Lunch with the creator of InstaEats

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Instagram worthy: Chicken mayo hotpress and ‘green’ omelette at Bootlegger. Photo: Dean Horwitz

Dominique Herman grabs a bite at Bootlegger with Dean Horwitz 

“Ice coffee, not the freezo, and can you ask them to put two sweeteners in there?”

As soon as Dean Horwitz’s drink is set down on the table, I have order envy. “They have two different ice coffees. This is the one. It’s literally just coffee, milk, ice. And they have the other one, which I think these people are having,” he says, as he motions to the folk sitting behind us, “which is a powder.”

We’re sitting at Bootlegger in Green Point, on a strip of road featuring more than one of Cape Town’s most popular eateries. I had heard Horwitz speak at Limmud, an annual conference that focuses on Jewish speakers and their endeavours. So I figured meeting at kosher restaurant The Press – which did a fantastic job of catering the conference – would be an apt choice for my first local take on one of my favourite columns, “Lunch with the FT” from the FT Weekend

But after a string of postponements and finally settling on a date that then happened to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Succot, when The Press would be closed, I asked him to pick a regular lunch spot of his instead. Considering he lives in the building upstairs and this day, a Monday, is one of his two working-from-home days a week – one of which he usually spends at Bootlegger – we meet there. 

About three-quarters of the tables are occupied by lone diners with laptops and headphones, a not uncommon sight at trendy coffee shop-type spots in Cape Town. As a digital strategist for various clients, Horwitz’s job is to use social media to “gamify” customers: turning them into the salesforce. And in selecting “influencers”, he studiously avoids those for whom being an influencer is their job.

“The problem today is that people don’t respond really to adverts anymore. People are not responding to things that are being sold to them because they know it’s an advert, they know it’s being sold to them,” he says. 

But surely people realise that “influencers” are being paid to sell something to them as well? It’s the exact same thing, I counter. 

“It is, but that’s the important thing. You’ve got to find the right influencer to fit the brand.” That’s because then it seems believable, he explains. Then, people forget that you’re trying to sell them something.

As far as verifying whether an influencer has genuine followers, Horwitz says there are tools to check. An easy test is to look at the person’s social media. If they have one million followers but are only getting 100 likes on a photo, “that’s an issue”. Engagement is key. “Are people genuinely interested in what they’re doing and would those people buy what they’re pushing?”

Our waiter, Ray, returns to take our food order. It’s Ray’s first day in this particular Bootlegger but he’s worked at all four in Joburg. Horwitz orders the chicken mayo hotpress sandwich, his usual. While I wouldn’t consider myself a regular at this chain, I order my favourite item on the Bootlegger menu: the pea-studded “green” omelette. Eating it makes me feel Dr Seuss-y. The problem is that it’s only on the breakfast menu but Ray says he’ll put in a request in the kitchen.

Four years ago, Horwitz started the Instagram account InstaEats.The original idea for the account was to feature restaurant food “because I didn’t cook. I still don’t cook”. At the Limmud conference, during a social media panel session on which he was one of the speakers, media analyst Arthur Goldstuck questioned whether it’s become a faux pas to post pictures of what you eat. Horwitz responded that the account is about “the way people capture the food in front of them; what captures their eye. People have an inherent need to share those experiences.”

Elaborating over lunch, he says the initial point of InstaEats was to showcase what other people were eating at restaurants; to tell people about different places to eat. “But I was working full-time and I wasn’t that good with my camera. I didn’t really know how to take great photos, so it was more about creating a space where other people could post about their food.

“There were other food blogs but none were doing Instagram properly or were focusing on Instagram. This was before Facebook acquired Instagram, before they changed the algorithm*, so it was a lot easier. “#instaeatscapetown” became a hashtag and people were using it.” 

InstaEats wasn’t a revenue-producing endeavour in the beginning; it took two or three years to monetise it. About a year and a half after he started the account, he teamed up with a budding photographer who did the original photography and Horwitz created the social media. At that stage he had about 10 000 followers. He started approaching restaurants and doing trade exchanges: a free meal for exposure. Horwitz doesn’t recall one restaurant saying no. “For them the cost of a meal is really not a big cost”.

With a new feature entitled “#newweeknewspot”, he and the photographer would go to a talked-about or “in” restaurant they hadn’t been to before and they would invite celebrities and foodies to join them – SABC’s Afternoon Express presenters Zoë Brown and Danilo Acquisto, and surfer Michael February, among them. 

At that stage there wasn’t “Instagram Stories”, so sometimes they would do Twitter live feeds as well as take photos and post them on their respective social media accounts. “It was a great way to gather content. This was when people were happy to do that kind of thing; nowadays a free meal is no longer a payment.”

When Horwitz attempted to start charging for this coverage, it was “relatively successful” but not sufficient to sustain him and the photographer and two guest eaters. “The problem was that this whole thing had evolved in that no-one was keen to come and eat anymore. People started seeing you could get money for these things, so no-one wanted to spend a few hours for free even though it was a free meal.”

He continued for a while doing it on his own. “The concept remained the same but I was going by himself to the restaurant and having to either eat four or five dishes, or just have a little bite of the dish and send the food back. And because I was by myself, there wasn’t that much live stuff happening and it kind of became quite a chore. These were paid and not trade exchanges and in order to make enough money, I was having to do four or five restaurants a week. 

“There were times where I wouldn’t even taste the food. They would bring 10 dishes and sometimes it wasn’t even edible – they did the presentation-type thing. It got to a point where I didn’t want to be eating that much, that often, it was extremely time-consuming and it wasn’t making a lot of money. And, with the algorithm, it wasn’t growing. It wasn’t working.”

So now he has switched to a paid model where businesses and brands provide the content which he posts for a fee. Rarely will he post content for free, and then only on Instagram Stories. An event or restaurant review he’d been invited to and enjoyed is something he might create a Story about (he’s invited to 20 to 30 events a month). He posted our Bootlegger lunch on Stories.

While I devour the singular slice of sourdough that comes with my omelette, Horwitz proceeds to leave half of the rye slices from his sandwich on the wooden board it’s served on. “They give you a lot of bread for this,” he says, by way of explanation. Also, he adds, he suffers from ulcerative colitis – an inflammatory bowel disease (the other, more well-known IBD is Crohn’s) – which he developed at 14 (he’s now 32). 

While regular treatment has him in remission, he is still careful with what he eats and tries to avoid bread. His doctor started an organisation called Inflammatory Bowel Disease Africa about 10 years ago. He approached Horwitz last year to do the social media and patient liaison, which now acts as a side gig. 

Instagram has become a bit admin-intensive, he remarks, “but there are opportunities that I get that I love.” Another reason for changing the InstaEats business model is that he’s trying to get healthier and fitter. He now limits eating out to once a week “and then I try to keep it clean”.

“I don’t know what the future holds. I know that it’s probably not going to be on Instagram because there’s no way now to build a community on Instagram. It’s not something that people are using in that sort of way anymore.” Despite the algorithm-related obstacles to growth, InstaEats has gained about 1200 followers over the last 10 months.

“It’s became a very personal space as well. InstaEats was never meant to be a personal thing. I very rarely put myself on there and I don’t want it to be a personal thing, but that would probably be the way to do it. But it’s not something I want to do.”

People also don’t want to see highly edited, highly stylised photos because “they know that’s not real”. A statement that, to me, seems rich in irony. As someone whose journalistic background rigorously distinguished between editorial and advertorial, a distinction that appears completely absent in the world of social media “content”, I ask Horwitz whether the public, as far as he can tell, fully understands that this is an advertising model for the modern age – that his posts are about and paid for by his clients. “Ja, ja. I think I make it pretty clear. The way that I present my content, the way that my account is structured. I think I make it pretty clear”.

He continues to approach new places and tries to be selective. A client he would like to have is Bootlegger but they’re not partial to the idea, even as a trade. In fact, he says he often finds the spots he wants to go to aren’t interested in trade exchanges: Jerry’sThe Hussar GrillNY Slice and Monk’s Chinese, for instance. One exchange he was keen on and managed to fix up is with J&M.They send him content for posts and in return he receives biltong vouchers. 

He acknowledges that he wouldn’t be able to charge for posting content at all had he not had the initial community of people tagging their friends and their meals. “If I started InstaEats today, I wouldn’t be able to get it to where it is because of the algorithm in its current format. If I wanted to build a food-based account now, it would have to have quite a unique spin on it. People wouldn’t follow a random person going to different restaurants. It would have to be, like, I’m going to try every burger in Cape Town.”

*For other Instagram neophytes, Horwitz explained that after Facebook purchased Instagram, it implemented an algorithm that determines that Facebook decides what you see on your feed. Before, everything displayed on one’s feed was the content of everyone you were following, in chronological order. “Facebook turned that off and applied a complicated algorithm to show you what they think you should see based on what you like, based on a whole bunch of random factors. Now you’re lucky if you see 10 percent of people’s stuff”. Now you have to pay to “boost” your post, to ensure that more than 20 percent of your audience see it. 

Bootlegger Coffee Company Main Road, Green Point, Cape Town
Iced coffee     R39
Americano     R28
Hotpress – chicken mayo    R75
Rye     R2
Omelette – green      R98
Total including tip    R280

To read the editor’s column for December/January click here

To read or download the December/January issue of the Chronicle in PDF click  here

To read the most read article of the November issue, click here

Portal to the Jewish Community: to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites, click here

Featured organisation of the month: The Jewish Community Services’ (JCS) activities are centered on relief for the poor and distressed in the Jewish community. They provide a full range of preventative, educative and supportive counselling, statutory services as well as material relief. Visit http://www.jcs.org.za  for more.

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