Well before the Hi-Lo Diner flipped its first pancake, Mike Smith already had envisioned the perfect plate: a retro brown with a classic green rim. It felt authentic, 1960s kitsch, mom and pop — exactly what he wanted for the Minneapolis diner.

But there was one problem: “We realized it wasn’t going to look good on people’s Instagram posts,” said Smith.

So instead of brown, Hi-Lo went with white, the perfect canvas for the egg benedicts and savory doughnuts at what would become one of the most Instagrammed establishments in the state.

Across the Twin Cities and beyond, restaurants are recognizing Instagram not just as a powerful social media tool, but as a force driving their decisions about everything from lighting and design to marketing strategy. While some argue that relying on what could be a short-lived trend is a mistake, many believe that tailoring their restaurants to Instagram is a way to bring people through the door.

“In this day and age, if it’s not Instagrammable, you’ve just sacrificed your entire marketing potential,” said Dean Phillips, one of two owners at Penny’s Coffee in downtown Minneapolis. “It really is a whole new paradigm.”

When Phillips and Ben Hertz were designing Penny’s, which opened late last year, Instagram played a major role. They put in globe lighting to add pop and matte surfaces, which make better photo backdrops than shiny ones. Then they installed their “hook”: a neon hand forming the A-OK symbol.

That the symbol has been plastered across Instagram feeds all over the metro area is no accident.

“I would argue that it was one of the core legs of our brand-building,” Phillips said. “The space had to be remarkable, the product had to be outstanding, the people had to be amazing … and it had to be Instagrammable.”

But not everyone is so eager to reel in the “likes.”

Walk into the stunningly designed cafe at the Bachelor Farmer and you’re likely to see hipsters snapping pics on their iPhones between sips from their perfectly poured lattes.

Surely this is all part of owner Eric Dayton’s master Instagram plan, right?


When Dayton designed oversized windows that poured sunlight into the cafe, and pieced together the clean white walls, brass fixtures and geometric backsplash, he was doing so for the benefit of the eye, he said, not the lens.

“We’d be making all of these same decisions with or without people taking pictures of [the space],” Dayton said. “I think if you try to design your restaurant based on what’s popular on Instagram, you’re probably going to end up with something that feels very dated. In my opinion, you try to avoid that.”

He has a point: Instagram itself is changing rapidly.

When Bachelor Farmer opened in 2011, Instagram was mostly a forum for retro-tinged photographs with thick frames and burnt edges, and filters applied liberally. Those same photographs would look archaic now, as Instagram has become a study in Icelandic minimalism and the use of white space.

Dayton’s other two dining establishments, the attached restaurant and the basement Marvel Bar — with their dim lighting and candles aplenty — are essentially no-Instagram zones. And don’t even think of using that flash; there’s a note on the menu asking patrons not to.

“If I’m having dinner with my wife and there are light explosions going off, that’s visually very distracting,” Dayton said. “So we just ask as a courtesy that people don’t use them in our dining room.”

Other restaurateurs, however, welcome the Instagram app, flash or no.

Recently, many began inviting Instagrammers they view as “influencers” to free dinners and openings.

“Once I hit 1,000 [followers] that was kind of the magic number,” said Kim Ly Curry (@kimlycurry), who now has 25,000 followers on Instagram. “It was a whole different world.”

Real-time research

Instagram is being used to do more than just put restaurants on the map.

Retail designers are using the app as a window into what matters to diners.

Before Instagram, Tanya Spaulding of Shea Design would spend hours upon hours sitting in restaurants, watching what people did, where they gathered, what they looked at. She still does old-school marketing research, but the amount of information garnered that way pales in comparison to what she gleans from the tool she now has within arm’s reach: Instagram.

“It’s real-time market research,” she said. “If we pay attention to what consumers are Instagramming, we’re now getting information about what they’re paying attention to in restaurants. So to ignore it would be doing yourself a huge disservice.”

Already, Instagram has led to changes in the way restaurants look.

Cluttered interiors are out. Lighting, especially natural lighting, is critical. Massive windows are common. Restaurants and bars with darker spaces are getting creative.

Spoon and Stable is fairly dark during dinner service. But the back bar is lit with such drama and depth that it stands out in photos without disrupting the ambience of the room.

At the pitch-black Norseman Distillery, the ever-changing custom chalkboard is illuminated with spotlights, creating a bold image even when bargoers have to squint to see their cocktails.

Did they think about Instagram when they designed the sprawling warehouse space, laden with photo opp jackpots?

“Instagram was the only thing we thought about,” Norseman beverage director Keith Mrotek said.

Most restaurants and bars that become Instagram hot spots have a signature draw.

At Revival, it’s the mustard-colored wallpaper. At St. Genevieve, it’s the glistening bar. At Eastside, it’s the honeycomb-tiled floor, which Spaulding helped design.

“We frankly didn’t spend a lot of money in a lot of other places,” she said, “but we designed a custom pattern [on the floor] for a reason.”

It worked. Search for the restaurant on Instagram and photos of patrons standing on that floor (in their best shoes) will crop up on the screen.

Powerful, but dangerous?

Phillips sees Instagram as a boon for restaurant owners who want to make a splash without spending a lot of money on marketing.

“It’s the great equalizer,” he said. “No longer is it a matter of the resources a marketer has at his or her disposal — it’s how compelling is the content provided.”

It’s the photograph — and Instagram’s ability to spread it like wildfire — that has become powerful.

“Pictures were always powerful, but now they’re becoming so accessible,” said Talia Wischmann, who specializes in social strategy and content at Fast Horse, a Minneapolis marketing and advertising company. “Everybody has a camera in their pocket and they can share with everyone they follow. And that can be really great for business.”

Hi-Lo’s Smith realizes that. It’s why he eschewed the brown plates, which he called “the authentic choice,” in favor of the white ones.

But he also fears that Instagram is diluting what’s unique in restaurants.

“I guess I’m saddened by a lot of it, I’ll admit,” he said. “I’m bummed by the immediacy and speed in which things become trendy and pass along.”

Smith has been thinking about another project, a “late 1970s rural restaurant in the cities,” something that would embody Midwestern styles from that time.

“Maybe it would fail,” he said. “I think Instagram is killing regional design because everyone is sharing photos of everything, and everything looks like L.A. and New York and Iceland and Paris and Dubai all at once. All of those things are melding into one, and there’s something beautiful and powerful about that, but there’s also something sad. Because I think there’s value to what’s being lost, too.”