Branding and Duplicating Food & Beverage Concepts

In an age where new restaurants are popping up on every corner and shuttering just as fast, the idea of developing an original concept and growing it to a multi-unit business seems next to impossible. In my experience, the most original concepts begin with a blank canvas and a group of passionate individuals.


By Peter Karpinski, Partner, Sage Hospitality
A continued focus on: distinctive consumer experiences, unmatched food and beverage offerings, superior service, consistency, an approachable atmosphere, and constant competitive innovation is what paves the way to success.

Forming Brand Identity: Ingenuity with Integrity

Developing a brand identity, and molding one that stands out from the crowd, can seem like a daunting task at first. Where do you start? Brainstorming the name; designing the logo; creating the website? There are many winding roads to achieve your vision, and for some it comes easier than others.
In order to set the tone and formulate core messaging, it helps to first envision a background story. What sort of experience do you hope a guest will have when walking into the restaurant or bar for the first time? When SRG (Sage Restaurant Group) opened the first location of Urban Farmer, a modern farm-to-table steakhouse with locations in Portland, OR; Cleveland, OH; Philadelphia, PA; and Denver, CO, we envisioned a rural rancher and a well-traveled woman meeting, getting married, and transforming a run-down farm into a self-sustaining restaurant. Thus, the concept of Urban Farmer Portland was born; we wanted to provide guests with a bespoke experience as if they were dining at that re-imagined farmhouse. In other instances, perhaps the concept is built from time spent abroad, touring and tasting the regional cuisine and having the desire to share that culture. In that case, you would want the ambiance, food, and drink to transport guests to another land without ever having to step foot on a plane. Whatever the setting or background story, the most novel ideas are born from creative spaces constructed with added-value experiences.
Once the vision is established, and the brand promise created, it is time to field the team. Most developers will build the team piecemeal and will begin by gathering a chef and a beverage director to create the menu or an architect to design the space. While this may work for some, it is not necessarily the best model. Ingenious concepts originate when everyone is brought to the table while the canvas is still blank. When everyone is able to collaborate and work towards the same goal, the creative process thrives. If I'm developing a new concept and walking into the first meeting, I imagine my team as an army, but the titles and egos are dropped and each member of the team is of the same rank. This is crucial to maintain integrity and allow the prophecy of the concept to shine through.

When to Expand

It can be difficult to determine if or when a successful concept is ready to expand, and there are more aspects to consider than sales alone. The business must be proved and the kinks fully ironed out before considering a second location. It is important not to rush the expansion process, so as not to fall prey to the hordes of concepts that shutter within the first one to two years of opening. Provide the restaurant or bar the chance to flourish for at least five years. We call this institutionalizing within the marketplace - claiming a stake and branding an imprint on the industry. Owners must aim for consistent year-after-year growth that exceeds the regional or national average.
Once the business has a steady foundation, developers should gather market data, hold focus groups, and study core demographics of the chosen market. Exhaust research on competitors and any segment voids that need to be filled. Consider consumer characteristics and who will be frequenting the business. Does your concept fit with the surroundings? These days, more and more "theme" restaurants are bursting onto the scene simply due to fads, and that specificity can make or break a business. A niche food and beverage concept does not automatically translate to a successful one. At the same time, generic concepts can often seem too dull or bland to draw desired crowds. A particular cuisine such as high-end Indian may not exist in a tertiary market, but is it viable? Midwesterners remain static in their love for meat and potatoes, but what is the competition like in an already cornered sector? There is no formula for what makes any given concept successful from city to city, but one must ask these questions before becoming pigeon-holed into a certain category.

The Value of Location

One of the main reasons a restaurant does not succeed is poor location. Site selection is critical when planning for expansion, and working with an established brokerage or valuation firm to find the perfect site is encouraged, as identifying a generative area can be half the battle. Another common misconception is that the flagship location is usually the most successful. This is often not the case, and there are many different factors that determine what makes one location more successful than another. Certain locations will outperform others, and that is okay.

Restaurants in condensed cities with a greater tourism advantage undoubtedly see more visibility and foot traffic, and in that case, curb appeal and prominent signage is critical to draw in guests. This is why choosing the perfect location can provide unparalleled exposure to a targeted demographic, and vice versa, why it is imperative to study the marketplace prior to selecting a locale. It is also worthy to note that while certain meal periods work in one market, they may not work in another. Certain establishments will not find brunch service viable and will only offer dinner service, especially if the majority of the clientele is made up of business travelers. Others will discover that serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner is the only way to stay relevant in an oversaturated market. These hurdles all lead back to site selection and extensive research - knowing the target audience and how to cater to them.


A Lens on Local

More than ever, diners are placing the utmost importance on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and care deeply about where their food is sourced from. This is no longer a passing trend, and should be a key tenet of any food and beverage concept. It also helps to differentiate one location from the next. From a consumer perspective, each restaurant should be seen as special and unique. SRG focuses on its continued company wide commitment to local partnerships and sustainable practices, and works hard to ensure that each concept is truly indigenous - a place in which customers can feel a sense of ownership.

For instance, at each Urban Farmer location, the chefs work with nearby farms and ranchers that yield seasonal produce and sustainably raised meat. Urban Farmer in Cleveland partners with Ohio-based Red Run Bison Farm. At Kachina, a modern Southwestern kitchen with locations in Westminster and Denver, Colorado, Executive Chef Jeff Bolton sources Native American ingredients, including extra virgin olive oil from Seka Hills in Northern California, and tepary beans and ga'ivsa from Ramona Farms in Arizona. At Hello Betty Fish House, a Baja-inspired beachfront restaurant and bar in Oceanside, California, Executive Chef Jared Hills partners directly with local fishermen, via a receiver's license, to provide his guests with extremely fresh seafood, fished right off of nearby docks.

Build your brand on this pillar of foundation, and do not cut corners. The consumer will notice the difference in taste and appreciate the support of small farms, fisheries, and ranchers. They will remember the curated art hanging on the walls or the ultra-fresh cheese sourced from local artisans. Sourcing locally is a big undertaking and can be costly, but in the end, pays off, especially considering the preferences of the modern diner.

Consistency is Key

When it comes to building an effective multi-unit conglomeration, restaurateurs place a strong emphasis on brand identity and consistency. Messaging and logos are mimicked, as well as any signature hospitality philosophies, to ensure service is on par with other locations. However, operators need not be afraid to incorporate variety into the food and beverage offerings and menu design. With the exception of a few signature dishes and cocktails to maintain brand image, chefs and beverage directors can be given freedom and flexibility to take flight and deliver exceptional options to diners. While a common concern is the risk of brand dilution or being known as a "chain", it can be supplemented with the aforementioned local partnerships and creating unique characteristics for each location.

In today's realm of hotel dining, the lines are blurred when it comes to clientele. Leisure guests, business travelers, and locals are all in search of the same experiential concepts when dining out. Creating these approachable spaces that are similar yet distinct from one another is a yearning of many restaurateurs and operators. Shaping one that can be simulated for years to come is the ultimate aspiration.

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