Kevin Levine, executive chef at Scatori’s Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant in Myrtle Beach, was perfectly content using Facebook as his go-to social media platform – promoting the restaurant and posting photos of his culinary creations there.
He was comfortable with Facebook and frankly far too busy in the kitchen to think about much else. But at the prodding of friends and regular customers at Scatori’s, Levine took the plunge and tentatively opened an Instagram account.
He had no idea what to expect.
Nine months and more than 3,600 followers later, Levine has become a de facto evangelist for Instagram when it comes to the art of food. He has since posted more than 1,800 photos, a number that increases daily with multiple posts.
“I thought I would just see what it was all about, so I made up [username] @chefscatoris and did my first post. I didn’t know about hashtags or the concept of different categories,” he said, adding that he had no real expectations when he posted his first photo – a simple and elegant presentation of Chilean sea bass he prepared that day.
He quickly found out that there was a virtual subculture waiting for him.
“I didn’t know that there were millions of people out there in the world of Instagram that were chefs and/or foodies,” he said. “I started learning and talking to people, and finding out about the hashtags. People started commenting and tagging my pictures.”
At first, he used basic hashtags like #chef or #food, but he soon expanded his horizons with #foodie, #foodporn, #cheflife and more. But he experienced a real spike in Instagram followers when he started using #truecooks.
True Cooks [www.truecooks.com] is essentially an apparel company focused on the chef lifestyle, but according to Levine, it is more like a movement.
“Forget about it. Once I started learning using #truecooks, I went up 1,900 followers in four weeks,” he said.
Levine said True Cooks runs contests on Instagram, and folks that promote the brand the most get pushed up the True Cooks hierarchy, which helps these people grow followers as well. Levine did so well with this that he was chosen as the first True Cooks Street Team All Star.
“I started meeting people through True Cooks and began exchanging phone numbers with other chefs,” he said. “True Cooks is a brand, but honestly, who and what they are is also who I am,” he said.
A graduate of Johnson and Wales University in North Miami, Fla., Levine worked for a time as a cook at Walt Disney World’s Dolphin Resort in Orlando before he was hired by legendary chef Emeril Lagasse prior to the opening of Emeril’s Orlando, where he remained for four years.
“We had nine weeks of classroom training under Emeril before we ever set foot in the kitchen,” he said. “Emeril was my idol, and I wanted to work for him. I took a chance and I am glad I did. I learned about myself, what I could do and who I was going to be. I have been out of his organization for years now, but I always go back to what I learned at Emeril’s.”
Levine’s longtime partner Stephanie Ott is general manager at Scatori’s [www.scatoris.com]. Her parents Eileen and Michael Ott are the restaurant’s owners.
“We are a true working family,” he said.
Scatori’s opened in 2008. Levine said that the bulk of its patrons are locals. “We are year-round, and during the summer the vacationers and families come down and book us – so we get with that.”
But does Instagram help to get locals into the restaurant?
He remembered a recent service with a group of eight ladies who came in on a Friday night because of his Instagram post that morning. And recently one of his regulars – and a follower on Instagram – came in wanting a special he ran two weeks before.
“I made the dish she wanted because she saw it on Instagram.”
And then there’s the daily soup.
“We do fresh soup every day, and I might post a picture of it. There are people who call for takeout or delivery, and they already know what the soup is because of Instagram.”
Although he has not quantified the impact of Instagram on the business, he sees value here.
“Right now, we’re slammed. I’m not saying this is 100 percent because of Instagram – but I will tell you that Instagram is 100 percent helping our business.”
As a testimony to the real-life friendships that can come about as a result of Instagram Levine told Weekly Surge of an upcoming collaborative dinner to be held at Scatori’s on April 27 with fellow chef Patrick Clark II [@chefbeave], owner and executive chef at the Red Cup in Oklahoma City.
“He is actually driving to Myrtle Beach with his wife,” said Levine. “We’re doing a five-course chef’s dinner together. His restaurant is vegetarian, and we’ve got a large vegetarian niche at Scatori’s.”
Levine says his goal for the dinner is 75 people – and he added that other chefs he knows from Instagram are coming in from as far away as Canada, New York and Detroit.
Clark says the Red Cup [www.theredcupokc.com] is the only completely meat-free eatery in Oklahoma City. “That’s very hard to do in such a meat-and-potatoes state,” he said.
“Kevin and I met on Instagram. Being an avid fan of Italian food, and knowing that it was often done wrong, I chose to follow him because he was a man who knew what he was doing.”
Their camaraderie evolved to the point that they often call each other daily to compare notes or to simply shoot the breeze. But Clark says they feel the need to bring their online friendship into the real world.
“My wife and I love to travel but we don’t often get to do that – so why not Myrtle Beach? Seeing as I would love to try his food, this seemed like a great destination.”
Clark said the five-course dinner will include carnivore courses and vegetarian courses.
“I am not a vegetarian, but I have extensive culinary training in that field,” he said. “[Kevin] wants to learn as much as he can about it while I am in town so that he can give his vegetarian customers the best experience possible.”
And #truecooks comes into play here.
“We are also doing this to try to get as many of our True Cooks family followers to attend this dinner so we can all meet face-to-face, have a blast and party with these people we have never met before,” he said.
Andre S. Pope, digital identity consultant and adjunct professor of marketing and advertising design at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, said that Instagram has been around since 2010, and that many early adopters made it the application we know and love today.
In 2012, the monolithic Facebook scooped up Instagram for a cool billion dollars, turning the potential rival into its standalone photo app.
“It was feared that Facebook’s involvement in the project would thwart the community that was built around Instagram, but it has not. Just like any form of social media, it will continue to grow in certain markets but will wane in others,” said Pope.
But what of the culinary industry? Will Instagram continue to be a useful tool there?
“If used correctly with quality content that is used to engage its audience, Instagram can be a powerful tool. Within the culinary industry you need to showcase food and atmosphere, but you need to do so at a level that complements your business. Personality has played major roles in building up audiences in other social media platforms, and it’s no different with Instagram,” said Pope. “Understanding that each image you post is an extension of your brand will go a long way to ensuring quality over quantity with Instagram.”
With so many restaurants on the Grand Strand, it was surprising to discover that many are not yet using Instagram as part of their public face.
Pope [www.andrepope.com] attributes this to the Myrtle Beach area being late to the game in this regard.
“Many don’t understand social media and Instagram and the potential impact that it could have,” he said. “However, trying to force social media into your marketing plan is just as bad as not having one. I suggest that my clients take an active look at what they want to accomplish, how they want to go about it and make a strategic plan. Social media mishaps happen all the time, mostly due to lack of planning and understanding of the tools at hand.”
The upshot to all of this, according to Pope, is to achieve meaningful communication between a business and its audience.
The use of hashtags, as we saw in the case of Levine, plays an important role on Instagram, and Pope said these are both the most misunderstood and the most powerful tools in the social media world.
“Hashtags act as a way of cataloguing and connecting information. Be very selective with your hashtags and use them in a way to connect with a niche audience that will truly appreciate your post. Use hashtags to help you find and build audiences in accordance with the personality that you are trying to establish.”
Levine’s success on Instagram shows that there is still a good chance for other restaurants to adopt the application to their advantage.
Sheina Hammerman, partner with father Ted Hammerman at Mr. Fish Restaurant [www.mrfish.com] in Myrtle Beach, told The Weekly Surge that Mr. Fish has been using Instagram for perhaps six months.
“Instagram isn’t like Facebook, where you can add multiple administrators – so it makes it difficult to use all the time unless the one person that has the app is in the building and can take the picture,” she said, adding that she loaded the Instagram business app on her iPod touch because she couldn’t easily toggle to and from multiple accounts on one device, as she could with Facebook.
“We use Facebook every day because my dad and all of my managers have the app on their phones and are administrators so anyone can upload the specials at any time. Facebook at this point is just easier for all of us to keep up with.”
But she sees the potential of Instagram – especially in the culinary field, “Food is the new porn these days and everyone is a photographer now with their smartphone cameras. With the right angle and snazzy filter, you can make a normal dish look damn sexy. Everybody is a foodie and people eat with their eyes. With the sea of apps out there, I think Instagram is relevant for the industry.”
Social media consultant and entrepreneur Dorien Morin-van Dam [www.moreinmedia.com] agrees.
“Colleges and universities use Instagram to connect with prospective students and parents. Brands like Coca Cola, Krispy Kreme and Progressive [Insurance] are using it to create brand loyalty. There are 300 million monthly active users. Yes, it’s relevant,” she said.
And in regard to the culinary industry, Instagram might just be the perfect bedfellow.
“Food lends itself very well to being photographed, of course, and people love showing off what they are eating. I would encourage a brand to set up some sort of UGC [user generated content] program. This means asking customers to upload pictures of their meals and using a hashtag already established by the brand - thus creating free content for the brand to use, repost and share. Choosing the right and most relevant hashtag is often the hardest part.”
She also recommends using only five to ten hashtags in a post. More than that will likely turn people off.
There are several best practices,” she said. “First, decide which one hashtag will ‘represent’ your business. Use that one on every post. As an example, #eatpizzainmyrtlebeach could be used if you are a pizza joint in Myrtle Beach. Then use relevant hashtags that would go with your business, related to the food and drinks you serve, your location and your name. Myrtle Beach location hashtags could include #myr, #myrtlebeach, #mb, #grandstrand et cetera.
What not to include are irrelevant hashtags – or ‘hashjack’ – popular hashtags to get more views. For example, don’t include #dogsofinstagram as a hashtag if you sell pizza. The hashtag has to fit the image.”
Becky Billingsley, author and CEO of Myrtle Beach Restaurant News [www.myrtlebeachrestaurantnews.com], said the No. 1 mistake she sees people make on Instagram is blurry photos.
“Who wants to see a blurry salad? It makes the food look unappetizing to say the least,” she said.
“The other big mistake is people trying to get the entire plate in the shot. Go close! People want details. You want them to see the delectable crispy bits on the crust of a pork chop. Shoot it close enough that it looks like you could reach in and pull off a bite. If you’re using your phone, be sure you hear the ‘focus beep’ before you click. If you’re using a digital camera, use the macro setting. Some cameras also have a food setting.”
Billingsley also suggests leaving flash photography to professionals.
“If the restaurant is extremely dimly lit, just enjoy your food and forget the photography.”
But chefs and restaurant owners are not the only ones in the Instagram game. Foodies play a major role as well.
Blogger Amanda Scott [www.littlesouthernlife.com] told us that her primary motivation for having an Instagram account is to share her lifestyle with the world. She has been on Instagram for nearly three years as @littlesouthernwife.
“I have always been a lover of all things healthy and holistic,” she said. “After years of people asking me for recipes and healthy eating tips, I finally decided to start sharing my knowledge.”
But how much of her Instagram activity is food-related?
“I post about food daily. We cook breakfast, lunch and dinner when we are at home so I have plenty of pictures and recipes to share. When we are eating out, I take photos of the food order. I think that presentation is so important when it comes to food. I love ordering new dishes and seeing how beautifully the chef presents them. I am such a foodie that eating a good meal is almost as satisfying as buying a new pair of shoes.”
If she sees a post that catches her eye, Scott said she often duplicates it. “I saw that a few bloggers I follow posted about smoothie bowls and I had to try it for myself. I now eat smoothie bowls five to six days a week for breakfast.”
Scott said she enjoys Instagram because of the connections she has made with folks all over the world: “The people that I interact with have same passions that I do. I have met women that I follow and really enjoy their company. It is really refreshing to converse with people that share the same interests as I do. I love [Instagram] more than any other social media site,” she said.
All things considered, Scatori’s’ Levine predicts continued growth on Instagram for the culinary and foodie set.
“The way things look, we’re not going anywhere. The community just keeps getting stronger and stronger. As for other industries, I have no idea – but we are taking this to the next level,” he said.