Brand Experience & Foodies

Posted on Feb 25, 2016
Brand Experience & Foodies

Brand experience and foodies are intertwined. The James Beard Foundation Awards restaurant and chef semifinalists were released earlier this month. As I perused the list, I couldn’t help notice that most of these restaurants offered a compelling dining experience and they had trendy and buzz-worthy brands.

Brand experience and brand story are huge in the foodie and dining world. What is the essence of the dining experience? The ethos of the chef and menu? Does having a distinct brand personality affect the success of a restaurant? Does it impact the pleasure diners derive from the experience? My branding instinct says, “YES! People eat out for an experience, so enhancing the experience through story and atmosphere can only amplify enjoyment.”

A little research on Google backed up my hypothesis. In a Cornell University psychology study on how music and lighting affect the enjoyment of restaurant guests, it was shown that a fine dining ambiance resulted in slower eating times and less food consumed. They also reported that, “Another surprising result is that even though participants in the fine-dining part [of the test restaurant area] ate less food they actually rated the food as more enjoyable, so changing the atmosphere can change food consumption and food satisfaction!”  Further supporting this, the Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing published a research study which concluded, “The results clearly show that brand image has a significant effect on customers’ loyalty and concurrently, environment and food quality have critical impacts on brand image.” I found several other supporting reports and articles too, but let’s move on.

Many companies are applying these insights to reinvent our notion of eating out and delight their customers. Perhaps this is nothing new to the very wealthy, but for me it was an interesting discovery. For example, EatWith lets customers browse a catalog of prix-fixe menus designed by local chefs, and then the chef hosts a meal in their home for a truly intimate dining experience. Then there’s The Blind Cafe – a traveling pop-up dining experience in complete and utter darkness where waiters are blind and you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. The Blind Cafe’s website explains, “…it’s a community experience where people connect, learn and break bread together without their visual conditioning, social etiquette and cell phones.” Another example of a company taking atmosphere and dining experience to the extreme are the guided whisky tasting experiences offered in London by Truly Experiences, which max out at £3,000 (a little more than $4,100 USD at the time of writing this). Paragon Expeditions offers a privately catered luxury picnic lunch in the remote Andes next to Huayapo Lake. High-end dining purveyors are clearly putting the appeal of an immersive dining experience to good use.

Brand Experience at Le Pigeon – Branded Truffles

Brand Experience at Le Pigeon – Branded Truffles

On the other end of the price spectrum, foodcarts offer high-brow cuisine in a low-brow setting and lower the barrier to entry for the average person to experience sophisticated and unexpected tastes. Foodcarts offer little to nothing in terms of dining ambience, but they are giving the non-wealthy a sampling of what life tastes like at the top. I suspect this exposure is elevating the education level of the typical diner palette in Portland and other cities, as foodcart culture spreads. The nation has watched Portland and our foodcart scene become a magnet for talented chefs – indeed the NY Times wrote about this very phenomenon:

“This is a golden age of dining and drinking in a city [Portland] that 15 years ago was about as cutting edge as a tomato in January. Every little neighborhood in this city of funky neighborhoods now seems to be exploding with restaurants, food shops and markets, all benefiting from a critical mass of passion, skill and experience, and all constructed according to the gospel of locally grown ingredients.”

Our foodcart scene is widely celebrated as a tourist attraction and though it isn’t immersive into an individual foodcart’s brand, it is an uncommon overall dining experience sought by out-of-town visitors.

Beyond palette, I suspect that at the heart of the foodie is an intense desire not only for incredible food but also for a transportive experience and compelling food brand story. This belief is supported by several trends, movements and foodie scenes flourishing in Portland and other cities. Urban farming and a farm-to-table movement have grown popular, offering dining experiences where food is enhanced by the story of where ingredients come from. Design-build companies like Siteworks, led by sculptor-turned-architect Jean-Pierre Veillet, have made a name for themselves designing unique restaurant interiors that enhance the diner experience. There’s the coffee scene in Portland that manifests in brand experiences like coffee roasting classes by companies like Mr. Green Beans, coffee tours by folks like Third Wave, and a coffee tasting bar at the Stumptown Annex.

Brand experience gets immersive at Stumptown coffee tasting events

Brand experience gets immersive at Stumptown coffee tasting events

If you don’t drink coffee, you can experience educational tea tastings led by a professional at places such as Smith’s Tea and The Jasmine Pearl Tea Company or attend a tea ceremony at the Lan Su Garden. Distillery row tours, the Whiskey Library, and the classes offered at House Spirits Distillery offer more intoxicating foodie brand experiences. Our wine and craft beer industries are nationally recognized as well, and tasting rooms, vineyard and brewery tours, and maker classes abound for those libations.  Portland Food Adventures is a local company that sells intimate multi-course meals designed by and consumed with top chefs as well as “culinary vacations”. There are more, but I think you get the picture.

What does all this have to do with branding? At its core, branding is about not just telling people about your product but about authentically expressing who you are in the right way, at the right time, to the right people. The rich dining experiences and evocative atmospheres offered by the companies above are the result of brand strategy guiding their business models. These businesses dug into the core essence of why they exist, and then expressed it with passion through foodie experiences that engage the 5 senses, atmosphere, intimate interactions, ingredient story-telling, and hands-on educational events.

If you are in the food and beverage industry and aren’t paying attention to the customer experience, you’re missing out. Not only dining businesses benefit. Even packaged food products can offer a customer experience through packaging design, website, and in-store sampling or demonstrations. Customers are getting more discerning, and new food and beverage competitors are moving to Portland every day to be a part of the foodie movement. Look at how customers interact with your brand and ask how you can build an immersive experience around that. Or, call me and I can help you figure it out!

Brand experience is enhanced by a quirky menu design at Clyde Common.

Brand experience is enhanced by a quirky menu design at Clyde Common.


Here are the James Beard semi-finalists I promised. Check out their websites at the links below and notice how most of these restaurants might only be small upstarts but they offer dining experiences that ooze personality and they have artistically expressed brand identities. The text below is excerpted from their press release, which you can read in its entirety here.


Selected from a list of more than 20,000 online entries, the prestigious group of semifinalists in 21 categories represents a wide range of culinary talent, from exceptional chefs and dining destinations in ten different regions across the U.S., to the nation’s top wine and spirits professionals, best new restaurants, rising star chefs, pastry chefs and bakers

On Tuesday, March 15, 2016, the Foundation will announce the final nominees.

Portland Businesses and Individuals Included in the  2016 James Beard Foundation Awards Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalists:

OUTSTANDING BAKER A chef or baker who prepares breads, pastries or desserts in a retail bakery, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence. Must have been a baker or pastry chef for at least five years.
Kim Boyce, Bakeshop

OUTSTANDING BAR PROGRAM A restaurant or bar that demonstrates excellence in cocktail, spirits and/or beer service.
Clyde Common

OUTSTANDING CHEF A working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals. Eligible candidates must have been working as a chef for the past five years.
• Gabriel Rucker, Le Pigeon

OUTSTANDING PASTRY CHEF A chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries or breads in a restaurant, and who serves as a national standard bearer of excellence. Must have been a pastry chef or baker for the past five years
• Kristen Murray, Maurice

OUTSTANDING RESTAURATEUR A working restaurateur who sets high national standards in restaurant operations and entrepreneurship. Candidates must have been in the restaurant business for at least 10 years. Candidates must not have won a James Beard Foundation chef award in the past five years.
• Nate Tilden (Clyde Common, Olympia Provisions, Spirit of 77, The Richmond)

OUTSTANDING WINE, SPIRITS, OR BEER PROFESSIONAL A beer, wine or spirits professional who has made a significant national impact on the restaurant industry.
• Steve McCarthy, Clear Creek Distillery

RISING STAR CHEF OF THE YEAR A chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.
• Doug Adams, Imperial
• Ryan Fox and Ali Matteis, Nomad

• Jose Chesa, Ataula
• Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, Ox
• Trent Pierce, Roe
• Sarah Pliner, Aviary
• Ryan Roadhouse, Nodoguro
• Justin Woodward, Castagna

BEST NEW RESTAURANT A restaurant opened in the calendar year before the award will be given that already displays excellence in food, beverage, and service, and that is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.