Montreal·Feeding Montreal

Would you like your eggs Instagrammable? How social media can make a menu item a star

"If people are posting on social media, it means they had a good experience, right?" asks foodie Amit Singh, show rarely bites into a meal without snapping a shot of it first. It's an attitude restaurants ignore at their peril.

'If people are posting ... they had a good experience, right?' It's an attitude restos ignore at their peril

Jayd Davis shows the picture she took of her poutine at Fabergé on Friday, March 23, 2018. She and Jordan Assenza came to Montreal from Toronto with an entourage of friends. (Shelby Thevenot)

Feeding Montreal is a series that explores the political, economic, social and personal relationships Montrealers have with their food. It's a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.

This story is the work of a team of student journalists.


Maddison Schmitt was serving at Fabergé, a Mile End brunch spot, last summer when the customer asked for a unicorn milkshake. Schmitt drew a blank.

The customer took out her phone and showed him a picture of a glass filled with a pink pastel-coloured drink topped with sprinkles, whipped cream and vibrant blue cotton candy.

"Oh no, we don't have that,'" he recalls telling her. Later that day, Schmitt asked his colleague, Kat Tran, about this odd, multicoloured request.

Tran, the bar manager at Fabergé, recognized it right away. She'd created the so-called unicorn milkshake a few months earlier as a one-off, for a weekly brunch special. She didn't anticipate it would receive so much attention.

"For months, people were like, 'Could I have a unicorn milkshake? I don't want to drink it; I just want a picture,'" she said.

Serving the outrageous

Advertised as a "party in your mouth," Tran's unicorn milkshake became an Instagram hit. A picture of her drink was uploaded to the Fabergé Instagram account, hashtagged with buzz words, including #unicorn, #colourful and #sprinkles — earning the restaurant 180 likes.

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The unicorn milkshake is not Tran's only fantastical and photo-worthy creation.

Last December, she had her go at a themed drink to capture the Christmas spirit. Named 'The Grinch,' the drink was a spin on a winter classic: hot chocolate made with Tran's own twist of bright blue peppermint-flavoured milk, topped with a swirl of white-and-blue whipped cream, green-and-red swirl candies, and finished off with a toasted marshmallow.

Tran has also perfected a spicy hot chocolate, which she tops with whipped cream, cookies and chocolate shavings. For the final touch, she lights her trusted torch to roast a marshmallow to caramelized perfection.

According to bar manager Kat Tran, the hot chocolate is a popular item on their menu. 0:53

Today, when she's creating a new drink to add to the menu, Tran keeps both her customers' taste buds and social media habits in mind.

"I always know that people want to take a picture of it," she said.

Devin Desousa, co-owner of Fabergé, knows when brunch customers get their food, most take the time to snap a shot for their Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram feeds before they actually dive in and enjoy it.

"You see it. You smell it. You eat it. It adds an anticipatory effect on your whole experience," he said.

"My first chef always said, ‘We eat first with our eyes,’” said Fabergé line cook Elliott Rajnovic. He is one of the kitchen staff who makes a demo plate of the weekly special to make sure the food tastes and looks great. (Shelby Thevenot)

#TheBiggerTheBetter

Alex Cohen, co-owner of Arthurs Nosh Bar on Notre Dame Street in Montreal's Saint-Henri district, is no stranger to his customers' Insta-snapping ways.

Cohen once created a custom brunch dish for a special guest that featured a pancake base topped with sliced breakfast meats, another pancake layer, fried chicken, one more pancake, a healthy drizzle of maple syrup, and, to top it all off, a fried egg.

"It's never anything I'd ever put on my menu, but for fun, it was cool, and we just posted it," said Cohen. "It got an insane amount of likes, and a lot of people started following us because of that."

Servers and bartenders at L'Gros Luxe, a Montreal restaurant chain with several locations, including in Mile End and on Duluth Street, began noticing the impact of social media on their menu items in 2014.
Sean Weis Heitner, the front-of-house manager at Arthurs Nosh Bar in Saint-Henri, adds the finishing touch on a stack of cottage-cheese pancakes. (Shelby Thevenot)

Back then, it was common to add simple garnishes of olives or string beans to garnish their Bloody Caesars.

Over the years, however, the toppings have became more and more outrageous.

Jérémie Desroches from L’Gros Luxe stacks a Caesar high with vegetarian appetizers. 0:58

"They evolved," said owner Alex Bastide, laughing. "It went from one item to 10 items."

Those drinks became the restaurant chain's "signature dish," said Bastide — "a trademark for us, almost."

Now, customers can count on a meal attached to their drink: a strategic balance of mini burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, a stack of onion rings and chicken fingers to whet your appetite and leave a strong impression on your Instagram page.

"Whatever people want to put in there, we try to do it," Bastide said.

Social media as a marketing tool

"This is a very common thing to hear at L'Gros Luxe when I speak to my cooks," said Bastide.

"'Make it Instagram-looking! I want an Instagram moment every time our customers are getting their plates.'"

Bastide not only places a huge emphasis on the restaurant's social media account; he also wants to make sure his staff create dishes that are worthy of being shared by customers online.

"For us, it's like free advertising," he said.

The owner of Fabergé echoes that sentiment.

"Instagram, I think, is a great way to promote visually what you're doing — the only way, really, right now," said Desousa. "It's cool, because you do see the effect of these posts and the ripple of interest."

That's why Desousa enlisted the help of one of his clients, professional photographer Do Phan Hoi, to manage the restaurant's Instagram account.

"We had done all the grunt work in the beginning to get the base of 500 followers, and then he took it, massaged it and got it to the next level."

Now, Hoi comes in once or twice a month to maintain the restaurant's social media presence.

"At first we'd offer him a meal and thank him for his photo." Desousa said. Today, they pay Hoi for his pictures, rather than buying the services of a big marketing firm.

"We're getting a lot more for our money," he said. "We needed something a bit more homegrown to promote ourselves".

As a lover of all things food, Dustin Gilman, the blogger behind @FoodGuyMTL, says brunch is a competitive game where creativity in the kitchen and meal design go a long way.

"These days, if you have food that's not Instagrammable, you're probably not doing it right," he said.

Being successful in the business means having more than just great-tasting food, said Gilman.

"It's got to look good on a plate, and it better look good in a picture."

It's all about generating some buzz online, Bastide concurs.

"I really like creating really crazy pictures to make people react," he said. "That's the goal of social media anyways, right?"

Since the restaurant chain doesn't pay for advertising, it relies on customer interaction.

"We really try to make sure that our customers are hashtagging or sharing as much as possible."

Embracing the buzz

Take a customer like wedding planner Amit Singh: he claims to post everything he eats online, rarely biting into a meal without snapping a shot of it first.

"If I like the food, I want to share it for people that would want to come here as well," Singh said, while eating brunch at Fabergé.

"If people are posting on social media, it means they had a good experience, right? Why else would they be posting it?"  

It's an attitude restaurants ignore at their peril — or embrace, as Fabergé, Arthurs Nosh Bar and L'Gros Luxe have done.

"We're a very Instagrammable restaurant," said Bastide.

Social media has given him a platform to interact with his customers and show the online world what they can expect on their next visit, he said.

"I think the Internet is the greatest thing ever, to be honest."

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Feeding Montreal is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.

Working in small teams, students in the department's graduate diploma program found and produced original stories about the political, economic, social and personal relationships Montrealers have with their food.

The students spent the winter semester developing their stories in text, audio, video, photography, infographics and maps.