You know we've reached peak internet when we’re more excited about a photo of a cake than eating the actual cake.
Instagram Makes Big Business for Amateur Bakers
I don’t care if it’s delicious — does it look good? Bloomberg Pursuits explains how bakers are making money off of cakes that look good, regardless of what they taste like. (Fun fact: I used to work at a bridal magazine and for photo shoots, we’d often enlist bakers to cover pre-cut styrofoam in fondant. A little secret sauce for you there.) One baker profiled in the piece makes more money creating cake content for the internet — that is, well-composed photos of intricate cake designs — than she did as a baker for hire. The cake craze took off in part thanks to Instagram, where #cake and #cakestagram yield millions of results. Besides pure visibility, social media gives in-home bakers a business model: according to the article, companies reach out to them for sponsorships or tutorials. Secondarily, these bakers sometimes take orders for actual cakes, but this is far less lucrative than other options.
Instagram seems to have ushered in a new category of food. There’s food that tastes good, food that looks good because it tastes good (think: old-school food porn here), and now, food that just looks good. Sure, food stylists have been around as long as we’ve editorialized images of food, but social media has taken it to a new level. Still, it’s hard to be mad at anything that encourages creativity and experimentation; here’s hoping these cakes actually taste good, too.
Silicon Valley Tech + Restaurants: What Could Go Wrong?
By now, you know the answer to this question. In the case of The Melt and the grilled cheese sandwich, more than expected. The Melt, a small Bay-area-baed chain, was conceived by bright tech minds and backed by respected capitalists and hallowed Bay-area chef Michael Mina worked on the project. The restaurant’s founder Jonathan Kaplan, who previously sold his Flip cameras to Cisco for millions, claimed to create a breakthrough device for producing grilled cheese in less than a minute. The short version of the longer (and very well-written) story: trying to apply Silicon Valley principles and innovation to food is harder than it seems. “In short, like many entrepreneurs, Kaplan harnessed software and hardware to tackle the critical problem of his own satisfaction,” writes author Bianca Bosker of the chain’s troubles.
The piece goes on to explain the restaurant’s troubles, which seem to echo many food-tech startup failures: a lot of money and the best intentions can’t always change a fundamentally human, tangible industry whose products have an expiration date. And so, The Melt has revamped its image, changing its approach, decor, and technology. “But the more dramatic changes have centered on the old-fashioned business of making good food and courting diners,” the article states. Indeed.
Technology’s Effect on Casual Dining
Remember the first time you visited a Chipotle? Did it blow your mind? I remember realizing it wasn’t quite fast food but not sit-down either. Chipotle was the first introduction to the fast-casual concept for a lot of people, including me, and now the popularity of fast-casual has absolutely exploded. So what does that mean for the casual dining chains of yesterday? In at least one case, Red Robin has a plan to change with the times, overhauling its operations and considering a shift in strategy. Specifically, they’re thinking about distancing themselves from the malls and big-box stores that helped the casual dining industry take off. They’re also, according to the piece in Nation’s Restaurant News, considering self-service “beer walls” (fun!) and exploring different service models to find the best and frictionless. The COO quoted in the piece does not call out technology specifically here, but one has to imagine that’s what she’s talking about.
All of these changes move Red Robin toward a fast-casual model: self-serve and streamlined operations especially. Have Americans tired of casual dining, or has technology ushered in a different experience with a different set of expectations?
Why So Fast?
When you pay attention to technology and startups, you gain an appreciation of the importance of speed. “Move fast and break things” used to be Facebook’s actual motto. Speed is great when it comes to computing and processing and all of the things that go into making a piece of software or a digital product successful. But should innovation in food technology follow that same line of thinking? Is speed really a metric by which we should judge a new food or restaurant company’s success?
There’s obviously quite a market for fast food, though by reading industry news over the last few years, it seems more like “good food fast” than fast food in a traditional sense as producers like McDonald’s and KFC place more emphasis on ingredient freshness and sourcing. Speed is in the headlines again, though, as technology infiltrates restaurants. Except now we call it streamlining and efficiency lest new businesses and products get slapped with the still negative connotation of “fast food.” VC-backed Allset, for example, allows diners to book a table, order, and pay for food before arriving at the restaurant. Its founders bill this as time-saving; no one likes waiting for a table, they say. Ironically (and speaking of fast-casualization), they’re effectively turning any restaurant into a fast-casual restaurant since you don’t have to “waste time” ordering off the menu when you arrive; your food is still made to order, but faster than it would be.
This is a worldwide thing: In China, you can use a couple of QR codes and WeChat to order and pay for food, hardly any human interaction required. The push everywhere for speed and convenience doesn’t seem all that different from the push for speed and convenience we experienced here as fast food and TV dinners grew in popularity. Maybe my idea of dining out is too romantic, but innovation in speed is something I want for my laptop, not necessarily my lunch.
- And another one: Bay-area delivery service Sprig ceased operations last week —Sprig
- Why your next favorite restaurant will be a bar — Bloomberg
- What does a McDonald’s comeback mean for its competition? — Nation’s Restaurant News
- A eulogy for the golden era of VC-subsidized meals, which is finally over —Quartz
- New York City’s ice cream turf wars — Food & Wine
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Photo credit: Cake decorating how-tos are huge business on Instagram. Polly Mosendz / Bloomberg