In Hong Kong, everyone knows the camera eats first. After all, no matter how delicious the food is at the table, have you truly had a meal until you’ve posted it to your respective Instagram/Facebook/Twitter feeds? The age of social media has been invaluable for helping restaurants increase their reach — that said, how many times have you actually been turned off from visiting a place because of a failed food pic (think bad lighting, awkward angles and half-eaten scraps on the table) when scrolling through sites such as TripAdvisor or OpenRice?
Enter Dishtag — a new food photo app which aims to bring back beautiful dish photography that celebrates chefs and their creations, a sort of streamlined digital hub for championing the visual language of food. Founded in 2015, the app was created by a husband-and-wife team: Adam Riley, who runs the finance and tech side of things; and his wife Raffaella Bichiri, a professional photographer who acts as creative director of the company.
The idea came to Riley during a meal out at a Michelin-starred restaurant in 2014, when one of his companions took a haphazard picture of the restaurant’s signature dish of lobster and caviar and posted it with the uncouth hashtag #caviarb*tches. “This was most likely the chef’s lifetime work and it was just degraded by a person on social media,” says Riley. “The bad pic and the vulgar hashtag not only disrespected the restaurant, but the craft and dedication of the chef that was behind the dish.”
Post-meal, he was struck by an idea: create a new social platform where users could tag their photo to a dish, to be linked to an ‘official’ photo of the dish and a broader ‘visual menu’ curated by photography pros — a one-stop digital shop for diners to browse all the beautiful offerings on a restaurant’s menu. Half-social media platform, half-content agency for food photography, Dishtag now has 100-plus Hong Kong restaurants and counting, with the newest version of the app launching this month.
The duo are not just passionate about giving the beautiful dishes of chefs the respect they deserve — they’re also focused on the sustainable impact of their business and Dishtag’s potential to contribute to a future of paper-less menus. Below, we chat with Riley and Bichiri about Dishtag’s mission to shape the future of food media, social sharing and restaurant marketing.
Raffaella Bichiri: I am from Turin in Italy, and Adam is from the U.K. but has an Italian grandmother, so we both have Italian blood. Maybe this is why we both have a passion for food!
Adam Riley: We also both lived in Milan. I worked as a strategy consultant and Raffy studied fashion design there, and we were both inspired by Milan and Italian style. We both have a love for fashion, eating out, experiencing the world. We both moved to Hong Kong for our careers and to see Asia. Ironically, after both living in Italy, we found each other here!
RB: As soon as we met at a group dinner at Blue Butcher, we became good friends and that gave us a solid foundation. Five years later we are best friends, married, and business partners. (You can say we love spending time together!) One of our first Dishtag photoshoots we did together was at Blue Butcher… a great ‘full circle’ moment.
AR: The app has three main features: it is a search platform for dishes, has an embedded special food photography camera, and a social element to share your dish-tagged photos with your social food network. You can build a profile and follow friends and the idea is you would use Dishtag to be inspired by a friend who has just visited a restaurant and posted a photo of a dish.
RB: Our logo, the closed bracket on the keyboard is how we categorise dishes and cuisines. We thought the closed bracket of the keyboard, that looks like a D, could represent the D in Dishtag. I mean, who uses that key anyways? We thought it may as well be used to categorise dishes! So next time you post a photo of a dish, don’t hashtag a dish — Dishtag!
AR: Our initial vision was to develop a social app that would allow users to post a photo and tag it to the official photo of the dish and share with friends. But once we had that idea, we then thought it would be great if a user could also search for a specific dish — such as ‘pasta’ or ‘dim sum’, and for the dish photo to be discoverable through an image search, within a radius. So rather than search for ‘Chinese’ cuisine as on other food tech platforms, you could search for ‘Peking duck’. Or rather than ‘Italian’, you could search for ‘pasta with truffle’.
RB: It was at that stage when we had a pivotal [realisation]: restaurants don’t have enough beautiful food photography to actually create high-quality visual menus — and if we wanted to build this search and social platform, we would need to help restaurants create the content.
Here was the foundation to our content agency and it hit us that rather than just upload the photo, we would include the description and price of the dish, to create a real-time visual menu. By adding the description of the dishes, we now also enable a user to search at the ingredient level, so you can just search ‘truffle’ or ‘duck’.
We believe that the concept of the visual menu can one day replace the paper menu, and we are passionate about our sustainability mission. If Dishtag is part of this mission to reduce paper and plastic use in restaurants, then we’ll be happy to have done our part in saving our planet.
RB: We create content which they can use on their Dishtag profile and their own social profiles. The Dishtag app automatically feeds our website so the profile/menu is then also on our website (www.dishtag.com). We then offer a restaurant an Instagram post or story to announce they have been added to Dishtag, and if they work with one of our reservation partners Quandoo or Chope, then their tables can also be booked through Dishtag.
Alternatively, if a restaurant already has high-quality photos of their dishes, they can simply send them to us to create the profile and then continue to send us on a regular basis so we can keep their visual menu updated.
AR: We want Dishtag to be a positive sharing community. Just like you don’t post a photo on Instagram of a terrible beach holiday, you don’t use Dishtag to post a bad meal review. Instead, you use Dishtag to celebrate the dining experience you just had and the meal you just ate. Food is so subjective and with all the fake reviews out there on existing platforms, we just want people to eat with their eyes and be inspired by the visuals and stories from chefs.
AR: We have been on this journey for five years: We got the global trademark approved for the brand name and logo in 2015 and then spent a couple of years designing and building the beta version of the app.
RB: To meet the demand for content and to spend time designing the next version of the app and our website, I decided to quit my job and become the Creative Director / Head of Photography for Dishtag. Scary moment alert!
AR: …and I decided to ask my boss for a 2-month sabbatical in the summer so I could establish Dishtag as a company, build a business plan, and do research into the food technology ecosystem.
I’ve since returned to my day job full time and now am in the background, providing advice to Raffy and our tech and marketing teams, helping with the finance side of things, and writing blog posts from time to time. Whilst Dishtag was my idea, it really is Raffy’s company now and she is the driver day to day. I am so proud of her.
RB: In the ’90s and early 2000s, the only food photos you’d see were food recipes or adverts. Today, restaurant photography is mainstream and we see more and more chefs embracing it. When we first started research into Dishtag we saw articles about chefs banning food photography in their restaurants. Sorry chefs, that battle is over, and it’s been won by the customer. They want to take photos and share!
Dishtag in a way is trying to structure this phenomenon, creating great content and allowing restaurants to control their digital footprint but also giving users a special camera to create better photos and a social platform to share their ‘non-professional’ photos. We want to inspire people through food photography and be a major driver of the professionalisation of this industry.
AR: Time and time again we heard that the industry had been thinking of a way to send photos of every dish on the menu to the guests when they come in the restaurant. We listened, and we went to work on developing a platform that could be embraced by chefs, restaurant managers, marketing teams, and restaurant owners and shareholders.
We spend a lot of time listening to users, foodies and food bloggers to develop the next big thing, so if you have ideas on how we can improve — please contact us! In the end, any company is defined by its users, and we want to build something that is loved in the foodie community in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
RB: Everyone loves to eat, and everyone loves talking about food. And many people, especially in Hong Kong, love to share their food experiences — the great dishes, great nights out, and great restaurants.
So we think Dishtag could be huge in Hong Kong and have global appeal. Our plan is to take Dishtag to Singapore next, and then Australia, and then to Bali and Bangkok. Hopefully then to Europe and finally to the Americas. We have ambitious plans and are excited about the future.
AR: Our dream is that one day the verb, to ‘dishtag’, is included in the Oxford dictionary: “The process of taking a photo of a dish and tagging that dish to a visual menu and sharing online.” You have to dream big! And being in the Oxford dictionary would be the time when we say, “We have made it!”
Ready to start snapping? Download the Dishtag app here.