The art of plating has gone hand-in-hand with the craft of cooking for ages, but presentation is more important as ever in the restaurant world. The reason why can be summed up with a simple, yet alluring phrase: free marketing.

As rude as it may be at times, guests that obsessively photograph their food at the table are essentially handing you cash every time they snap and share a picture. Social media marketing can cost you big time; CPM [cost per mil, or cost per thousand impressions] may only be a few dollars, but think about how often guests can share photos of your food, to all of their friends and followers. If you want to reach the same number of people, those dollars add up fast.

With this in mind, some restaurants may want to encourage people to post their food photos on social media. There’s a few fun ways to do this…

Make your food beautiful.

Seems like a no-brainer, but food that’s pleasing to the eye will not only be viewed as more delicious, but will inspire guests to take out those smartphones. No ingredient changes needed; all that may need to be done is some simple rearrangements on the plate. Follow some simple steps to do this:

1. Choose one menu item that you want to change. 

2. Conduct a basic image search for that same menu item and assess presentation methods.

3. Of the presentation methods you like, assess the one that best boosts visual appeal while remaining feasible for your kitchen staff to execute.

4. Train your staff to prepare the item under these new standards.

5. Repeat the process with additional items as needed.

Add color, depth and height.

Just like any piece of artwork, food is enhanced with color. Radishes, carrots and herbs are easy ways to add vivid color to many savory dishes. A contrasting sauce, dabs of oil across the plate or a smear of spread are more common practices that chefs employ.

Depth and height are catalysts for social media-worthy food. Fries stacked log cabin-style, rack of lamb with crisscrossed bones and sandwiches with one half peeking over the other are all methods to add something special to traditionally two-dimensional items.

Use interesting plates and glassware.

If you’re in the market for these materials, you may consider spicing things up beyond the basic circular plate and tumbler glass. Serving items that allow photos to capture more food and less ceramic are always preferable. Asymmetrical bowls, for example, can help capture photos of soup and salad. Specialty cocktails in specialty glasses command a premium presence. 

Keep aspect ratios in mind.

For the non-photographer, aspect ratio is the photo’s width-to-height ratio. Instagram, for example, works using square photos, or a 1:1 aspect ratio. This means that ‘rectangular’ items, such as three sliders and a basket of fries presented in one long row, are difficult to fit within the frame. A chef may want to consider presenting the sliders in a triangular pattern with the fries in the center or on one side. 

Beer flights are another example. Bars will often serve beers in one long row, whereas shifting to a more square display cold capture more of the product in a shot. 

Own a hashtag.

Perhaps most important in your efforts to create a social media buzz is being able to monitor the results. How else are you going to know if the time and energy you’re dedicating is paying off? Come up with a hashtag and promote it around your restaurant—entryway, menus, table tents, receipts and other touch points are all prime real estate. Keep the following in mind when creating a hashtag.

• Hashtags should be short and easy to spell and remember. #RestaurantABCManhattanBeachCalifornia may accurately describe you, but not too many people will take the time to type out this long of a hashtag.

• On the other hand, your hashtag should be unique. #Burger, for example, is way too general and will gather tons of unwanted posts.

By encouraging guests to use your hashtag when posting, they’re self-sorting their posts directly into a virtual folder that you can open up and monitor whenever you want. This approach to marketing is free and convenient…not a common find. 

Then there’s the idea of creating social media contests to promote this marketing effort even further. That, however, is a conversation for another time.