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    Deep, violaceous cabbage slaw dapples a crispy piece of fish-- all wrapped in a soft shell and drizzled with almost-pink chipotle mayo. It’s beautiful. Succulent. Savory. 

    And, instead of diving in, my first thought is, “I wonder if these stools are sturdy enough to kneel on.” 

    It’s January 2014. El Taco Luchador, the Highland’s first taqueria, had just opened. And how else, other than testing my weight against the furniture, would I achieve the ideal Instagram photo to show that I was in the trendiest place at the right time? But I wasn’t alone. #TacoTuesday posts were abundant that month, and my snap was soon buried by those Iphone-shot, magazine-quality photos that still manage to elude me. 

    Louisville prides itself on its burgeoning food scene-- upscale Southern, multiethnic cuisine, down-home cooking and potentially even Appalachian sushi. It’s all here--with killer opening events and parties specifically for the foodie who’s who --but sometimes, I just don’t know how to get there. Or show people I’m there when I manage to find my way in. 

    For example: A few weeks ago I was propped up in bed with a mug of Sleepytime tea and an episode of “Property Brothers.” Crazy night, I know. As I watched the couple debate between mint and cyan curtains, I flicked over to Instagram. 

    It was then that I realized that as I was lounging in my sweats, nursing my home improvement addiction, everyone else in Louisville was at 8Up, huddled around the fire-pits on the newly opened rooftop bar. I scrolled through images of pretty people posed with exotic cocktails, flames dancing in the background. 

    Cue Echosmith’s “Cool Kids.” 

    Food has always been a status symbol (think the mythical “Feast of the Gods” and massive Elizabethan banquets) but over the past decade, aided by the emergence of social media, it has steadily evolved into a photographable, calorie-laden prop. High-profile models and social media mavens alike stage photos of expensive products around sugary and savory treats -- ice cream cones, pastel-frosted cupcakes and pizza slices dripping with toppings seem to be favorites-- which, in all reality, they probably don’t eat. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that the photos are a representation of a lifestyle to which many aspire, and the accounts have the followers to prove it. 

    Locally, the landscape is a little different. Photos of sprawling brunches, Nord’s donuts, bourbon old fashioneds and towering Holy Grale burgers dominate the feeds. While most of the fare is accessible enough to feel communal (“Oh, I’ve eaten that too!”) there’s definitely competition for social media attention, between both restaurants and local foodies. 

    That night over Sleepytime tea, I determined to throw myself into the midst of it all. To investigate the relationship between food and our feeds, and to potentially graduate from wannabe to full-fledged (and appropriately documented) Louisville foodie along the way. 

    Where to start was obvious; Estes Public Relations is a local firm that represents favorites such as Seviche, Proof on Main, Morton’s and Bristol. 

    PR reps are the gatekeepers to all sorts of juicy foodie information. They know the openings, closing and collaborations long before us humble journalists-- not to mention, have the details on (and tickets to) exclusive tasting parties. 

    Rachel Goldenberg is the Account Executive and Social Media Manager at Estes. She filled me in on how local restaurants can leverage social media to build hype and become the “it” place to be.

    She said: “The first few weeks opening a restaurant can be greatly impacted by social media. With a few great reviews, fans sharing online and in-person word of mouth and continued engaging social media posts by the restaurant, a business can take off. Traditional media will mention your restaurant, but sharing enticing photos of a gourmet burger or over-the-top dessert on social media will bring in guests who see it as a must-try dish. 

    “We work with clients to continue updating their fan base on what’s new with fresh photos and interesting promotions throughout the life of their restaurant. Even a historic hotel or a 30-year staple restaurant can stay current and fun through smart social media and PR.” 

    While hype is important, that’s not what Estes aims for long-term.“ Our job is to make sure our clients are top of mind when someone looks to go out to eat, whether the restaurant is brand new or a veteran establishment. Trendy is great but we strive for longevity,” Goldenberg said. 

    Goldenberg says that their staff at EPR is on a first name basis with every food, travel and business writer in Louisville--along with many other cities where they have clients and nationwide publications. 

    “PR is so much more than sending press releases. We develop long-term relationships and often friendships with writers and editors,” she said. “ We also occasionally host media tasting events where photos are encouraged but never required.” 

    On that note, full disclosure: I am not a photographer. I own a Nikon with a smudgy lens that was passed down from my brother after he was done using it for his high school yearbook-- it’s stuck in my purse somewhere-- and, for a while, I took photos on an LG Chocolate. 

    Scrolling back through my feeds, you can tell that my food photo philosophy, as did many other’s, started out simply-- plate arrives, shoot photo, eat. 

    Then #foodstagram blossomed. I followed foodies. All these how-to guides for taking better Iphone food photos popped up-- meant for people like me who want to up their InstaGame (self-indulgent, I know-- but, then again, isn’t all social media?) but are left hopelessly disappointed in the results. 

    I thought about this conundrum over Chocolate Goo Cake at Proof on Main. In person, it looked gorgeous, especially after lightly piercing the center and drizzling chocolate ganache down the edges of the spongy cake. 

    When it arrived I thought, “Surely I’ve read enough Refinery 29 Instagram tips to truly capture your beauty,” then snapped a photo and then promptly devoured the treat. 

    The next morning though, not so much. The lighting at the bar was romantic (read as “dim”) and it just looked like a black spot on a white plate with no way to differentiate between cake and ganache and ice cream and cacao nibs—oh, those cacao nibs. Disappointment set in, and the photo was promptly deleted. 

    Time to call in the experts, or rather the expert: Allison Myers. You may know her from her day job as Senior Marketing Product Manager at Lantech.com. You definitely should know her from her food writing and Instagram accounts @EatLoveLouisville and @AllisonRMyers. 

    When asked, her philosophies on food and social media are straightforward and locally focused: 

    “Any given day there's something you can learn about the place you live that you didn't know before. My goal is to uncover those things, especially the ones related to the food scene. Louisville is truly a foodie’s paradise. We have an impressive amount of local top-notch restaurants, cafes and dives. Food excites and inspires me, and I find myself more excited and inspired with the discovery of another must try place,” she said. 

    “Dining out should be an experience and event. And yes, I’m the obnoxious person who won’t let anyone touch her food until I get an Instagram picture of it first. A good meal is meant to be shared, and how can I share it if there is no proof?” 

    And while Myers uses Facebook, Twitter and Google+, she identifies as an “Instagram fanatic” because of its visual focus-- perfect for her food photography. 

    I sent her an email, attempting to be casual in my express desire to pick her brain, but the key was really my last question— How do you take the "perfect" Instagram photo?— images of my the goo cake debacle branded on my brain. 

    And in six succinct steps, I had my answer: 

    a. Make sure your camera lens is clean. I take most of my pictures with my iPhone and I always carry a microfiber cloth to clean the lens before taking pictures.

    b. Go for natural light.  I’ve been known to get up and move around for better lighting.

    c. Don’t use your flash for food pictures. Use a friend’s iPhone flashlight to create additional light.

    d. Play with angles. It’s cool to include background of the restaurant or some human elements in the shot to help tell a story.

    e.Take a few shots.

    f. Don’t be a afraid to edit. Often times I adjust the brightness of my shots.

    While it may seem untoward to maneuver about the restaurant for the perfect shot, many Louisville restaurants thrive on people sharing photos of their good eats. For example, Harvest reposts Instagram photos that people take of their food on their Facebook page in an effort to encourage customer engagement. 

    Emily Hagerdorn, the Louisville Community manager at Yelp, watches firsthand on a daily basis how community engagement can affect a business’ customer base. 

    “Social media has become the way for people to find new businesses to frequent. It's word of mouth, amplified to a scale unseen before. I see it giving power to two distinct groups: the engaged consumers and the locally-owned, smaller businesses. And it's putting businesses — and restaurants, in particular — on an equal playing field, rewarding quality and service, which is determining which restaurants become popular and which do not,” Hagerdorn said. 

    Yelp in itself is, by definition, a form of social media where users can share photos and reviews, and a powerful one at that. According to Hagerdorn, 135 million visitors come to Yelp each month and four out of five Yelp users say they visit the site when preparing to spend money, with virtually all Yelp users (98 percent) having made a purchase at a business they found on Yelp and nearly 90 percent of them doing so within a week.

    “So, to reiterate, individual diners have huge power in making a restaurant popular through the amplified word of mouth that social media offers, and restaurants — especially locally-owned restaurants — have more ways to get their vision and mission out to more consumers and shape the conversation in ways they didn't have before,” she said.  “All of this comes together when it comes to which restaurants flourish and which restaurants flounder.” 

    Social media is also imperative in keeping the momentum that “trendy” restaurants have when they first open going. Hagerdorn says that it is plays three key roles. It keeps information flowing as a way to grow a restaurant's brand and image; makes sure that customers know that their opinions are appreciated and valued as a restaurant grows; and continues to innovate and surprise customers. 

    “With the first especially, social media is key. And one business that comes to mind that excels at this is Mayan Cafe in NuLu. I'm always seeing pics of their awesome dishes on the top of my social media feeds,” Hagerdorn said. “Mayan Cafe has been around since 1997, yet I still hear from people that they're excited to try it out. That buzz is golden.” 

    She continued: “No restaurant can rest on its laurels long — especially with how big ‘foodie culture’ has become and especially in such a food-focused city like Louisville. Restaurants have to continue to find ways to make customers feel invested and to create their own buzz if they want to grow and survive.”

    An example of a local eatery that has utilized social media as a means to seriously grow is Grind Burger Kitchen. What started as a food truck run by Liz and Jesse Huot, has developed into a brick-and-mortar burger joint on Preston Street named one of the best new restaurants in Louisville for 2014 and one of the best new burgers in the country from Thrillist.com, and, according to Impulcity, has “Kentucky’s Best Gourmet Burger.” 

    “Social media was how we got our momentum when we started Without it we would not have had a successful Kickstarter and wouldn't have gained such a following,” said Liz Huot. “A lot of places, new and older, underestimate what an influence it has and make the mistake or hiring their 13 year old nephew or their spouse who is ‘good at Facebook’ to do their social media, not realizing that it's so much more than posting updates and pictures.  You have to know how to connect to your audience in order to get those likes and shares and ultimately entice them to come in and spend money.” 

    Liz, who manages the social media for Grind, has a professional background in social media. She used to write a successful music blog in the early 2000s which gained some notoriety, and also had a food blog before the truck. 

    “I learned a lot of about interacting with people online, what sorts of pictures and contact would get a response and what wouldn't.  You post a picture of some rock star looking super hot or super crazy and you're going to get a better response than one of them out walking their dog.  It's just the same as posting food pictures.  If I post a picture of a super juicy cheeseburger it's going to get a better response than one of our new draft beer selection,” Huot said. 

    She said that at Grind they concentrate on the lighting, positioning and content of the food photography— but that oftentimes restaurants and food bloggers put up photos without really thinking about the composition of the photo as a whole.

    “No one wants to see the crumpled up paper towel you just wiped the plate off with in the background.  Speaking of wiping plates, you should also be wiping plates.  We tell our staff to treat everything that leaves the kitchen like it's going to be photographed.”

    Lighting, positioning and clean plates: got it. 

    Armed with my newfound Instagram knowledge, I ventured to Please and Thank You to document my findings. “I’ll have a large lemon ginseng tea and a Curious Bagel,” I said, before snagging a seat at the long black table by the window. I began scrolling through my social media feeds-- research for this article, right?-- but looked up to see my order waiting on the counter: almost green tea with thin spirals of steam wafting from the cup and a halved bagel-- a thick, toasted every seed bagel with cream cheese, peppadew, red onion, cracked pepper, and a drizzle of vibrant apricot jam.

    Then it hit me. I grabbed my scarf to clean my lens and maneuvered a few poppy seeds off the plate. Clean plate and lens: check. I slid my plate towards the window, then away from it, and then finally moved—crouching by the table to get the perfect angle, complete with a view of the countertop in the background. Lighting, positioning and content: check, check, check. 

    I snapped, and then snapped again— this time straight down at the bagel— for good measure, before finally taking a bite. #Nomnomnom

    It’s deceptively simple, but it’s a start. 

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    Ashlie Danielle Stevens's picture

    About Ashlie Danielle Stevens

    I am a freelance food, arts and culture writer. Among other publications, my work has appeared at The Atlantic’s CityLab, Eater, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, Hyperallergic and National Geographic’s food blog, The Plate.

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