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Simple Ain’t Easy for Restaurant Brands

By 2022-02-06February 12th, 2024Knowledge, Thought for Food
A busy modern kitchen

What Thelonius Monk can teach you about strengthening your restaurant brand

I love quotes. Maybe it’s because we’re so busy, as a culture, that we need our inspiration in small, bite-sized chunks of pre-vetted wisdom. I prefer to think that some people in history have nailed down a concept so well that there’s just no better or simpler way to describe it. The bite-sized chunk of wisdom that best exemplifies this is perhaps my favorite quote of all time… “Hey man, simple ain’t easy.” Damn. Thelonius Monk nailed it. 

If there was ever a statement that describes the nature of creating an engaging, world-class restaurant brand, it’s this. The concepts are simple, but the execution is far from easy. Or to put it another way, these concepts are common sense, but they are far from common practice. 

The things that you need to do, the questions you need to ask yourself in order to position your brand, to figure out who you are and what differentiates you, are relatively simple. But, of course, simple ain’t easy. We have a tendency to confuse ease with simplicity let’s get on the same page here. Ease has to do with the difficulty of accomplishing something—it doesn’t require a lot of effort. Simplicity, on the other hand, has to do with complexity—it is direct, straightforward, and understandable. I suppose that’s why things like logos can be so expensive. A logo that’s properly executed should like it was easy because it appears that there is no other way that it could have been done. What’s deceptive, though, is the tremendous amount of work and the massive amount of iterations that go into paring it down to just the essentials that communicate exactly the idea or feeling you want. That’s the essence of simplicity. Just ask Usain Bolt. The 100-meter dash is pretty simple, just put one foot in front of the other until you cross the finish line, preferably in less than 10 seconds. But what we don’t see are the insane hours he and all of his competitors put into this simple act. Simple ain’t easy.

The things that you need to do and the questions you need to ask yourself in order to position yourself effectively really are relatively simple. Building a strong restaurant brand—one that makes patrons want to return & employees want to keep on being employees—is just a matter of understanding your vision and values and building a culture that celebrates these and integrates them at every touchpoint and makes them common practice. Every month. Every week. Every day…you get the point. The practice of what makes your company unique and engaging should be woven into the fabric of your culture from the very start.

The Simple (but not easy) guide to creating a killer restaurant brand

The key here is culture—that set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that make you who you are. But I prefer another definition—“to maintain in conditions suitable for growth”. Because that’s what you’re doing here, creating the conditions suitable for the growth of your business, your employees, and your community. From here, you just put one foot in front of the other…

Step one: Know thyself

If one were to ask three of your servers about your company’s values right now, would each recite the same list, in the same order, in monotonous tones as if they were reading from a cue card? Would they know what to say at all? Your values are the single most important factor in the success of your business. These are your foundation and they lay the groundwork for what your company will become just as the foundation of a building dictates its future shape and function. And, like the foundation of a building, these do not change without tremendous effort or need. 

You need to identify and codify your values. Your values will not only serve as a guide for you to make decisions and differentiate between opportunities and distractions, but they will also, when communicated properly, attract like-minded people as patrons and employees. Something I hear a lot from clients is that “the owner IS the brand.” Awesome, good to hear that the owner has so much passion about the brand, but what happens in their absence? What happens if, god forbid, they have a heart attack from eating too much of their own delicious food? What if they just go on vacation? Codifying those values is critical to making sure that the right decisions are being made and that the brand goes on consistently regardless of who is manning the ship.

Share your values loud and clear. Like voting in Chicagoland, do it early and often! Your restaurant’s values are not a list of mantras on a poster hiding on the back of your manager’s door. These should be interwoven into every single touchpoint, every interaction, every compliment, and every criticism. They should be at the heart of the hiring and interview process and at the center of every review. They should start and finish every shift. It’s going to feel really fucking weird at first, but this is THE WAY to make your values matter the bedrock of your business and your community.

Step Two: Know your people

Maybe this is actually the first step. Regardless, you are not cooking for yourself. If you are, then just stay home…it’s much less stressful. Seriously, anyone that believes that restaurateurs don’t think about who their restaurant is going to serve when they’re picking a location, creating a menu, or considering interior finishes is full of shit. Even if it’s subconscious, they have a vision in their head about what they want that restaurant to feel like and the type of people they want to fill it with, even if it’s just a glimmer of a vision.

This vision is what you have to nail down—who is your ideal patron? Who will be attracted to the brand you have in mind? What is their life like? Where do they hang out and what’s important to them? Knowing these things and more will help you figure out where to find customers and how to talk to them in a way that engages them and adds value to their lives instead of just talking about yourself…“We’re amazing, we’re just the restaurant you’ve been waiting for, we’re doing you a favor by letting you come and eat food here.” That sound stupid, right? But that’s the way most restaurant marketing comes off. Instead of thinking about what patrons want and how to add value for them, a lot of restaurant brands communicate AT their audience.

This is especially true on social media where “sharing” is usually reduced to, “come in for our special tonight!” Who cares? How is this adding value? Sure, you need to add some of this marketing in, but sharing should be an act of GENEROSITY, and not a self-serving advertisement. The next time you post something on social media ask yourself this simple question: How is this adding value to my patrons’ lives? In order to know the answer to that question, you need to know a little something about your ideal patrons. If you can’t answer it, then you need to either change your message or start learning about your people.

By the way, all of what I said about knowing your patrons goes double for your staff.

Step Three: Be Engaged…and measure it

It’s amazing to me how short-sighted restaurateurs can be with regard to their brand. Measurement outside of revenue, food cost, and labor is almost non-existent for some brands. Whenever I begin a conversation about goals it inevitably degenerates into a conversation about asses in seats. But what we really need to talk about, what will actually make an impact, are cultural goals and measurement. I’m NOT suggesting that financial outcomes aren’t important. They’re important as hell, but focusing solely on financial metrics as a measurement of success limits your brand’s potential. This type of thinking leads to cost-cutting and a decline in quality as methods of increasing profit, which can lead to lost patrons, whereas measuring success in terms of engagement creates more long-term success. So what kind of goals do we need to focus on for our restaurant? Again, this is deceptively simple. We’re in the hospitality business, so we need to measure how we’re interacting with our patrons, our employees, and our community.

Restaurant Employee Engagement

This is absolutely the most important thing. Your employees are the most visible and impactful touchpoint with your patrons and their engagement can make or break your brand. We’ve already talked about the importance of imparting your values to them. But have you ever asked them if you’re holding up your end of the deal? Do THEY think that YOU are living up to your values? How often do you measure their satisfaction on the job and do you have concrete metrics for what satisfaction looks like? Sure, you may have set up a robust performance review for them, but have you done the same for your brand? Again, this all comes down to communication. 

So what are your goals for employee engagement? It’s different for every restaurant and falls in line with your values. Remember those? These are your guide to what’s important to measure and should inform your goals with regard to employee engagement.

Restaurant Patron Engagement

I like to use “patron” instead of “guest” because that’s what they are. The term “guest” implies that they are accepting your hospitality and are therefore somehow in your debt, however small. But the opposite is true, these people are paying you at every touchpoint, whether with money or attention or referrals. They are giving a part of themselves in order to support you and keep you doing the thing that they love. That’s a “patron”. Ok, forgive the tangent, but I really do think it’s an important distinction and it’s another reason that you owe it to them to give them value with every interaction.

Measuring patron engagement is second only to employee engagement. There are a lot of ways to measure this, including the tried and true comment card. But technology has given us a lot more options. You can measure just about any metric with social media and newsletters. As usual, the metrics for success will depend largely on your values. Here, again, communication is key. If a patron makes a comment, posts about your brand, or interacts in any way, they deserve a response, and this is one of the best ways to measure engagement with your community. Be involved! Don’t expect engagement if you’re not engaged with your brand yourself.

Put all of these together

All of these are important on their own and will increase your restaurant brand’s success, but it’s when considering all of these together that the true potential is realized. What most restaurant owners fail to do is take all of these into consideration when thinking of marketing initiatives or deciding what their next business moves should be. This, again, is relatively simple. Once you know your patrons’ needs and have discerned the most important ones, you cross-reference these needs with your business and cultural goals in order to come up with truly impactful initiatives. In other words, when considering options for how to meet your business goals, think of options that also meet your patron and employee’s needs and you will reduce the risk of making decisions that will alienate either. For instance, if one of your business goals is to increase your newsletter open rate and you know that a good portion of your patrons are also interested in learning how to cook, maybe you should share cooking techniques or recipes in each newsletter. Better yet, create an exclusive cooking club that meets monthly or quarterly on a first come first served basis to truly generate interest and engagement. These solutions will help your goal of increasing email opens and also add specific value for your patrons. The possibilities of using this technique are endless and the better you know your patrons’ needs and your engagement goals the more effective it is.

Seriously, creating a restaurant brand that matters is not all that complicated. Really get to know who you want to be as an organization, share that as much as possible with everyone who will listen, engage with your community (employees, patrons, and other stakeholders) in a way that gives THEM value, measure the right things, and then put it all together. That’s one sentence. It’s simple, but it’s definitely not easy.

Jeff Lukes

Jeff Lukes is a business owner and creative director focused on brand positioning and marketing for Food Service and Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands.