Category: Food for Thought

17- Dec2018
Posted By: David McCallum

Quality is the Secret Sauce!

Scenario: A charming foodservice consultant (ahem) audit’s an operation and finds that the food quality is not where it needs to be, but your customers will not tolerate a substantial price increase. For some, these two problems are diametrically opposed. How can prices stay low while simultaneously increasing quality? Of course, in a large, complex operation there are frequently all manner of inefficiencies that can be eliminated to reduce costs, but for now we will examine the two most direct contributors to this problem: food and labor cost.

 All too often, when a food service provider is asked to improve the quality of their offerings, their reaction is to go “gourmet”. Customers don’t want to buy my turkey and swiss sandwich? They’ll love my turkey, goat cheese, pesto, and sundried tomato sandwich on cornbread!!! The truth of the matter is, if you start with a poor base product, no amount of layering toppings and condiments onto it will make those ingredients good. If you start with a great base product, every ingredient that you add can actually lose more customers than you gain. Rather than trying to create a Dagwood Frankenstein abomination, operators are much better suited to focus on the basics. That means using great bread, turkey and cheese, and handling those ingredients properly. Bad burgers? Rather than putting onion rings, barbecue sauce and chili on top of it, why not focus on the quality of the ground beef and bun? Suffering from terrible tacos? What’s in your tortilla?

For the purpose of comparison, let’s take a look at a burger that gets mediocre reviews. This basic burger features a 5oz patty made from distributor-bought ground chuck, a 1oz slice of American cheese and a basic white bun. At $3.50 a pound for the ground beef, $3 a pound for generic cheese and a $.35 white burger bun, the cost of this burger would come in at $1.63.Targeting 28% food cost, you would need to charge $5.82.

 To make this burger more popular, you could add two strips of bacon ($.70 cents cost), avocado ($.50 cost) and garlic aioli ($.25 cents cost), which would bring the total food cost to $3.08 at a price of $11 for the customer. By contrast, you could get a great potato bun for an extra $.30 cents and a high-quality cheddar for an extra $.19…but what about the ground beef?

 Grind it yourself. Seriously. JGL has clients that serve thousands of customers per day who grind their own beef, in-house every day,and there are lots of benefits. From a financial perspective, it’s a lot cheaper.That $3.50 a pound ground chuck is about $2.00 a pound if you buy a whole chuck round. You can save even more, and make a better-quality burger, if you use the trim from your steaks in the blend. If you’re required to serve your burgers medium-well, you could use hard fat like suet in your 80/20 blend which won’t drain away onto the grill like soft fat, preserving the burger’s juiciness and saving another $1 a pound for that portion of the burger. The product cost of your custom burger patty is now $.59, as oppose to $1.09 for the pre-ground beef. It is also a safer product because factory ground meat is a much bigger risk for food-borne illness than properly in-house ground.

 But what about the increased labor associated with grinding the beef? A competent employee making $12 an hour can grind and shape approximately 60 burgers per hour, bringing the labor cost to an additional$.20 per burger and adding $.60 to the burger’s price, bringing the overall cost of the burger to $6.54.

 Here’s the best part…it doesn’t just work for burgers! Why use expensive, high end deli meats when you can cook off your own turkey, ham or roast beef for a fraction of the product cost and virtually no associated labor? Why use frozen fries when real potatoes are half the price per pound and quickly dispatched on a potato slicer?

 At a time when minimum wages are on the rise, the popular sentiment is that labor must be cut back, but what it really means is that labor must be used efficiently. Shifting funds from buying products pre-made to making things in house, especially by utilizing slow periods during the day before and after peak service times, gives the operation more control over the quality of the product without substantial increases in over-all cost…and in some cases, it can even save you money! Don’t pay another company’s employees to make your food, invest in your own staff and it will pay dividends both now and down the road.

26- Nov2018
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

What is your favorite museum restaurant?

I wrote an earlier blog about how I routinely dodge the question about “my favorite restaurant”. Add the word museum to that question and I will gladly give you a list. Going from West Coast to East Coast below are my recommendations for museum restaurants I love and those I still want to visit. I have denoted the projects we worked on with an asterisk.

  • Sunday at the Museum at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco – Newly opened this year, Sunday at the Museum has received nods from the NY Times and others. * note JGL worked on this project but has yet to visit since it opened 🙁
  • Wise Sons at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco – Amazing smoked trout salad and great alignment. Enough said.
  • In Situ at SF MOMA in San Francisco- Chef Corey Lee has created an homage to famous chefs of all times.
  • Otium at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles – On my list to visit based on the rave reviews I have read!
  • Esker Grove at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis – Offering creative cuisine celebrating seasonal ingredients with a seasonal outdoor terrace, this restaurant is effortlessly cool. * JGL project.
  • Fika at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis – The well- crafted menu in this hidden gem makes for some difficult decisions.
  • Marisol at the MCA in Chicago – Marisol has a great vibe with an eclectic mix of ladies who lunch, business people, families and twenty somethings. Their sunflower seed hummus is delish!
  • Terzo Piano at the Art Institute in Chicago – Beautiful food in a gorgeous setting. * JGL project.
  • Café Modern at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth – Elegant a la carte setting with a focus on seasonal, local and artisanal offerings.
  • Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC – Great aligned and exposure to so many new delicious foods.
  • The Source at the Newseum in Washington DC – This perennially popular Wolfgang Puck restaurant never disappoints.
  • Rats Restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton NJ – An entirely magical experience particularly if you go during the temperate months and enjoy the grounds before or after your meal. * JGL project.
  • Flora Bar at the Met Breuer in New York – This lower level space is gorgeous; Chef Ignacio Mattos seems to have the Midas touch. * JGL project.
  • Morgan Dining Room at the Morgan Library in New York – This intimate dining room hearkens back to the Gilded Age and is a special treat for lunch. * JGL project
  • The Modern at MOMA in New York – While anybody who knows me has heard me say the Modern is not really a museum restaurant, more simply a great restaurant that happens to be connected to the museum but nonetheless this list would not be complete without its presence!
  • Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie in New York – This restaurant is so well aligned with the mission of the Neue; you can’t imagine one without the other.
  • Verde at the Perez Art Museum in Miami – This restaurant has a fresh and creative menu, great staff, and amazing views. *JGL project.Let me know if I have missed any of your favorites. Stay tuned – some exciting openings on the way in 2019!

The celeriac and goat cheese profiterole plate with tomato and parsley served at In Situ at SFMOMA in San Francisco, Calif.



Sunday at the Museum

26- Oct2018

To be, or not to be….Exclusive!

Many institutions that have an exclusive operator (in a market where both preferred and exclusive operations are the norm) often wonder if the financial return would be greater if they had a preferred list of caterers. This is a big question that does not have a black or white answer. This blog will focus on giving you some ‘food for thought’ if this is something your organization is considering.

Below is a chart that outlines the main differentiators of  an exclusive operator and a preferred vendor list. The chart clearly illustrates the differences between the two models and the expectations that come with each.

Main Points Preferred List Exclusive Partner
Commission Returns Moderate Increased
Discounting for Internal Events Moderate Increased
Marketing Commitment Moderate Increased
Operational Involvement from the Venue Liaison Increased Moderate
Potential Investment in the Venue Moderate Increased
Variety of Price Points Increased Not Applicable
Wear and Tear on the Venue Increased Moderate

*The chart assumes that the preferred list is limited in nature and does not exceed more than 4 caterers.

The primary argument for a preferred list  is  to allow clients the freedom to choose their vendor. In theory, having a variety of caterers offers clients the ability to select from varying price points and styles. However, many caterers are working hard to offer tiered menu options so that they can appeal to a more diverse audience. Typically, caterers are very interested in securing exclusive venues as it provides consistent business for their company. Below are the top six reasons a venue might consider an exclusive model:

  1. Investment – A caterer is more likely to invest in a project that ensures their exclusivity.
  2. Internal Pricing Structure – Exclusive arrangements often include pricing consideration for internal events.
  3. Commission Return – An exclusive caterer will provide a stronger commission offer on food and beverage sales to an exclusive partner.
  4. Our Organization Wants a Café or Restaurant – Most cultural café or restaurants are purely an amenity and are not profit generators. Typically, an operator is more interested in managing a retail outlet when catering is guaranteed.
  5. Less Wear and tear on the Venue & Staff – If the caterer is in the building all of the timer, they know the ropes!
  6. Marketing Power – A caterer will work hard to promote your venue to potential clients if they are exclusive. (Why should they promote the venue for other caterers to get the work!

Deciding to go exclusive or preferred is a decision that is embedded in the larger goals of the institution. How important is increasing earned income to the organization? Is an amenity café an important element of your future vision?

Either way, utilizing your venue for external events and collecting commissions on food and beverage sales (from one or more caterers) is a powerful tool for increasing earned income.

If you would like to learn more about this topic as it relates to your organization, please email for a complimentary consultation.

27- Sep2018
Posted By: David McCallum

Your mission, should they choose to accept it…

One of the most important factors in choosing a foodservice provider for a cultural institution is identifying a concept that is aligned with the mission and aesthetic of that institution. Full disclosure…this is also my favorite part of the process. No matter the purpose of your organization, whether you are a music venue that focuses on 16th century Italian madrigals or a museum dedicated to the history of barber shops, you deserve a food program that not only provides a quality product at a reasonable price, but one that serves as an extension of the overall experience that your team has worked so hard to create.


Once JGL has conducted our initial study process to really nail down what all of the various stakeholders of an organization are looking for in a new or renovated food program, we work hard to create an RFP that is not only clear and informative, but one that is exciting and imbued with the passion and purpose of the institution we represent. We seek out partners that share those passions, vendors who don’t just mass-produce food for maximum profit, but those who are constantly driven to innovate and who treat our client’s mission as though it were their own.


When JGL has identified a solid group of potential foodservice providers, no matter how carefully constructed the RFP, there is still a lot of work to be done to get Romulan Ale and Butterbeer on tap at the new Sci-Fi museum. Small operators are often willing to be extremely flexible and creative but have more limited resources to invest. Larger national companies frequently have tremendous time and resources to devote to a new client, but they can also have pre-packaged fast casual concepts that they are looking to drop into as many locations as possible because profit is most easily achieved through economies of scale. Larger companies also have national purchasing programs and layers of off-site approvals that are necessary to make even modest changes. If you release an RFP and don’t get the exact response you’re looking for, is that the end? Do you just take the best of what is offered? Do you need to start the whole process over again?


Submission of an RFP response is the beginning of the process, not the end. Sometimes a respondent is so focused on trying to show you who they are that they fail to demonstrate who they can be. An RFP process can be a tremendous learning experience for all involved. I recently led an RFP process which required proficiency in an extremely rare style of food that virtually no professional foodservice provider has experience with. Through the process, we all learned and grew together and it culminated in a grand tasting that was authentic but modern. Not only did our client find an incredible, unique concept and operator, but even those candidates who were not chosen walked away from the experience feeling incredibly positive. More than one commented that they didn’t know they had it in them.


Foodservice in cultural institutions has become an expected amenity and pre-packaged turkey sandwiches just don’t cut it anymore. Patrons are looking for an immersive experience. That attention to detail can pay all sorts of dividends from higher check averages and guest satisfaction to increased length of stay and more. How does your foodservice line up with the rest of your operation? If you are unsure, or think you might be ready for a change, or just want to chat about it, take advantage of JGL’s passion for the arts by taking advantage of our free consultation, available anytime you are. We are ready to take on your mission.



04- Sep2018
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

What Is Your Favorite Restaurant?

As a food service consultant, I cannot count the number of times someone has asked me “What is your favorite restaurant?” My colleagues know that is a question I struggle with and generally do not answer. In our foodie culture I feel like it is a loaded question; the person asking the question will undoubtedly read something into my response. Will the wrong answer diminish my street cred? Do I name one of last year’s hot new restaurants (oh she is hopelessly out of date), do I name the great neighborhood bistro (oh I had an awful burger there) or do I name the great new Izakaya (oh what an architectural nightmare). The truth is there are so many restaurants opening daily that I rarely go somewhere multiple times.

I think “What is your favorite restaurant” might be a fair question for a food critic, but even then the answer is going to undoubtedly reflect some bias or personal taste. The fact is there are thousands of restaurants in New York City alone. JGL has worked in more than 31 states; keeping up with all openings nationwide would require a small army.

The other reason I struggle with the question is you can ask ten people about the exact same dining experience and you will get ten different perspectives. While there are certainly a number of universally highly acclaimed restaurants, there are many more that have a mixture of fans and non-fans alike. That is one of the reasons I caution my clients not to place tremendous emphasis on the tasting element of a restaurateur selection process. Food taste and presentation is certainly very important but there are so many other considerations.

As a food service consultant, I am concerned with helping my clients optimize their food service operations in whatever shape that may take. Frequently, that may take the form of an RFP or operator selection process (which may lead to the aforementioned question). Whether or not my team members or I like a particular restaurant is really one of the least important elements of a selection. The most important elements are the fit, alignment with client needs and goals, and financial terms. So, next time we meet be prepared for me to artfully dodge the question “What is your favorite restaurant”!

09- Aug2018

An External Event Is One Big Cultivation Effort

When a cultural organization uses its space for third-party events, it’s opening its doors to a world of potential donors. I started my career working as a political fundraiser helping a New York City elected official run for re-election. It was an amazing experience that gave me a solid foundation in event planning and development. Once the candidate I was working for was re-elected and there was no need for campaign staff any longer, I secured a position in the development office of a Manhattan Museum. My background was in theatre so working in an arts-focused environment felt like a natural fit.

After a few years, there was a need for additional staff in the Facility Rental Department. I was transferred over to help develop a marketing strategy and build the business. As I reflect back, I am very impressed that twelve years ago Museum leadership saw the need to focus this type of attention on facility rental marketing.

After transitioning to the new department, I was struck that there wasn’t greater integration between the Development Department and Facility Rentals. As a consultant working with cultural institutions across the nation, I am surprised at the gap that still exists between the two departments.

Interdepartmental logistics meetings are often done at museums so that everyone is aware of all of the moving parts in a given week or month. It seems that even if Facility Rentals reports to a department other than Development, the Facility Rental staff person should be attending Development staff meetings on a monthly basis to review inquiries, potential leads, and upcoming booked events. More likely than not, there are connections that can be made. If the communication does not exist between these two departments, opportunities will be lost.

Technology also plays a big part in keeping these two departments divided. The database systems that are used for fundraising have event functions, but do not generally apply to the facility rental business. It doesn’t make much sense to purchase separate software for facility rentals that does not integrate with the rest of the organization. Therefore, many Facility Rental Departments are capturing data in excel spreadsheets and not necessarily cross-referencing leads with the institutions database.

Some institutions require a membership in order to host an event at the venue. I am not so sure this is the best way to develop a relationship that has longevity and doesn’t disappear following the event. The candidate I worked for years ago was known for her incredible fundraising abilities; she told me the secret to success was building trust; people don’t give money to those they don’t trust. I think the possibility of an event client contributing to an institution once they have developed a sense of trust with the staff and an emotional connection to the space is great.

So, how do you turn an event client into a donor? The follow up strategy is paramount in moving the relationship to the next level. For example, if a couple gets married at the venue, they should be gifted a free membership for the year following their wedding. If the institution has a restaurant on site, send the couple a voucher for complimentary champagne on their anniversary. It is important to continue reinforcing the emotional connection that the individuals have with the institution and in turn, the mission.

Renting space for third-party events has proven to be profitable for many institutions across the globe. The next step in continuing to develop successful rental programs for not for profit organizations will be achieving the delicate balance in transitioning clients to becoming active donors. I look forward to watching the importance of facility rentals in cultural institutions continue to evolve!

23- Jul2018
Posted By: David McCallum

Value in Passionate Partnerships

When JGL guides our clients through an RFP process, some of the primary qualities we look for in a foodservice provider are a willingness to be a true partner and a passion for the mission of the cultural institution. As a former operator, I would frequently look at what resources I could bring to bear and try to determine ways that I could use the F&B program to support my client’s mission. I would also work closely with my cultural institution’s Development department and leverage our buying power to solicit large donations for the museum. We might agree to exclusively sell a particular lemonade for a pre-determined period of time in exchange for a $25,000 donation to the museum. For the vendor, they may not make that $25,000 back in direct profit and most cultural institutions will not allow them to display extensive marketing materials, but what I was really leveraging was the opportunity to associate their brand with an iconic cultural institution. If I was working on a P&L financial model, the decision to carry that particular lemonade might not be the most potentially profitable, but it was an invaluable investment in my client relationship.

At a recent Hollywood Bowl performance of Verdi’s “Otello,” the foodservice operating team of Sodexo and the Lucques Group were hosting one of their bi-weekly wine events called Somm Sundays. This, combined with their Wednesday Winemaker series, offers complimentary wine tastings in the Bowl’s Plaza Marketplace prior to performances. The series, curated by James Beard’s Outstanding Restaurateur winner Caroline Styne, offers patrons the chance to sample wines from smaller, artisanal winemakers from across the region. This is a prime example of a foodservice provider leveraging their vendor relationships to craft a unique guest experience. This gesture enhances the overall value of the ticket price for the concert, while creating an opportunity to generate additional wine sales with little monetary investment from either the foodservice provider or the cultural institution because the sample wines are generally provided by the winemakers.

When I was General Manager of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), my team created a series of pop-up dinners to support the widely popular Stanley Kubrick exhibition. We would host these dinners each night before Kubrick film screenings. We transformed our small café into a fine dining room for the evening and served a five course prix fix dinner uniquely inspired by each film. For example, this pork roulade mimic’s the iconic obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Prior to the screening of the newest Danny Boyle film, we executed five courses based around his oeuvre, including this Scotch egg with a beet sauce pipet inspired by his film Trainspotting:

Were these dinners highly profitable? No. Frankly, they were a tremendous amount of work for relatively little return, but the benefits were remarkable. The dinners received ebullient press coverage for the museum and gave our guests a truly unique, memorable artistic experience that they warmly associated with our client. It also gave our café staff a chance to be incredibly creative and show that they could stand toe to toe with the best of Los Angeles. It gave my front of house retail staff a chance to make some good tip money to supplement their normal hourly wage and it gave me a chance to cross train them so that they could fill in at our fine dining restaurant when needed. Most importantly, it was an opportunity for my team to show our client that our number one focus was on our shared mission.

There are myriad ways to earn far more money with far less work than operating foodservice in cultural institutions. If your foodservice provider isn’t passionate about your mission and isn’t going above and beyond for you every day; if they aren’t actively seeking out new, innovative, mutually beneficial ways to support your institution’s reason for existing; if the only thing that they are doing is providing food…it might be time to find a better partner.

09- Jul2018
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

Reflections on Irish Food Service

Freshly back from an eight day tour of Ireland (too short), I found some of the food and beverage facilities and practices I encountered unique and worthy of comment. My family is accustomed to being dragged into every cultural institution we pass during our travels to check out the food services; this trip was no different. In Dublin, there were a few cafés I wanted to visit and I was lucky enough to happen upon several of them and more during our explorations on foot. So, in no particular order here we go.

  1. The labeling and identification of common allergens on Irish menus is uniformly well done. Utilizing a numbered system (wheat is #1), almost all menu items are followed by a series of numbers which indicate the allergens in each dish. Restaurants without such detailed menus generally indicated they could tailor most dishes to be allergen free.
  2. Gluten free bread is provided at almost every dinning establishment once a diner self identifies as gluten free. As the mother of a daughter with celiac, I know my daughter feels like she is missing out when bread is delivered for the rest of the table. In Ireland, she was delivered her own basket of bread everywhere we went. Granted, it was usually store made gluten free loaf bread (yuck) but she enjoyed it and felt included which is what counts.
  3. After years of telling clients in performing arts centers that pre-ordered drinks were much more popular in Europe I finally understand why. A visit to the National Concert Hall in Dublin revealed a series of drink cubbyholes. Each custom built box could accommodate 32 individual orders. The drink cubbyholes were placed strategically throughout the hall and each cubby had a unique letter/number combination. Just as a patron has a pre-assigned seat (Row R seat 10), the drink cubbies create a pre-assigned drink location (cubby A-16). When I returned home, I was inspired to do some more research about European performing arts center pre-order programs. I was pleased to learn that institutions are developing on-line programs and apps specifically designed for pre-ordering. The National Theatre in the UK is a great example of an institution that is embracing technology and food services as a vital part of their programming efforts ( This side of the pond needs to needs to follow their lead!
  4. I saw many great examples of what appeared to be very well trafficked cultural institution cafes in somewhat out of the way locations. From the Film Center Café (with no street signage) to the café at Kilmainham Gaol (2nd floor rear of building), I saw great examples of cafes in less than ideal locations. Virtually all of these busy cafes, even the most casual, served food and beverage on permanent ware and only used disposables for to go orders.
  5. As a corollary to #4, I also saw a number of small coffee kiosks/cafés in areas that appeared to have no natural foot traffic. Most of these kiosks were staffed with one person and had a limited menu; several were located on a random side street or other out of the way locations.
  6. Online reservation systems are not as prevalent. I had to call three of the five restaurants to confirm or make reservations. While several had an online inquiry form, none of the online inquiries garnered a response!
  7. Service was good but not quite as sophisticated as the US. At the end of each meal, we always needed to ask for the bill even when we were clearly finished.
  8. We appreciated the smaller portion sizes of most entrées (pub food excepted)
  9. Finally, don’t let anyone tell you the food in Ireland is not good. We had some excellent meals along the way. Reach out if you’d like a recommendation!

    Drink Cubby
27- Jun2018

Art, Food, and the Museum – It All Comes Together at the Art Institute of Chicago

Tracy and I were just in Chicago working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While in the Windy City, we were able to visit the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). JGL worked with the Art Institute years ago (before my time with the company) to develop an assessment prior to the building of the Modern Wing. Tracy and I both were incredibly impressed with the thoughtful detail given to the visitor experience. Kudos to the AIC visitor services team for developing clear and direct wayfinding! We were also incredibly impressed with the AIC’s dedication to marketing food services throughout the Museum.  Rack cards detailing food outlet options were easily found near every entrance or information desk, the restaurant was promoted on a scrolling screen above the ticketing desk and much of the signage throughout the space included an arrow pointing towards one of the three food service outlets; Terzo Piano, Caffe Moderno and the Museum Café. It is clear that the partnership between AIC and Bon Appetit (the Museum’s exclusive food service operator) is very strong and like-minded.

The AIC’s Museum Café is located on the lower level; not an ideal location for any retail outlet; however, AIC has managed to overcome this challenge with great signage, interesting seating options and artful décor. Bon Appetit developed an airy and welcoming space that offers an artistic culinary experience as well as a functional amenity.

Also located on the lower level is the AIC donor’s lounge. A donor lounge can be a tricky concept. This space should offer donors an exclusive experience, but should also be a visible amenity so potential donors are intrigued and inspired to join. AIC accomplished all of this very simply; the dining space for the café and the donor lounge are separated by a bar that has the ability to serve both sides. The donor lounge entrance is staffed with a greeter; this adds an extra sense of exclusivity to the experience. Complimentary coffee and tea are available during the day in the lounge. Comfortable furniture is available (in addition to bar seating) for patrons to relax, reflect and enjoy the benefits of being a member of the AIC. If I lived in Chicago, I would definitely want to be a member!

The Museum’s fine dining restaurant concept, Terzo Piano, is located on the third level of the Modern Wing. It is a beautiful space that offers guests a sophisticated experience, expansive views and a lovely menu! We did not have time to dine at Terzo Piano, but it is definitely on the list for our next trip.

The third food outlet is Caffe Moderno. This lovely casual dining option is on the second level of the Modern Wing and overlooks Griffin Court. The space has communal and individual seating. The individual seating is ‘cubby like’. Each seat has a desk space (with outlets for charging personal devices) and a partition to ensure privacy.  The ‘library cubical’ idea was unique and made for an efficient use of space.

In addition to marketing food service upon arrival, it should be noted that the AIC website includes an informative dining section allowing guests the option to plan in advance. Finding information about renting spaces for private events is also easily accessible in the dining section. This type of continuous exposure and promotion is crucial to the success of any museum dining operation!

The JGL team gets very excited when we see an organization incorporate food services into the fabric of the institution. Well done AIC and Bon Appetit….keep up the good work!

08- Jun2018
Posted By: David McCallum

Food Photography 101

JGL would like to dedicate this to the late Anthony Bourdain, his friends and family. Like so many in our industry, he struggled, but like so many in our industry, he spent the time that he had inspiring us to look beyond our own backyards, to experience other cultures and reach new levels of understanding of what it means to be human. Thank you, Mr. Bourdain, for reminding us that food is a universal language that pierces rhetoric and reveals the soul. You are already missed. RIP Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)


“If I put up an Instagram photo of, just hypothetically, me and the Dalai Lama and Keith Richards in a hot tub… I’ll get 5,000 likes in an hour. If I put up, and I have done this, I put up just a picture of an In-N-Out burger sitting on a table in isolation in an anonymous room, I’ll get 50,000 passionate likes and comments in like 10 minutes. It’s incredible, because people relate to certain foods and feel strongly about them.” Anthony Bourdain


We live in a new day and age where social media dominates our social and political structure.  According to PEW Research center, by 2017, 81% of American’s now have a social media profile. According to estimates the number of worldwide social media users reached 1.96 billion and is expected to grow to over 2.5 billion in 2018. Surprisingly, many of those new social media consumers were not millennial’s. PEW found that 55% of American’s 50 or older regularly consumed their daily news from social media.

Which begs the question, if social media is the key to how we as a people decide to consume our information, then perhaps it is logical to ascertain that this is also the inevitable doorway in which customers will choose their next restaurant experience. Yet, according to Gerard Murphy, director of product at TripAdvisor Restaurants, nearly half of U.S. restaurateurs reported spending less than 10% of their time on marketing activities. Meanwhile, 94% of restaurateurs reported monitoring their business reputations online “several times a week.” 13% of those restaurants reported paying for a professional reputation monitoring service. When speaking to restaurateurs it was evident that most establishments were more focused on defending their reputations than actively promoting it. Perhaps a shift in strategy is needed. It’s time restaurateurs embraced social media and directed their own online presence and narrative. After all, within that same study TripAdvisor discovered that establishment’s which had “extensive decision-driven content” online along with one single photo experienced up to 44% more interest and interaction with future diners.

So, how does one begin to take control of their establishment’s online presence? The answer is simple, let the food speak for itself.

In this blog, you will learn some quick tips and professional tricks of the trade that will give you “Instagram worthy” food photography that will motivate customers to visit your establishment.  The best part is, you can achieve high end, artistic results with the simple use of an everyday smartphone.

Step One: Create a story. Channel your inner Spielberg by asking yourself:

– How do I want my customers to feel: cultured, sophisticated, cozy, neighborly, the rush of excitement from a foodie adventure?

– When people experience my restaurant or venue what basic human needs will be met?

– Who are my regular customers? Why do they keep coming back?

– What demographic of new customers do we wish to attract?

Asking yourself these valuable questions will guide you on what your photographic objective will be. It’s important to note that future and recurring customers on social media are motivated by their brains response to vibrant and exciting stimuli that entice new and exciting experiences.  Human beings love to feel connected to imagery that supports their optimal lifestyle. Your job is to appeal to their basic human desire to connect and convey a lasting cultural association on a deeply personal level to your food. Your images should inspire, motivate, and encourage them to visit again and again. No pressure.

Now how can you do all that? How do you make a simple picture of food an invitation? It’s easy! Cook great food and just add people. No, not to the food. Add a human element to your images.  For a more communal feel lend a hand, literally. A simple image of a chef’s hand holding up a dish conveys a casual and personable tone to your establishment. For a more sophisticated clientele, show a personable hand cutting into a perfectly executed pink, medium-rare steak. Cut into a slice of pie with a fork. Take a scoop of cobbler. Hold up that ice cream cone. Hand drizzle honey or maple syrup onto the plate. Leave the fork on the plate inviting your customers to dig in. Your job is to remind your customers of how good life can be if they just show up.

  • Step Two: The Right Surface

Where and what you place your food on in a photograph is as important as the food itself.  The right surface and background can set the tone and create added character to your food photography. Simple white bone china will not only act as a natural reflector and bounce the light back up onto your food, it won’t visually compete with it. Dark foods often pair well with dark backgrounds. Lighter foods often pair well with lighter backgrounds. However, rules are made to be broken.

Surfaces Pro Photographers Use: wood grain tables, chopping boards, textured tiles wrinkled up grocery bags, natural parchment paper, textured linens, and believe it or not, old distressed sheet pans. Old distressed sheet pans, with the right staging, may look hideous in person but photograph beautifully. They can add depth and rustic character to a pie or a casserole dish.

  • Step Three: Experiment

Play with your food. Does your food look a little bland? Fish, pasta, chicken, and bread can taste remarkably delicious but often photograph as a little too beige, boring, and uninspired. To fix this create a visual recipe by adding dry ingredients around your place setting.  Spice, chocolate chunks, berries, nuts, and fresh herbs can add a sense of creative whimsy to your images. Vibrant colors placed upon on bright plates, glassware, flowers or cooking utensils can also add a sense of immediacy and add a little kick to your design.


  • Step Four: Use Fresh from the Oven Food

Ok. Now that you’ve got a visual concept of what you would like to convey to your audience it’s now time to focus on the execution. The greatest advice one can ever receive about food photography is to take your time and shoot with fresh food. When prepping for an iphone photo shoot ask your chef to stretch. Do not let your staff serve all your dishes at once. If all the dishes are served at once the food will stagnate. The naked eye may not pick it up, but the camera will. Your goal is to photograph food at its optimal level. Your staff may gripe but spacing out each dish to photograph will be worth the wait. That is unless your concept is to have a visual feast upon a table. Then scratch what I just told you and tell your chef to bring it. “Game on.”


  • Step Five: Natural Light

Did you know that most of the food photography you see on the cover of your favorite gourmet cook books and the ever-so effortlessly perfect “Martha Stewart Living” magazine is shot purely in natural sunlight? No expensive lighting or fancy studio needed. In fact, the most state-of-the-art photography studio lighting equipment is carefully manufactured and built to synthesize the exact look and appearance of pure natural sunlight. Natural light gives a fresh and airy quality to portraits. However, artificial light, which appears normal to the naked eye, will often cast a subtle orange or yellow cast onto your image and underscore detail. That is why that late-night, indoor picture of your favorite dish never turns out quite right. So, instead of dishing out $50-$100 for a mini-studio box on ebay or, find a table near a window that will give you better results and keep that precious money in your pocket.


Sunlight is best when it is an indirect and diffused light. Which means overcast days or a table near a window are your new best friends. Too much direct sunlight will drown out detail and create harsh shadows. Yet, many people don’t know that shadows are just as important as light in portraits. A hint of shadow will give your image depth, drama and contrast. If the lighting near your window table is still too harsh, sheer curtains or a roll of wax paper from the kitchen cleverly tapped to the window are a perfect way to diffuse that bright mid-day sunlight.


*Tip: a photographer’s favorite time of day to shoot is during “golden hour” which is an hour before sunset. That’s when the sky gives off a soft and dreamy light. You can photograph great images at any time of day, but this is the hour when the world becomes magical.


*Tip #2: Don’t be a shadow! When photographing your subject, avoid placing yourself directly between your light source and your muse. Remember: with the light on your back, food looks flat. Light that is directed from one side, and/or behind your subject will create the perfect balance of light and shadow to create added drama and texture.


  • Step Six: Reflectors

Use a reflector. A reflector is a reflective surface that will simply bounce more multi-directional light back onto your subject. You can purchase a professional reflector kit online, or you can get the exact same result with a sheet of white paper, aluminum foil, or better yet, white foam-core poster board from your neighborhood Target. The only reason why photographers spend dubious amounts of money on shiny, white, circular reflector kits is because is simply looks more professional to the client.


Once you have your reflector, look where the direction of the light is heading. You want to “catch” that light and bounce it back onto your subject.  The usual placement for a bounce is directly opposite of your light source or placed between the subject and your camera. Photographers will also experiment with multiple reflectors to the side, in front of, and behind the subject.


*Tip: If you have an artificial light source compromising your image, either turn-off the all the lights or block the artificial light with a strategically placed black napkin, curtain, table-cloth, or poster-board. Get creative and either prop-up or ask a co-worker to hold them up to block that artificial light source.


  • Step Seven: Know Your Angles

Here are some classic go-to camera angles to try out.


-Birds Eye View

This angle is shot from above and looking down at your plate. It’s often best with pizza, sauces, soups, macaroni, etc.  This angle is often created by standing on a tall chair or simply staging your plate on the ground. *Do not let the customers or health department see you place a plate on the ground. It doesn’t matter if no one eats it later. It just won’t go well.


-Straight On

This shot is “head on” to one side. Best with Burgers, bread, cake, muffins, etc.


-The Hero Shot

This angle is slightly lower than “straight on.” Lower the camera slightly and angle your camera looking straight up at your food. This gives an everyday burger a very heroic look.


-Diagonally 45 Degree Angle

This is a top and side view on 45 degree angle. This is best with three dimensional food shapes and is the angle most often used.


-15 Degrees

This is best for cocktails and other tasty adult beverages. It’s an angle that is slightly higher than straight on. You see a little bit of the top and back of the glass.


Now you’re ready to hit Instagram with creative and exciting imagery. It’s that easy.


This blog was written by Michelle Faraone McCallum, Independent Food Photographer. Thank you Michelle, for your contribution to ‘Food for Thought!’