Your brand is what your restaurant is all about. It’s the sum and substance of who you are, what you stand for, your reason for being, and your restaurant’s moral compass.

But for too many restaurants, whether independent or chain, fine dining or casual, the branding is one dimensional, which lowers its impact. Operators need to have a clear understanding of the brand’s foundation, what they stand for, what they do better than anyone else. This is what threads the brand together in a cohesive way and inspires the visual identity to come to life.

1. Layer your brand

Layering in nuance adds depth to the experience and pushes a brand’s impact above its competition. With the right combination of overt visual identity and subtle details there’s an unmistakable synergy that really makes a restaurant experience special. The logo, signage, and menu design are the obvious elements and the bare necessities for building brand recognition, but it’s the subtle touches that require more imagination and reinforce the restaurant’s brand and personality in surprising ways.

For one seafood restaurant, we designed a dozen oyster cans that function as tabletop caddies housing raw bar menus and custom pencils, featuring the words “Clam You Dig It?” Each label was done in a completely different style from the others and by leveraging the brand’s color palette we were able to create a unified approach that feels spontaneous and genuine.

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2. Don’t overuse your logo

The biggest letdown with a restaurant’s brand is when you see the logo slapped everywhere. Seeing the same thing stamped on the exterior signage and then again inside is, at best, consistent but uninspired. Another egregious mistake is when the interior design and the brand identity don’t speak to each other. Inspired restaurant operators see the connection and prioritize the collaboration between the interior design and the brand identity. 

GDCO Bandoola Bowl 53. Continue branding into outdoor spaces

As businesses begin to reopen amid easing of pandemic-related closures, outdoor dining has been cresting. Branding can be used to set expectations for the different type of experience that an outdoor space can provide. Consistencies with visual cues like the color palette can assure you that you’re still at the same restaurant, but other details may be more playful than the indoor environment to prime guests for a less formal experience.

There are opportunities outside to bring personality into the details such as slightly different drinkware, placemats, coasters, menus, etc., but there is a danger of going overboard. Doing too much Disney-fying can be as bad as doing nothing. 

4. Tell your story through your design

Our job is to amplify the story of the restaurant through design. No matter how personal the restaurant’s story is, it comes down to making intentional decisions about every design detail. The interior design is critical to creating the right ambiance. The other touches that inform the restaurant’s story may not jump out at the guest but instead are layered in to build richness and depth. The staff uniforms, the feel of the menu in your hand, the ephemeral bar touches such as coasters, tabletop items like condiment caddies, wayfinding, and restroom signage — if done right are all opportunities to connect to the story of the restaurant.  

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5. Have all teams work closely together

Our favorite case study is a New England-meets-Chesapeake–inspired seafood restaurant in Washington, D.C., called The Salt Line. They brought us on early in the process to help develop the brand from the ground up, starting with brand foundation, naming, and messaging. We worked closely with Grizform Design who did the architecture and interior while we developed the visual identity. With all of us working with the same understanding of the kind of brand experience we were creating, it gave us a clear path. 

By dovetailing our design presentations and sharing ideas about personality, color and materials, we could inform each other’s decisions. When there was concern that the interior may be too refined, we were able to balance the tone with more playful tabletop touches like custom oyster can labels and whimsical pun pencils to mark up your raw bar menu. In turn, the labels we designed made their way into the bathrooms as custom wallpaper. 

To this day, the brand remains strong because there was a clear brand foundation and voice in place. The operator’s ability to maintain the brand and keep the staff committed to the quality of every design point has also contributed to the strength of the brand. Even in the throes of the uncertainty of how restaurants will operate during COVID-19 and afterward, they’re maintaining a strong story and a loyal following.