranch dressing, and a slight hint of cumin.
By taking a huge dollop of inspiration from Singapore's cultural melting pot, the culinary scene here can whip up something truly "cosmopolitan (and) modern", said Mr Lek.
ARE CUSTOMERS EATING IT UP?
Cafes can aim to provide great experiences, deliver great service, serve up enticing dishes and make it pretty to boot - but what draws customers through the doors? And what will keep them coming back?
Not wanting to make assumptions, this reporter conducted a straw poll on Twitter and asked: Would you visit a cafe because it looks good on social media?
A total of 315 people responded within a 24-hour period – and 63 per cent said "yes".
Miss Chan See Ting, 23, was one of those who said she would visit a food establishment if it looked good online. "I feel that, as humans, we are drawn to aesthetically pleasing products, so even though we may know that it's superficial, we will be drawn to it anyway. But if your food is only pretty but does not taste good, then I obviously won't be a returning customer."
Conversely, Twitter user @magetrash responded by saying: "No, but I would be more compelled to go if the photos are accompanied by text, (and) content of substance."
While there is no magic formula in making a cafe work, all four cafe owners or managers Channel NewsAsia spoke with agreed that behind the photos, there needs to be a desire to bring the best product to the table.
Patissez takes pride in having most things house-made - including its Nutella donuts; Strangers' Reunion's team regularly heads overseas to pick up different methods of brewing coffee; while Builders at Sims wants to serve up comfort food that customers - be it the neighbourhood uncle or the Snap-happy millennial - will want to return to.
After all, the hospitality industry is built on exactly that - being hospitable, said Mr Lek.
"When you see people enjoying themselves, you should feel happy," he said, coffee in hand, with a smile.