Wall decor @ Squish Marshmallows. Photo by Aakriti Thapar. Wall

Eating in the Instagram Era

Aakriti Thapar
7 min readJan 8, 2018

The social media platform has revolutionized the way desserts are curated

Bag in one hand, phone and ice cream precariously balanced in the other, a customer walks out of an ice cream parlor holding a fish-shaped cone. In a couple of seconds, her ice cream will start melting. She quickly takes a photo to upload to Instagram using the hashtag “eatingfortheinsta.”

This is a common sight at dessert shops in the city, which are creating complex looking dishes that appeal to the millennial audience on Instagram. The shops are decorated to serve as picture perfect backgrounds, and to enhance the aesthetics of the photographs.

Jimmy Chen, 23, co-founder of Taiyaki NYC, explains that a dessert’s presentation is very important. Customers come to his shop after they see Instagram pictures.

“We live in a golden millennial and social media age, where FOMO (an internet abbreviation for ‘fear of missing out’) is real.”

Denise Purcell, 47, Head of content at Specialty Food Association says that recently, there has been a great increase in the number of specialty dessert shops.

“Instagram drives a lot of food trends. Food is made out of unexpected ingredients like turmeric, beet, and the popular pink pineapples because they are share worthy. People are always trying to top the next thing,” Purcell said. She said that there is a greater palate for taste and flavor adventure now.

Instagram, a photo sharing medium is the second most popular social media platform in the United States behind its owner, Facebook, as per World Economic Forum data. It only took Instagram seven years to get this big.

As of date, Instagram has 800 million monthly active users. Brands are using this free platform to connect with younger audiences.

Taiyaki NYC, a shop located in the heart of ChinaTown and Little Italy, sells more than 400 fish-shaped ice cream cones daily, in a variety of American and Japanese flavors. The parlor’s in-house team that clicks all their photographs, has managed to amass a following of 54,900 users on Instagram.

One of their most popular ice creams is a “unicorn Taiyaki” that costs eight dollars.

Unicorns dominated social media in 2017, and a food trend list by Specialty Food Association called this “a deluge of rainbow and unicorn foods.” Starbucks which has 15.7 million Instagram followers, created a unicorn latte in response to the trend.

Unicorn Ice cream @ Taiyaki NYC. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

Co-owner Chen said they created their own version of the unicorn trend which was rolled out to customers only after they perfected the aesthetics of a swirl of strawberry pink and vanilla white ice cream dotted with colorful sprinkles, complete with fondant ears and a horn.

Wowfulls was a pop-up store in Smorgasurg Brooklyn market before opening in East Village in March 2017. The shop sells Hong Kong egg waffles known as “Gai Dan Jai”. These crispy on the outside and sweet and soft on the inside waffles cost 8 dollars. Their Instagram account boasts of 35,400 followers.

“Ninety percent is how the product tastes, and ten percent is presentation. But that ten percent is key, because it will make you try the ninety percent and the ninety percent is what will bring you back,” said David Chan, 29, co-founder of Wowfulls.

Bubble Waffle @ Wowfulls. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

Sophia Hanover, 13, a school student in New York, found Wowfulls on Instagram. “Desserts have to be pretty so that we can post pictures.” She ordered a pumpkin spice waffle with double cookies and cream ice cream.

Katherine Sprung, 32, clicks photographs herself and uses Instagram to promote her brand Squish Marshmallows which has 24,400 followers. She started selling online 3 years ago and in 2016, she opened a store in East Village.

Wall decor @ Squish Marshmallows. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

Sprung stays away from “grotesque over-the-top looking desserts.” “Desserts made for shock value are outlandish and cool and they may grab people’s attention, but if they taste bad, customers are not going to come back,” Sprung said.

Marshmallow Donut @ Squish Marshmallows. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

Donuts made of marshmallows, a specialty at the shop cost four dollars and “Birthday marshmallows”, white marshmallows toasted and topped with sprinkles cost nine dollars for six.

Rebecca Rosenthal, 28, started ‘Becky’s Bites’ four years ago. Her cream cheese bite-sized treats became an instant hit among foodies. She says she connects with food bloggers, because they access to the market she is trying to reach.

Bite sized Cream cheese treat @ Becky’s Bites. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

“Its a fun and unique product. And when others post photos, it just legitimizes it,” Rosenthal said.

Instagram Wall Corner @ Becky’s Bites. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

Food specialist Purcell says that influencers play a role in shaping social media trends.

Dayna Bloom, 28, is a social media influencer who has a popular Instagram account called “artsandfood_nyc” that has 25,100 Instagram followers. “Some ‘Instagrammable’ dishes have way too much cheese and butter, but they look beautiful on camera. Whether you and I like it or not, that’s the name of the game.”

Alexa Mehraban, 26, is an influencer whose account, “Eatingnyc” has over 290,000 followers and was named by Adweek as one of the top 30 most influential people in food in 2016.

Alexa says that reviewing food has changed. “People have lost patience. They just want information and a visual. There are so many blogs and restaurants today, and the market is saturated. Its not just about food porn, its about creating a voice and a brand.”

Amidst this Instagram blitz, there are dessert shops that still use word of mouth to gain new customers.

115 year old Glaser’s Bake Shop stands on 87th Street and1st Avenue.

Pies @ Glaser’s Bake Shop. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

On entering the store, customers are greeted with the smell of warm homemade pies. Baked goods are stored in a transparent baker’s window and there is an open kitchen on the side where Herb Glaser, the co-owner and baker, ices cakes and bakes cookies.

Glaser says they don’t make fancy baked goods because they are expensive and time-consuming. He is not worried about losing customers to new-age dessert shops because he thinks there is enough business for everyone.

Herb Glasser. Co-owner/Baker @ Glaser’s Bake Shop. Photo by Aakriti Thapar

Joel Roffman, 66, a customer at the shop said, “I would say that the most important thing is the people behind the counters.” Roffman had brought his granddaughter to meet the salesgirl of the bakeshop.They bought ginger snaps, cookies, and mini apple pies.

In the Instagram age, the demand for food related jobs has greatly increased.

Evi Abeler, 42, a food photographer says the presentation for social media has become “messier, moodier and grungier.”

Abeler has worked with brands who do a lot of research on the photographs that go up on Instagram. These images are tested with focal groups before they are uploaded.

Julia Choi, 32, a food stylist remarked, “With Instagram creating love and appreciation for food, people have realized that food styling can be an actual job.”

Kristin Stangl, 31, a food stylist says that everyone has to be mindful of aesthetics now.

“Even brands that have years of recognizability have to blend with the Instagram feel and make their images more poppy.”

She added that even a national corporation like Starbucks created a unicorn latte in response to the unicorn trend.

Competition with each other aside, these dessert creations are up against ice creams, America’s favorite dessert as announced by Yahoo Food and Vision Critical in a 2015 study. With Instagram introducing new features, the possibilities of advertising and marketing on the platform are endless. Even spirit brands have now started advertising on Instagram.

The Specialty Food Association put out a list of “The top 10 food trends to watch out for.” Denise Purcell, Head of content at Specialty Food Association says the latest trend is the visually impactful “black food,” items made of coconut ash and activated charcoal that has become extremely popular. She thinks this in response to the unicorn and brightly colored food that was a huge trend this year.

Instagram Poll Results: The verdict

I ran a poll on my Instagram profile ‘@aakriti.thapar’ asking followers three questions related to my article. Here are the results:

  1. Your preference?
    Desserts for Instagram (desserts that look great) versus desserts that taste great.
46 people (42.5%) voted for looks and 62 ( 57.4 %) voted for taste.

2. Have you tried a dessert because you have seen a photo of it on Instagram?

3. Do you try desserts based on what food bloggers upload?

While most people chose taste over looks, 67% of people said they have tried a dessert based on an Instagram photo. The balance seems to be tipping at the center when it comes to trusting the word of bloggers.

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