America Runs on Instagram

“America runs on Dunkin’.”

This is the famous slogan of Dunkin’ Donuts, the Massachusetts-based coffee and doughnut franchise. Since opening its first location in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1948, the brand has built an passionate, cult-like following. Many of my friends from Massachusetts swear by it.

Similarly, Pennsylvania natives praise Wawa, and I worship In-N-Out Burger due to my California roots.

Both restaurants are nearly identical from location-to-location. Wawa shelves its products in consistent areas throughout its stores. They all offer the same built-to-order food, brew the same coffee, and sell the same candy. No surprises. One Wawa fanatic once told me: “I could order, get my food, and check out in 1 minute… blindfolded.”

Likewise, In-N-Out prizes consistency. Founded in 1948, the brand respects its tradition. From the soda machines, to the seating style, to the palm tree wallpaper pattern, each restaurant has a similar blueprint. Like Dunkin’ Donuts, many Californians — from San Diego to San Francisco — maintain a deep connection with In-N-Out.

In-N-Out Burger

In-N-Out Burger

Before the internet, the organic growth of restaurants was limited to geographic regions. Dunkin’ dominated New England, Wawa dominated the Philadelphia-area, and In-N-Out dominated the West Coast.

All three chains advertised with loud material branding such as tall, bright signage and highway billboard advertisements. As the digital age matures, we will see these chains as relics of a bygone, pre-Internet era. This nostalgia will manifest in ways we don’t expect.

Compared to national competitors like McDonald’s, regional chains have low advertising budgets. Smaller restaurants depend on customers to do marketing for them. Dunkin’, Wawa and In-N-Out inspired customers to advocate for them in physical social environments: schools, markets, parks, and churches.

Now, we’ve transitioned to a networked age where word-of-mouth occurs in cyberspace. Networks have reorganized society, and as a result, information flows in new ways. On Instagram, information is arranged by interests, desires, and relationships — not geographical space.

My Instagram feed illustrates this phenomenon well. It reflects my desires, interests, and relationships, but geographically, it’s unpredictable. Here are the top photos in my feed:

1. Japan

2. Wisconsin

3. Japan

4. Austria

5. Dubai

Before the Internet, daily interaction with people on different continents was rare, difficult, and expensive. Today, it is a ritual for 700 million Instagrammers around the world, and digital natives are leading this shift.

Propelled by the aforementioned shift, a new species of restaurants is popping up. As Casey Newton observed, Instagram shapes modern restaurant design. They are flooded with natural light, elaborate murals, and colorful decorations. One San Francisco restaurant owner says “the average guest takes pictures for 10 minutes before ordering.” Some even bring tripods to enhance their photography. These trendy restaurants encourage – and even rely upon – customers to document their experiences and broadcast them on Instagram. The best ones are irresistible to photographers.

Up-and-coming restaurants like Sweetgreen and ByChloe are sprouting up in megacities, the hotbeds of Instagram culture. Unlike their predecessors, Sweetgreen and ByChloe welcome distinctiveness. Each location is unique and reflects the community that surrounds it. They honor and preserve the natural structures of the buildings that house them, many of which have rich history.

Sweetgreen, which got its start in Washington D.C., has added locations in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

ByChloe has followed a similar roadmap with its 10 locations in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. All the locations are comfortable and homey, and reflect the brand’s mission to redefine what it means to eat well.

On Instagram, our interests and desires determine what we see more than our geographic coordinates. Los Angeles and New York are on opposite coasts of America, and before the Internet, communication between them was largely restricted to letters, phone calls, and newspapers.

But on Instagram, topological neighbors act like topographical ones. Every second, thousands of tweets, emails, texts, and Instagram posts flow between across the United States.

Modern restaurants reflect this new geography. They’re pioneering internet-native marketing strategies, and reshaping youth culture along the way. From Sweetgreen’s radiant interior artwork, to ByChloe’s 80s-style menu typography, the entire experience is Instagram bait.

Sweetgreen is emblematic of Instagram’s influence. Local artists fill its spaces with photography, oil paintings, mixed media, watercolors, and intense neon signage. ByChloe has adopted a similar strategy. Each location is comfortable and homey, and replicates the experience of dining at home or in someone’s kitchen.

Word-of-mouth occurs on Instagram now. Yesterday’s restaurants were geographically constrained and aesthetically rigid. In contrast, tomorrow’s restaurants will reflect the cosmopolitan ethos of America’s biggest cities.

It’s time for a new motto: America runs on Instagram.