“Hey, have you heard of [your restaurant]?”
“Oh yeah! It’s that place known for __________.”
It is up to you to establish your restaurant’s brand, or what fills in that blank space. When people think of your restaurant, what is the first thing you want to come to mind? A plethora of categories exist to be the base of your restaurant brand, so many that this article must be stretched out into future issues.
Regardless of how you brand your restaurant, it is vital to determine your brand before moving forward in the development process. To arbitrarily choosing a restaurant’s location, design and menu and then hope for the best would be a risky operation that most restaurateurs can’t afford.
The first thing to choose is a target customer [what kind of crowd do you want in your restaurant]. The brand is then built around that customer. Those who try it the other way run the risk of low demand. An extreme example would be building a trendy, expensive farm-to-table tapas bar in a retirement community—chances are the place isn’t going to get much of a turnout.
Once you’ve got your customer in mind, define the elements that will set your restaurant apart from the competition. While price may seem like a viable answer, it is rarely ever the correct answer, given that price wars drive down profits and create animosity for a lose-lose situation.
Numerous elements, or differentiators in the business world, exist to set a restaurant apart. This article unveils a few of them, with more to follow in the future. Best to choose one central element from which to develop a brand, with the rest serving as supplements to your core competency.
Signature Menu Items
Many restaurants got the items that they’re ‘famous for’ simply by creating their menu first and seeing how each item fared among the crowd. And while this approach can deliver consistent success, it also limits the threshold for expansion. A restaurant famous for its apple pie will have a much harder time developing its appetizers and entrees, and will see many customers go to a competing establishment for the main course, only coming to them for dessert. A place known for having the best salmon dishes will be at a loss when salmon prices increase.
To offset these limits, base your restaurant around overarching food themes, such as geography or style of cooking. Having great Mexican food provides much greater growth potential than just having great tamales.
As an additional note, food fads are tempting to enter, but by the time you go through the process of opening a new cupcake/cronut/juice spot, the market will likely be saturated already. Crumbs’ bankruptcy is just one example of food fads turning against new business-seekers.
Industrial-chic architecture, communal tables and contemporary music are all in right now. You’ve also got spots for novel experiences that bring you back to the 50’s and allow you to dine as if you were blind. Atmosphere, however, is more of a complementary feature to most restaurants rather than a primary feature. Even a place like Top of the World [Stratosphere] needs good food to go with the view [which it certainly has].
Atmosphere will bring people through your doors the first time. The most important question is what will turn those first-time visitors into loyal customers—the backbone of every restaurant? Not too many people want to dine in the dark once a month, but they do want to go back to a place that gives them the overall experience they’re looking for.
Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, Guy Fieri…we’re all familiar with food celebrities who have built restaurants around their personal brand. Centering a restaurant around a chef or other restaurant figure can certainly drive traffic. Celebrity chef partnerships are always an option, if you are fortunate enough to have that connection and are willing to sacrifice margins for a famous name on your signage.
The challenge comes in actually creating a personal brand that generates enough of a buzz. This high risk/high reward approach requires extensive media outreach that often involves agents and a public relations firm. Also consider the potential for the chef to leave before reaching celebrity status, putting you back at square one.
Each of these brand elements poses tremendous potential for restaurants to carve out their niche and create timeless experiences for the customer. It’s up to the restaurant owner to decide on which base they will establish their brand. Be on the lookout for more brand elements in part II.
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Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.